10 November 2019
By Tim Koch
To mark Remembrance Sunday on 10 November, Tim Koch has a ‘nothing to do with rowing’ post about a visit he recently made to some military veterans.
On Remembrance Sunday in the UK, the country solemnly remembers its war dead. However, that same grateful nation does not always properly look after the physical, mental and social needs of those of its military who served and survived. One very notable exception to this is the excellent care given to 300 veterans who live at a very special place in south west London.
In October, I was delighted to be invited to attend a Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) Church Service at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The famous retirement and nursing home of the iconic veterans of the British Army, the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’ began in 1681 when King Charles II, responding to the need to look after poor and sick ex-soldiers, authorised the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Although the ‘RH’ does have a magnificent new infirmary, the term ‘Hospital’ is used in the old sense, that of an almshouse, that is charitable housing provided to a particular community. It has accepted ex-servicewomen as ‘In-Pensioners’ since 2009.
The RH’s official website www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk has a good summary of the place and its purpose:
We offer excellent accommodation, comradeship and the highest standards of care in recognition of their loyal service to the nation. Any former soldier of the British Army over the age of 65, who is facing spending their advanced years alone, can apply for residence as an In-Pensioner.
Some 300 army veterans live at the Royal Hospital today, including those who have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and World War II. Others may not have served in campaigns, but all understand what it means to be a soldier and the potential sacrifice that it entails.
The Royal Hospital is a Grade I and II listed site, a beautiful architectural legacy left to us by Charles II and Sir Christopher Wren. Maintenance of the site continues today with ongoing restoration work to ensure that this legacy lives on into the future.
On the Pensioner’s dress, the RH website says:
Chelsea Pensioners are encouraged to wear their uniforms; it is mandatory to wear the scarlet uniform when representing the Royal Hospital on a recognised visit or when on parade, such as the annual Founder’s Day parade in June. Otherwise within a two-mile radius of the Royal Hospital the blue day-to-day uniform is normally worn. The blue uniform is also worn at breakfast and lunch in the Great Hall. Most Chelsea Pensioners wear this throughout the day in and around the Royal Hospital, but Pensioners are permitted to wear their civilian clothes whenever they wish to dress down (usually in the evenings).
The gentleman third from the left in the picture above is wearing ‘Blues’. For more formal events, the famous scarlet coats are worn. On ceremonial occasions, the tricorn hat shown above is the required headgear, at other times it is the ‘shako’ such as the man in Blues is wearing.
I photographed Webb’s medals almost at random but, like all the other decorations on display in the museum, the four campaign awards, made smooth by repeated polishing and suspended from ribbons faded by much wearing, all have their own story. On the left is The Queen’s South Africa Medal awarded for service in South Africa during the Second Boer War from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902. The medal’s Wikipedia page states:
Poor logistics and disease, combined with having to fight against a disciplined and capable enemy of excellent horsemen and marksmen who perfected guerrilla warfare, made this a hard-won medal…
Notably, Webb’s medal has a bar for the Defence of Ladysmith. Boer forces surrounded the British garrison at Ladysmith in Natal for 118 days and more British soldiers died of disease than of wounds during the siege.
The next three medals are ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’, the affectionate names given to the three First World War campaign medals, that is the 1914 Star or 1914 – 15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal respectively. Webb has the rarer 1914 or ‘Mons’ Star, not the more common 1914 – 15 Star. This means that he was an ‘Old Contemptible’, one of the members of the small standing British Army that was sent to France on the outbreak of the war that was to be over by Christmas. The German Kaiser allegedly called them ‘a contemptible little army’ but the British Expeditionary Force adopted the insult as a badge of honour. The Mons Star was given to those who had served in France or Belgium between 5 August 1914 and 22 November 1914. The narrow horizontal bronze clasp sewn onto the ribbon and bearing those dates shows that Webb served under fire during that period. The website greatwar.co.uk says:
It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres.
Thus, after surviving service all over South Africa during the Boer War, Webb also managed to get through the entire 1914 – 1918 conflict alive. This was especially remarkable considering that many of the old professional regular army were dead by 1915. Clearly, Webb – and thousands more like him – more than earned their restful final days enjoying care and comradeship at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.