Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

The Guards

 

by Garry Toffoli

 

“Some speak of Alexander, and some of Hercules

Of Hector and Lysander and such great men as these.

But of all the world’s great heroes

There’re none that can compare

With a ta ra ra ra ra ra ra,

To a British Grenadier.

 

That military march and the scarlet tunic and bearskin headdress are arguably among the most famous icons in the world and immediately identify the British Guards and the British Monarchy. In fact, originally the march had nothing to do with the Guards as such. And as for the uniform – in origin the headdress is French and the tunic is German. Only the colour (scarlet, not red) is British and it originated with Oliver Cromwell, not with the Crown.

This essay will attempt to leave the reader with a clearer understanding of what the Guards are and what they do, and of some of their traditions, so that one can appreciate them better on the many occasions when they enhance royal events. One will notice a thread throughout the essay, namely that British military traditions, like royal traditions generally, are seldom uniquely British but rather a glorious part of international phenomena.

What is meant by “The Guards”? Today there are eleven regiments of the Queen’s Guards, though several others have a semi-guard status. Seven of the regiments are British – the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons), who constitute the Household Cavalry; and the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards, who are the Foot Guards. In addition there are four Canadian regiments. The Canadian Guards (a Regular Army unit currently on the Supplementary Order of Battles or “suspended animation”) is officially on the roll but with nil strength. The three Militia units are the Governor General’s Horse Guards, the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Canadian Grenadier Guards. Officially there are no other Guards regiments in the Queen’s realms.

In addition to these, however, the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery is part of the Household Troops in Britain. In Canada the Governor General’s Horse Guards only became Household Troops in 1988. Prior to that, although they were often treated as Guards, they were officially classified as “dragoon guards”. The 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards of Ottawa, a Militia regiment now on the Supplementary Order of Battle, performed a semi-guard role in the national capital and received their name when they escorted the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise.

Perhaps this is an appropriate place to clarify some terms so that the reader is not completely confused. The British cavalry originally consisted of the Guards, horse regiments and dragoon regiments, the latter being mounted infantry.  Hence the name “dragoon” from “dragon” – referring to the muskets they carried. Dragoons were paid less than horse units and their horses were inferior and thus cheaper. King Charles II decided to save money by converting all his horse regiments into dragoons. Naturally, the horse soldiers were not too happy about this demotion, and they objected. The King soothed their feelings by adding the name “Guards” after “Dragoons” for all the converted regiments, although they did not become Guards regiments as we understand the term. This exaggerated title did not cost the King anything – he stll paid them less and gave them cheaper horses. The dragoon guards for their part never thought of themselves as mounted infantry, seldom used their muskets but attacked with swords as they had always done, and everybody was satisfied. The non-military reader and observer have been confused ever since.

Recognising the Units

Today the Life Guards can be recognised by their scarlet tunics and white plumes on their helmets, while the Blues and Royals have blue tunics and red plumes. The Governor General’s Horse Guards, allied to the Blues and Royals, similarly have blue tunics and red plumes. Unlike their British colleagues however the GGHG have blue, rather than white, breeches.

The Foot Guards are distinguised by their buttons and plumes in addition, of course, to collar badges, none of which can be seen from a  distance. If one can see the buttons they do make it easy to recognise the different regiments and their seniority. The Grenadiers have evenly spaced buttons, they are the senior regiment. The Coldstreams have their buttons in pairs, the Scots in threes, the Irish in fours and the Welsh in fives, indicating the order of seniority. The Grenadiers have a white plume on the left side of the headdress. The Coldstreams a red plume on the right side; the Scots no plume; the Irish a blue one on the right side; and the Welsh a green one on the left side. In Canada the Canadian Guards have a red and white plume on the left side; the Governor General’s Foot Guards a red plume on the left side and the Canadian Grenadier Guards a white one on the left side. There are also slight differences in the size and shape of the bearskin headdresses – the Coldstreams’ being shorter and rounder while the Scots’ are taller and narrower – but these are imperceptible to most observers.

The History of The Guards

Sovereigns have had guards as far back as King David and his Gibbonim or the Immortals of the Persian emperor. At Hastings King Harold was guarded by his housecarls. But for modern purposes guards began with King Charles VII of France who, as regent in 1419, established a guard for his person. Earlier guards were simply members of the household with other primary responsibilities or only had temporary establishments. The French precedent spread across Europe and the Middle East and the unity of their role and development is evidenced by the etymological similarity of their title from country to country – garde, guardia, gwarde, guard – from a common French or Italian origin.

The guards had four basic roles – to defend the King’s person, preserve the King’s peace, fight the King’s wars and, by ceremonial, to enhance the King’s majesty. Interestingly, the only unit in the Queen’s service that comes close to fulfilling all four roles for real today is not officially a guards unit but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The RCMP is responsible for the safety of the Queen and the Royal Family, her representatives and other dignitaries and handles the actual guarding of Rideau Hall. It maintains the Queen’s peace throughout Canada. It has provided contingents for overseas service in the world wars and earlier, and thus carries battle honours on its guidon. And it fulfils the ceremonial role of the Household Cavalry in Ottawa.

The Sovereign’s first guards were the Yeomen of the Guard, founded by King Henry VII in 1485 after the Battle of Bosworth. They still exist as a ceremonial unit of retired soldiers. Also founded at this time and still in existence are the Swiss Guard of the Pope and the Monteros de Espinosa, revived as part of the Guardia Real by King Juan Carlos I of Spain following the restoration of the Spanish Monarchy. The Gentlemen at Arms (founded 1509) and the Royal Company of Archers (founded 1822 but with roots back to 1676) are other ceremonial guards of England and Scotland respectively, still in existence.

The modern British Army, and by extension the Canadian, began with Oliver Cromwell’s highly efficient and, eventually, highly feared and detested New Model Army in the Civil War against King Charles I. The King was executed and the republican Commonwealth was established under Cromwell’s dictatorship. After the death of Cromwell and the ineffective rule of his son Richard and the Rump Parliament, England was ready for a return to monarchy and a royal leader in the person of King Charles II, son of the executed King Charles I. General George Monck, who had changed sides more than once during the Civil War but was now a respected Cromwellian officer, was with his two regiments of foot and horse stationed at the small town of Coldstream near the Scottish border. In 1660 he marched on London, restoring the power of Parliament, which asked King Charles II to return. Meanwhile, in exile, King Charles II had gathered Royalist supporters into a regiment of Foot Guards in 1656 at Bruges and a troop of Horse Guards in Holland in 1660 prior to his return. There were two other regiments of note from this period. The Scottish Lyfe Guards of Foot, who were Royalists and were soundly defated at Dunbar by Monck’s regiment of Cromwellians in 1654 and disbanded, and a Cromwellian regiment of horse raised by Sir Arthur Heselrigg, then commanded by the Earl of Oxford, and noted for their Oxford Blue coats. It was disbanded at the Restoration with the rest of the New Model Army.

King Charles II demanded from Parliament the right to a personal guard, the New Model Army having been disbanded. The regiment of Royalists raised at Bruges became the First Regiment of Foot Guards and Monck’s regiment was named the Second Regiment of Foot Guards in appreciation for their role in the Restoration. Monck’s soldiers did not consider themselves inferior to the Royalists, however, since, as Cromwellians, they were six years older, and they objected to their designation.

The King did not give them seniority but did rename them the Coldstream Guards, after the town from where they had marched on London, instead of the Second Guards, which name they happily accepted. And to remind everyone of the facts as they saw them, the Coldstreams adopted as their motto “Nulli Secundus” – “Second to None”. It is still their motto today.

In Edinburgh the Lyfe Guards of Foot were reconstituted as the Scottish Foot Guards in the separate Scottish Army. When the English and Scottish armies were united in 1686 the Scots lost their national name and status to their English cousins, becoming the Third Regiment of Foot Guards, which infuriated them since their lineage went back to 1642, making them the oldest regiment.

The Royalist Horse Guards and Monck’s Horse Guards merged to become the Life Guards. Oxford’s Cromwellians were revived as the Royal Horse Guards, nicknamed “The Blues”. And that was the British Army. A few years later one more regiment was raised – The Tangier Horse – to guard Tangiers, the dowry of King Charles II’s bride, Queen Catherine of Braganza. Tangiers was eventually abandoned but the regiment became the First or Royal Dragoons, who will rejoin the story three centuries later.

In the fight between King James II and Prince William of Orange all the Guards regiments, following in the opportunistic footsteps of General Monck, abandoned James for William, led by the Scottish Foot Guards, who were largely Protestant, and the Guards officer John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The Coldstream Guards, perhaps ironically, were the most loyal to the King. The new King William III did not trust the Foot Guards, though, so he sent most of them to Flanders to fight the French while he fought James at the Boyne in 1689, relying on his Dutch guards. The Household Cavalry though went to Ireland. On James’s side was a new regiment of Irish Guards, who fled to France after his defeat, where they served in the French army – the famous Wild Geese. At the Battle of Fontenoy the Wild Geese found themselves opposite the Guards Brigade which they defeated soundly as part of the French victory.

Passing through the 18th Century we find the Guards represented by a composite unit, drawn from the three regiments, which fought in the American Revolution and, in one of the blackest days for the Guards, surrendered at Yorktown. 1785 was a memorable year as King George III decided to celebrate his birthday by having the Guards troop their colour. From that year’s modest celebration to this the Trooping the Colour has been held every year, except for the World Wars, to mark the Sovereign’s birthday. In 1788 the Life Guards were expanded into two regiments, the 1st and the 2nd Life Guards, though in 1922 the two regiments were amalgamated back into one regiment.

The Guards were also the first regiments, in what had become a much larger army, to introduce grenadiers. Grenadiers were men who threw grenades and were therefore the tallest and strongest, so that they could throw the bombs farther. They also wore a mitre cap instead of a tricorne, which made it easier to throw, since the headdress would not get in the way of the throwing motion. Eventually every regiment of infantry in the army would have grenadiers, who were soon regarded as the elite of any army. It is these men, not the Guards as a whole, that the march “The British Grenadiers” is about. The French army went further and grouped grenadiers into whole regiments such as those of the Imperial Guard, with enormous bearskin headdresses evolving from the mitres.

June 18, 1815. Waterloo. The most memorable day in the history of the Guards. Battalions of all the Foot Guards regiments and the Household Cavalry were at Waterloo. There were three incidents that became famous. The British heavy cavalry, including the Guards, launched a brilliantly timed charge which broke the back of the major French infantry attack early in the battle. But displaying all the dash and courage of Prince Rupert’s Cavaliers and none of the discipline of Cromwell’s Roundheads they went on too far and were in turn virtually wiped out by the French cavalry and of little use for the rest of the battle. The only regiment that maintained order was, appropriately, the Royal Horse Guards – the original Cromwellians.

Meanwhile the Coldstream, the Third and a few of the First Guards held the vital farm of Hougoument all day – 2000 men against about 18,000 enemy. Holding Hougoument was vital to the victory at Waterloo and is the proudest battle honour of the Coldstream Guards.

But the most famous scene came near the end of the day. Napoleon knew that the British were nearly exhausted and he launched a final frontal assault with his reserves – the Imperial Guard led by their regiments of grenadiers – before the Prussians, who had arrived, could turn the tide. The Imperial Guard had never been defeated in battle.

Wellington had withdrawn his remaining troops behind the crest of a hill and ordered them to lie down for protection from the artillery fire. He had assembled every company to hold the line. The French Imperial Guard advanced, without seeing any opposition, straight at the First Regiment of Foot Guards, of the decimated Guards Brigade under General Sir Peregrine Maitland, later Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. About 3000 Imperial Guards advanced on the 1000 British Guards.

When the French were forty paces away Wellington called out, “Now Maitland, now’s your time”. The Guards rose, seemingly out of the ground, and fired, killing three hundred French troops with the first volley. For ten minutes the Guards fired, then the French, having been stopped, wavered and the First Guards charged with bayonet. The Imperial Guard broke in disarray and for the first time the cry went up in Napoleon’s army, “La Garde Recule!” – “The Guard is Retreating!” The French army panicked, Wellington ordered the whole Allied line to advance and that was the end of Napoleon. About half of the British Guards at Waterloo were casualties.

In honour of their defeat of the grenadiers of the French Imperial Guard the Prince Regent renamed the First Regiment of Foot Guards the “Grenadier Guards” and the regiment adopted the bearskin headdress of Napoleon’s soldiers as their own in a slightly modified form. Eventually, all the Foot Guards regiments adopted it. The Household Cavalry adopted the French cuirassiers’ breastplate. It was a largely useless piece of equipment but it looked great on parade, and still does in the 21st Century.

In 1820, to honour their performance at Waterloo, the Royal Horse Guards who had had only unofficial status as Household Cavalry, were officially granted that status. In 1831 the Third Regiment of Foot Guards regained its national identity as the Scots Fusilier Guards and then in 1877 its present title of Scots Guards.

In 1901 Queen Victoria decided to honour the contribution of Irish troops in the Boer War by creating a fourth regiment of Guards, to be known as the Irish Guards. The Grenadiers, Coldstreams and Scots had always argued over seniority and prowess. The Irish, naturally, did not intend to be left out of any good fight. On their establishment Rudyard Kipling wrote the following poem – “The Irish Guards” – in memory of the Irishmen’s ancestors the Wild Geese who had defeated the Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards at the Battle of Fontenoy.

“We’re not so old in the Army list,

But we’re not so young at our trade,

For we had the honour at Fontenoy

Of meeting the Guards Brigade.”

Kipling’s son served as an officer in the Irish Guards and was killed in the First World War. The Irish Guards are, by the way, the only regiment in the Guards to have an official regimental mascot – an Irish wolfhound invariably named Brian Boru.

The last of the British Guards to be formed was the Welsh Guards, created in 1915 by King George V to honour the Welsh contribution in the World War that was in progress and to complete the representative nature of the Guards. In true Guards style the Welsh were authorised on 26th February and were able to mount their first guard at the Palace on 1st March – St David’s Day. On the 15th March the leading company of the 1st Battalion was designated the Prince of Wales Company, and on 1st August the regiment was at the Front in France.

By World War I two Canadian Militia Guards regiments had been created. The Governor General’s Foot Guards in 1872 from the Civil Service Rifles of Ottawa, and the Canadian Grenadier Guards in 1912 when the 1st Regiment Prince of Wales’ Fusiliers (established 1859) were redesignated 1st Regiment Grenadier Guards of Canada. Both regiments raised battalions for service in World War I.

The Governor General’s Body Guard was established in Toronto in 1866, and given its name for escorting the Governor General when he came to the city. It was merged with the Mississauga Horse in 1936 to become the Governor General’s Horse Guards. In 1879 the Ottawa Troop of Cavalry became the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards in honour of having escorted Princess Louise to Rideau Hall when HRH arrived in Ottawa in 1878 with her husband the Marquis of Lorne, who had been appointed Governor General. In 1936 the regiment merged with the 4th Hussars and became the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards. The GGHG and the 4thPLDG were officially classified as dragoon guards, not Household Troops, however. The 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards were reduced to nil strength and placed on the Supplementary Order of Battle in 1965. The Governor General’s Horse Guards, on the other hand, were elevated to Household status in 1988 and the Queen became their Colonel-in-Chief.

In 1916, during World War I, Lord Denby, the Secretary of State for War proposed that an Imperial Guards Brigade be formed to consist of the Household Battalion (an infantry battalion created by the Household Cavalry) and battalions of picked men from the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans then in France. The idea was deferred until after the war when it was reconsidered with suggestions for a red, white and blue plume in the bearskin and the motto “For Crown and Empire”. Unfortunately the scheme foundered, largely on the question of pay, since Commonwealth soldiers were paid considerably more than United Kingdom ones. A variant of the idea did come about however in Korea when the Commonwealth Brigade and later the Commonwealth Division were created with great success.

The other result of the discussions was that the British Guards established affiliations with the Canadian Militia Guards and Australian regiments. The Grenadier Guards were allied with the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards with the Governor General’s Foot Guards. The Royal Horse Guards were allied with the Governor General’s Horse Guards, which reinforced the latter’s semi-guard status at the time. Interestingly the second-ranked Coldstreams achieved something with the Canadian alliance since the Governor General’s Foot Guards, not the Canadian Grenadier Guards, are the senior regiment in Canada. Perhaps inevitably the Canadian Grenadier Guards, who are proud of their affiliation with the senior of all Foot Guards, adopted as their motto “Nulli Secundus”, not the motto of the Grenadiers but that of the Coldstreams, as an indication of what they think of their status.

In 1969 the Royal Horse Guards were amalgamated with the non-guard regiment the 1st Royal Dragoons (the old Tangier Horse of King Charles II). The new regiment, which was to be part of the Household Cavalry, took its name, in typical British style, not from the old regiments’ actual names (any combination would have been too cumbersome) but from their nicknames. The Royal Horse Guards had from the beginning always been known as The Blues (from their Oxford Blue coats) and the 1st Royal Dragoons had been known as The Royals, so the new regiment was officially named The Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons).

In 1953 the Canadian Guards were created to honour Canadian contributions in World War II, as the Irish and Welsh Guards had been created for their peoples during the Boer and First World Wars. The prime force behind the founding was the Chief of the Canadian General Staff, and arguably the greatest Canadian general, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, who thought that the adoption of the title Queen of Canada by Elizabeth II in 1953 called for such a development. Allied with the Scots Guards, the regiment initially consisted of four battalions, though a few years later the establishment was reduced to two battalions when the 3rd and 4th Battalions were disbanded. Regrettably many Canadians considered the regiment too British and not uniquely Canadian, though, as noted, no Guards have ever been entirely unique. Another knock against them was that they had no battle honours, never having been in combat. And their status as senior regiment was resented by some other regiments in the Canadian Army. As Colonel Strome Galloway, one of the founding officers of the Guards, pointed out, though, many of the first members of the Canadian Guards were veterans of Word War II or Korea while many of the most vociferous critics of the Guards belonged to old regiments but had never seen combat themselves; and the Guards were created to honour the Canadian Army as a whole. In 1968 the 1st Battalion, and in 1970 the 2nd Battalion of the regiment were reduced to nil strength and placed on the Supplementary Order of Battle. In their short life the Canadian Guards did live up to the Guards tradition in hot spots such as Cyprus and the Middle East and the standards they set in Canada’s NATO contingent and in their ceremonial role in Ottawa.

Operational and Ceremonial Roles

The British and Canadian Guards have both an operational and a ceremonial role. The Household Cavalry provides a combined armoured reconnaissance regiment for operational duties, known as the Household Cavalry Regiment, with two squadrons provided by each parent regiment. A mounted squadron from each parent regiment is maintained at all times in London for ceremonial duties and they, plus a headquarters squadron, comprise the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. Troops are assigned to the mounted regiment for a period of time as strictly ceremonial troops and are then returned to operational duties.

Unlike the Household Cavalry, the Foot Guards do not have separate ceremonial and operational battalions. All battalions are fully operational as well as ceremonial. The Guards on duty outside Buckingham Palace might well have been in Germany or Afghanistan the week or two before. In the 1990s reductions in the size of the British Army reduced the Guards from eight battalions (two battalions for each of the three senior regiments) to only five (a single battalion per regiment). Since then, however, the three senior regiments have been allowed to maintain a purely ceremonial public duties company of their former second battalions to ensure those battalions’ presence at ceremonial events.

In Canada, the summer Changing of the Guard ceremony (for Government House but actually conducted on Parliament Hill) began in 1959, when the Queen was in residence at Rideau Hall, with the regular force Canadian Guards. When the Canadian Guards were reduced to nil strength in 1970 the two Guards Militia regiments took up the task, and most of the troops were university or high school students recruited for the summer to build the regiments up to strength. As militiamen though, they were still operational soldiers and underwent the same basic training as others in the Militia, were classified as combat solders and could be so assigned if necessary. Remarks by some Canadians that they were just toy soldiers were both unfair and wrong.

In 1979 it was decided by Ottawa that it was inappropriate not to allow women to take part in the Changing of the Guard ceremony. But at the time women were not allowed into combat units, so to get around the problem a new unit – the Ceremonial Guard – was created, for which the two regiments provided contingents and the uniforms. The ceremonial unit was classified as non-combat and the Changing of the Guard ceremony became something of a sham, as those on parade did not have to undertake Militia combat training.

With the subsequent decision to allow women into combat units this situation was rectified. Members of the Ceremonial Guard today are still recruited for the summer, some are university or high school students as before, but most are already reservists from regiments across Canada. All, men and women, who were not already in the reserves, must undergo regular Militia training before they appear on parade. For the balance of the year the two Militia Guards regiments perform periodic ceremonial duties in smaller numbers when required. The Governor General’s Horse Guards in Toronto maintain a ceremonial mounted squadron which performs periodic ceremonial duties, mostly in the Toronto area. The Governor General’s Horse Guards and the Governor General’s Foot Guards also maintain regimental bands that are active throughout the year. In the summer the Band of the Ceremonial Guard is formed as a large unit, recruiting from across the country. The band parades in the uniforms of both the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Canadian Grenadier Guards. Since 2009 the Pipes and Drums of the band have also carried the pipe banners of the Canadian Guards, honouring the heritage of the suspended regular regiment.

The three Canadian Militia Guards regiments, while not serving overseas as formed units since World War II, have provided individuals and contingents to supplement the regular army armoured regiments and infantry battalions in many operations, including Afghanistan over the past decade.

In Britain the Guards are noted for providing the guard at Buckingham Palace. The ceremony is so well known it need not be dwelt upon. There are other places where they provide the guard as well. One of these is St James’s Palace (the official home of the Crown). Another is the Queen’s Life Guard at Whitehall, outside of Horse Guards Parade, found by the Household Cavalry. This makes sense if one realises that Whitehall is actually the boundary of the Palace grounds and the arch was originally the entrance to the grounds. The King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery fires salutes at Hyde Park. Then there is the guard at the Tower of London and the Keys ceremony. Finally a guard is mounted at Windsor Castle and the Guards are sometimes found at ceremonies in other parts of the United Kingdom.

In Canada, as mentioned, a guard is mounted at Rideau Hall each day in the summer months. The Changing of the Guard ceremony is performed on Parliament Hill so that tourists can see it, but it leaves the mistaken impression among many that it is Parliament being guarded. In fact it is the guard at Rideau Hall  that has marched to the Hill for the ceremony and then marches to Rideau Hall to actually mount guard throughout the day. In recent years a guard has also been mounted each day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at the National War Memorial, throughout the summer months

Problems on Parade

Of course, much rehearsal goes into the production of something as elaborate as Trooping the Colour or a guard mounting. And much can go wrong. On one occasion an officer put his wallet on his head under the bearskin headdress, since full dress uniforms have no pockets, and forgot he was to give three cheers for Her Majesty, which he did, raising his headdress during the cheer – with his wallet now visible sitting on his head.

There was the Coldstream officer who ran afoul of Patrick, Lord Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin. Lichfield explained, “There was one man, ten days senior to me, who had disliked me from the day I first met him at Sandhurst. He did some unpleasant things to me and generally made my life uncomfortable. So I devised a method whereby his servant, who didn’t seem to like him much either, and I managed to secrete a large kitchen alarm clock in his bearskin and set it for the precise moment when the Horse Guards came past as he was presenting arms outside Buckingham Palace. We didn’t warn the other Guardsmen and it went off right on time in the top of his head. Everyone was convulsed and he was very cross.”

On another occasion, during a parade, a Coldstream officer, mounted on horseback for the event, attempted to sheath his sword, and accidentally stabbed the rump of his horse. “The animal took off down the Mall as if it were in the last straight of the Derby, with the unfortunate infanteer pulling unavailingly on the reins, his bearskin askew and his sword clenched between his teeth.”

The headdresses, whether bearskins or cavalry helmets, are themselves cumbersome. Lord Mountbatten, who had been Colonel of the Life Guards, once wrote, “I remember the first time I took part in Trooping the Colour. At the end of the parade, which I thought was very good, I said to the Queen, ‘Very good parade’. Whereupon Prince Philip turned round and said, ‘How the hell do you know? You can’t see a damned thing under that hat.’ He was quite right, you can’t.”

The Guards have always affected a laid back attitude and ignorance of anything mechanical, but they also founded the Royal Marines, suffered horrendous casualties in World War I, like other regiments, and manned machine gun units. The cavalry regiments fought as infantry when required. A Canadian Guards officer with the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (Governor General’s Foot Guards), Major Okill Massey Learmonth, was just one Victoria Cross recipient. One Guards officer, Lieutenant-General Frederick (Boy) Browning, founded the British Airborne Forces, and another, Colonel David Stirling, founded the Special Air Service (SAS). In World War II, the Foot Guards became tankers in the famous Guards Armoured Division.

The Royal Family, of course, is closely associated with the Guards. The Queen is Colonel-in-Chief of all Guards regiments, both in the United Kingdom and in Canada. The Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, the Princess Royal, the Duke of Kent and the Canadian Governors-General are Colonels of the Regiments. Queen Victoria personally chose the jockey cap for the state dress of Guards musicians and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother presented shamrocks to the Irish Guards on St Patrick’s Day throughout her life.

Who Are the Guards?

Who are the Guards? They are Viscount De L’Isle, VC, Grenadier Guards and later Governor-General of Australia; Lord Carrington, Grenadier Guards and later Secretary-General of NATO; Earl Alexander of Tunis, Irish Guards, who commanded the rearguard at Dunkirk, captured North Africa and Italy and was later Governor-General of Canada; Robert Runcie, Scots Guards and later Archbishop of Canterbury. They are Colonel Strome Galloway, Canadian Guards, who went into battle in World War II with a walking stick rather than a rifle, since he said it was an officer’s role to command, not to shoot at the enemy.

They are Colonel Fred Burnaby, a legend in the Life Guards, who named all his chargers by biblical names in honour of his clerical father. Six-foot four with a chest of 44 inches, he once had two miniature ponies intended for Queen Victoria deposited in his room. When they would not move he carried them out, one under each arm. He took up ballooning and on one flight blew across into France and was reprimanded for “leaving the country without permission”. In 1885 he was in Egypt on private explorations when he learned that the Household Cavalry was en route with the British force to save General Gordon at Khartoum. He walked across the desert alone to rejoin his regiment, arriving at the Household Cavalry’s position the night before the battle, smoking a cigar glowing in the darkness. The next day he was killed trying to save some men who had been left outside the defensive square.

The Guards are the men who marched the length of England and restored a  monarchy; those who closed the gates at Hougemount; those who have fought in every continent except Australia and with and against every major nationality, including each other. They are the men who retreated from Mons playing their regimental marches on mouth organs; the men who provided the rearguard at Dunkirk and were the last British troops to leave. When they did they left “with all their personal weapons intact and with their trousers pressed”.

The Guards regiments of Canada bear the battle honours of Chateauguay, Northwest Canada, South Africa, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Italy, Northwest Europe and Afghanistan, among others. In total the Governor General’s Horse Guards have 30 battle honours, the Governor General’s Foot Guards have 38, and the Canadian Grenadier Guards have 36. In 2012, to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812, Canadian battle honours were awarded to modern regiments that were deemed to perpetuate Militia units from that earlier war. The Canadian Grenadier Guards were therefore awarded the battle honours of Chateauguay (one of the great military victories in Canadian history) and Defence of Canada 1812-1815. In 2014 the three regiments were each granted the theatre battle honour of Afghanistan, recognising the significant participation of the Guards in that campaign.

As summed up by the historian of the Guards in World War I, “Remember, then, whichever way the balance dothe decline, if God is in His Heaven, and the Guards are in the line, all’s well.” Perhaps one day, in the near future, the Regular Army Canadian Guards will return from “suspended animation” to take their rightful place with the other of Her Majesty’s Regiments of Guards.

Copyright (c) 2013/2017 Garry Toffoli



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