The weather was ‘dull, but fine’ on the morning of Saturday 26th October, 1926. It was quite a sight to see. We’re familiar with Horse Guards Parade being the centre of military parades, even hosting the Beach Volleyball tournaments of the Olympic Games just under 4 years ago, but on that day, amid 15,000 men standing silently, the atmosphere was not of jubilation and joy, but one of sombre reflection.
A large memorial, hidden under an oversized Union Flag, sat quietly. Flanked on both sides by Chelsea Pensioners, its unveiling was of commemoration for the disgusting amount of men who had lost their lives in the Great War and also the marvellous rebirth of the Household Guards of whom it commemorated.
‘Since the unveiling of the Cenotaph…there has been no more impressive ceremony in connection with the Great War than the unveiling of the memorial to the Guards Division’.
The Duke of Connaught, The third son of Queen Victoria, arrived punctucally on the scene at 11:30am, to the glorious booms of the National Anthem. Making his way to a consortium of figures in front of the many Guardsman and Spectators, (one of them being the Prince of Wales, himself a Colonel of the Welsh Guards) and a small, elderly man who despite numerous attempts to keep him seated, insists on standing for the ceremony. This tenacious character is General Sir George Higginson who had celebrated his 100th birthday three months beforehand. The oldest living Guardsman, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. The Duke steps forward, inhales deeply and addresses the crowd:
‘Whether in attack or in defence, no other troops were more distinguished in bravery, in endurance and in disclipline. All who know and all who have followed their great services will bear testimony to the value of the men who were always to be depended on under the most trying and sometimes the most desperate conditions.’
Alongside Higginson, the Duke grab two ropes and pull the flag to the ground. The most impressive memorial second to the Cenotaph is then revealed.
The memorial is fronted by five bronze soldiers representing the Coldstream, Grenadiers, Scots, Welsh and Irish regiments. They were based on actual men – although one of them is based on two. The story goes that the Irishman got so impatient with the process that he walked away, leaving someone else to have their legs cast for his statue.
The five soldiers stand as a bitter reminder of the reality of what was termed ‘pal battalions’ at the time – before conscription was commonplace British forces found themselves vastly outnumbered against the 700,000 German troops which had just invaded Belgium. Drawing on the enthusiasm that men offered in fighting a war that was supposedly a done deal by Christmas, Lord Kitchener devised a way that friends, family and neighbours could fight alongside each other. It was successful: of the 1,000 battalions formed in the first two years of the war, 70% were Pal Battalions.
However, seeing your friends, family and neighbours massacred by your side on the battlefield highlighted the true horror that the War brought to the nation – entire families were often extinguished and male population of villages decimated. A hard, concrete face was given to the conflict and the scheme was quietly dropped, to be replaced with conscription.
And that was was the backdrop to this memorial, and many others like it. Let us not forget the sacrifices of the past for the hope of a better future.
My thanks to Emmanuel Lebaut in the research for this post.
Sources: Western Morning News, Monday 18th October 1926, The Nottingham Evening Post, Saturday 16th October 1926, The Aberdeen Journal, Monday 18th October 1926, all via The British Newspaper Archive