The Westminster Home Guard, Part 2 of 2

The Home Guard And Buck-HousePresumably, as a morale booster, some genius at Whitehall thought it would be a ‘terrific idea’ if the HG were to mount guard at Buck H, not realising what the poor devils would suffer at the delicate hands of the Guards’ Drill Sergeants. An edict was sent to the platoons and read out at parades. I assumed it was to combine an honour for the HG while paying homage to His Majesty, KG6. They wanted men over six foot in height and it was up to the platoon to provide the ‘volunteers’. Skipper set about this by making us fall in, putting us through arms drill, finally picking those he thought would disgrace us least – I was one.
We reported to Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk each evening for about two hours, to be trained in the finer art of guarding. This involved stamping the feet at every opportunity until the Achilles tendons ached, carrying a rifle at the ‘slope’ and marching back and forth, in fact doing everything old Skip had taught us but with ‘snap’. ‘Put a snap in it, lad’, was the cry all round the parade ground. There was a S’nt Mayhah, not a sergeant major, with his dress cap placed parallel to the ground, the black peak flat on his face so he had to hold his head back to see where he was going and a device under his left arm, called a ‘pace stick’. To give a guide to the level of detail these guys entered into, the S’nt Mayhah invariably held this pace stick parallel to the ground, with the point held between the first finger and thumb of the left hand, with the remainder of his fingers extended, while, as he walked, his right hand was loosely closed with thumb extended on top and the arm raised to shoulder level on alternate strides. Someone in our platoon wondered who had time to wind them all up before we arrived.
The S’nt Mayhah had a voice like thunder and a penchant for abusing his own sergeants, I assume to impress upon us civilians the yawning gap there was between a soldier and a Home Guard. That we were held in complete contempt was patent on arrival and I’m sure the fact that the S’nt Mayhah probably had additional duties in consequence didn’t help our cause. One other odd peculiar particular was the Officer-In-Charge. Dressed like the S’nt Mayhah in his uniform but with a Sam Brown across his chest, his hat also had the flattened brim. He marched back and forth, parallel to the railings of the parade ground on Birdcage Walk, swagger stick like the pace stick, under his arm, precisely held, but he looked neither to left or right, he ignored what was going on beside him, of which he was in charge, and just stamped his feet as he turned round at each precise end of a the exact course of pacing. Periodically a sergeant or the S’nt Mayhah would stand in his path, sufficiently far along the track so he could put on the breaks and stamp to a halt. They would salute one another for the umpteenth time, shout something completely unintelligible at one another as if they were a field apart, salute yet again and then after a few ritual stamps of the feet they would part company and the officer would start his pacing again like an automaton. In fact I remember as a child seeing a German automaton on which a soldier came out of a sentry box, move jerkily to the other end on a straight track, rotated and then disappeared into another sentry box. Later this was copied but instead of soldiers they had designed it with a railway engine which went into a shed, perhaps because this made more sense.
It was June and the weather was so hot even for London. I had only a singlet on under my battledress tunic, a great mistake. For hours on end, night after night, we sloped arms and ordered arms and we tried to ‘put a snap in it’, but achieving that was almost impossible towards the end of the evening because our collar bones were sore with the repeated battering they had received from the rifles as we obeyed the instruction, shouted in our ear, strength five, ‘don’t put it down, slap it down’. Add to this the fact that we had done a full day’s work before reaching the parade ground and also that we were being abused as if we were raw recruits and this was our chosen profession, you can imagine the build up of resentment among us. My friend Farrer, who had also been conscripted, was becoming as miserable and bolshie as I was . The whole thing came to a crunch, on a Saturday I think it was, when they were trying to put the finishing touches to our education. Now, not only my collarbone, which had been broken years before, but the skin over it was so sore I could barely take the rubbing of the uniform on it. Therefore at each order to ‘Shoulder arms’ I tried to find a spot on my shoulder on which to lay the rifle and this took time. Unknown to me a sergeant, taller than I and a great deal stronger, was standing immediately behind me watching me as I laid the rifle down tentatively. Another sergeant gave the order to ‘Present’ (hold the rifle in both hands upright in front of the face), which I did with alacrity and relief and immediately we were ordered to ‘Shoulder arms’. This time the man behind me hit the rifle on the barrel when it was about six inches from my shoulder, so that it literally crashed down on all the pain – “I told you to smack it down not lay it down”, he bellowed in my ear. For a moment I was staggered both by the pain and the brutality. One minute they were implying we were a useless bunch of no-hopers who would never make the grade and the next we were treated as if we were fully trained but malingering. I took the rifle off my shoulder and turned to the sergeant and explained rather tersely that I was a civilian trying my best but as my best was not good enough I was resigning from his care. After all these years I have no idea what I really said, I more or less just walked off the parade ground. Whether the automaton saw me is unlikely, whether he cared is a definite negative, we were all probably an interruption in his social round. Farrer either left or was weeded out because there was none of our platoon at the Gates of Buckingham Palace in June when the pictures were taken for the Press. Perhaps we were all dismissed in the end and real Guardsmen were dressed in our awful uniforms and set out there, pretending – serve ’em right!

Categorized as General

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