London Letter


Beverley Baxter August 1 1952
London Letter


Beverley Baxter August 1 1952


London Letter

Beverley Baxter

THIS MORNING, arrayed in morning coat, striped trousers and a grey topper. I made my way to the Horse Guards’ Parade and took my seat in one of the especially erected stands. The occasion was the annual Trooping the Colour (not Colours) by the Brigade of Guards, and on such an occasion London pretty well knocks off work.

It was a summer's day of sheer perfection, with only a few wisps of cloud. On the great historic parade ground stood the regiments of the Guards in their red tunics and huge bearskins. It was their day and they were ready for it.

But there was the Household Cavalry as well, in their gleaming breastplates, standing against the background of the lush green trees and the shining lake of St. James’s Park. As a contrast the massive bomb-proof stone walls made the adjoining Admiralty Building look like a beleaguered medieval fortress.

From the Mall came the cheers of the crowd and the playing of the National Anthem, as the procession made its way. In the first carriage was the Queen Mother with Princess Margaret, and it was good to see the Queen Mother smiling again. In the second carnage was the Duchess of Kent with an escort.

And then, riding side-saddle, came the Queen, wearing the tunic of the Grenadier Guards—she is their colonel-in-chief—and a hunting skirt. Her horse, which belongs to the mounted police, is named Winston and we were all hoping the animal would conduct himself with a gentleness and „ decorum not always associated with his political namesake. I am glad to report the four-legged Winston behaved perfectly.

So, as the Queen sat on her horse, the regiments wheeled and marched to the music of the massed bands and to the hoarse commands of officers who sounded like tortured souls in Hades. The whole thing was done with a perfection of precision no theatrical spectacle could emulate. Once again the English were demonstrating that when it comes to pageantry' there has been nothing to equal them since the days of ancient Rome.

The logical mind might ask what all this parading and manoeuvring has to do with modem warfare. What meaning today have these redcoats and ridiculous bearskins? .And. for that matter, of what service could these massed bands be with their brassy pomp?

Perhaps the answer might be found in the Guards’ NIemorial silhouetted against the trees of St. James's Park. On the base of that memorial stand the figures of four Guardsmen in service uniform, and on the monument are the names of the battles where in two world wars Guardsmen fought and died. The logical mind could protest that other men with no military background and in units of no special lineage whatever also fought bravely' and died. Of course that is true, but it does not alter the special mystique of the Household Brigade.

Let me tell of an incident that happened in 1941 when the British and Commonwealth forces were driven back into Tobruk, completely cut off by Rommel’s troops and the Italians. The commander of the beleaguered troops was a South African and he took the view that since organized resistance or escape was impossible he would surrender to avoid unnecessary slaughter. Accordingly he issued orders to the commanders of the different units to destroy' their arms and transport and prepare to surrender.

One of the officers to receive this instruction was a colonel commanding a battalion of the Coldstream Guards. With the utmost courtesy' and promptness he sent to the commander a message: “I

have carefully studied Army Regulations

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and cannot find any way in which a Guards battalionsurrenders.” Bravado? Yes. But it was magnificent.

Taking their own decision, he and his men fought their way out of Tobruk with terrible losses but the remnant reached the main British forces and reported for duty. Were there enough of them to make any difference? No. Is it not a fact that men were killed and maimed in this mad gamble against hopeless odds? It is certainly true. But the remnant that got through brought with them a legend that will live forever, or as long as ' there are regiments.

So this morning, in the presence of their colonel-in-chief, they trooped the Colour, which means that they dedicated themselves to the honor of the brigade. But beneath those scarlet tunics who are these youngsters? Welsh lads who have come from the valleys to try soldiering as a job: Scots who want to see London and foreign service; Cockneys who think that it’s probably a bit of all right and want to show off to their girls in the park. Heroes? You’d better not say that

They grouch as all soldiers do. They have nicknames for their officers and blasphemy for their NCOs. Over and over again they ask each other what all this perishing spit and polish has to do with chasing Malayan terrorists or pushing the Chinese behind the thirtyeighth parallel. A British soldier who does not grouch would be a deeply disturbing phenomenon.

But even if they are not sure just what the Battle of Waterloo was about they remember how the grenadiers formed squares to meet the desperate attack of Napoleon’s elite, the Old Guard. On came the French sending death and mutilation into the British ranks, without a single musket barking a reply. The British stood firm — were : they not the crack regiment of the line? At last came the order to fire. 1 Against that withering hail of bullets the brave French troops were stopped in their tracks. Then there was the command, “Up Guards and at ’em!” And. with a roar of fury and exaltation, the British swept forward. Napoleon saw it and said, “C’est finis!” and the cry went out, “.Sauce qui peut!” Napoleon's Grand Army had become « rabble.

But surely all this talk of glory' and discipline and esprit dr corps is merely to exalt the vile thing called war and to bemuse young men into thinking there is something splendid in giving and taking life in battle. Is not war the supreme blasphemy of the human race? Is it not n denial of all that civilization means, and a denunciation of the brotherhood of man?

It is hard to answer those questions, just as it is hard not to feel that they speak the highest truth. But there is one thing worse than war the weakness of a nation or group of nations which permits an aggressor to attain such superiority in men and arms that war becomes inevitable.

My son was twenty-one a few weeks ago. and in Fngland coming of age is a great event in a family, no matter what its social or financial position may be. Clive asked if he could throw - party and gathered about forty girls and hoys of his own generation.

With the exception of two or three who are first completing their university education the lads had all done their national service. In other words they had completed their two years' training in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force. Most of them had acquired

commissions in the process. Now they are civilians but at stated intervals they must take refresher courses and will be called to the colors at once if war breaks out.

They have not been brutalized by this training, rather have they been humanized. All had to begin in the ranks which meant that they mingled with young fellows from every walk in life. The miner's son slept in the same hut with the rich man’s son and they learned to like and respect each other. The unfortunate divisions of school background that have done so much to keep class distinction alive in Britain have been narrowed by the democracy of service.

We have seen the repercussion in political life. The most pow-erful support Churchill has today is the Young Conservative movement. Their military service has taught them organization. responsibility, teamwork and « realization that the government of the country concerns them closely.

These boys have nothing in common i with the jackbooted strutting idiots who followed Hitler as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamlin. In understanding they are older than their years, in outlook they are serious, but in spirit they are gay and confident. Some of them who were at Clive’s party will go into the Brigade of Guards if war comes and will come under the influence of the tradition that I have described. Some will join the Navy, others the Commandos, and even more of them the Air Force. They have no hatred of the Russians or the Chinese. They have no wish or longing for war. But if it comes they will be ready instead of having to let others do the work while they train.

I know that in Canada there is a strong sectional feeling against national service and that it would be a political liability to any government that introduces it. For anyone like myself to criticize what Canadians do in Canada would be sheer presumption, and I shall not make that blunder. My purpose in this London Letter is merely to state objectively what is happening in Britain.

In spite OT the alarums and excursions of Central Europe we do not believe that there will be an all-out war. It will demand the greatest restraint and judgment to prevent it—but those qualities have been developed in the harsh years that followed the fury of Hitler's war. In the Far East the situation worsens almost daily but we in London doubt that Stalin will encourage China to make a full-scale attack against the L’nited Nations.

We cannot see the distant scene, but because the peaceful nations of the West have dared to look the truth in the face and have refused to weaken resolution with pious exhortations and smug self-righteousness the hounds of war may not be unleashed.

But if it comes the Guards will doff their bearskins and exchange their red coats for khaki once more, determined that the laurels of the brigade shall not wither in their hands. With memories of Arnhem the Commandos will leap to their task, and with the pride of the Battle of Britain on their wings the young cavalry of the air will ride into battle, while the Navy beeins once more its historic sentry-go of the sea.

Their hope, their longing Ls for peace, but they believe that peace can only be maintained through strength. That is why we were deeply moved this morning when, to the music of the massed bands, the brigade slow-marched past the Queen, carrying the flag to which they were dedicating their courage, their loyalty and their extremely precious youth. ★