|Dereliction of Duty.
"On the 22nd of April, 1928, at Windsor Castle..." It's just a prosaic sentence opposite paragraph five of my army discharge book.
I'll warrant there are thousands of old soldiers who treasure a citation recorded like that in clipped, British Army style, under the discharge book heading 'Any special act of gallantry or distinguished conduct' But there is a difference about mine.
Most of theirs were won in battle or strange faraway lands, certainly won by acting as a good soldier. I won mine in peacetime, on the quiet lawns of Windsor Castle---by being so bad a soldier that I ought to have landed up in the 'glasshouse'.
Since that day I've travelled 16 countries, been a jack-of all-trades, sailor, storekeeper, London Bobby, airman, detective, book keeper, R.A.F special investigator and now run a back street hardware shop. But I still wonder sometimes if history might have been a little different if I had not been guilty of grave dereliction of duty.
I was only seventeen at the time-the Guards were not fussy about birth certificates, and the be-medalled recruiting sergeant had a weathered eye on the 'seven-and-six each recruit bonus' when I came his way. So this beautiful spring day in 1928 found me dutifully guarding the King Henry VIII gateway at Windsor castle.
The royal family were spending Easter at the Castle, as they usually did. Although it was a family holiday for them-the old King George the fifth, his children and grandchildren were there together-the magnificent terrace gardens were opened to the public on Easter Sunday, and the famous Life Guards band was to play during the afternoon. The bandsmen's instruments had just been taken through in a large van drawn by a somewhat restive pair of Life Guards 'Blacks"
I love horses-at a distance. I don't think there can be a finer-looking animal than a clean clipped, well-groomed Guards horse. But my admiration for horses of any kind had always been tempered with the most discretion.
Meditating like this, and trying to take the weight off my feet by gently propping my back against the front of the sentry box, I awaited the quarter-hour chimes that recorded the slow creep of time until my two o'clock relief. This dragged by while I stood there, bearing up under the weighty splendour of scarlet jacket, heavy blue trousers, and blue cape rolled just so, tall bearskin, rifle and bayonet.
Suddenly the quiet was split by shouts and screams from the inner courtyard, and then a cry: "Help, sentry, Help" I stiffened, shock my lethargy and spontaneously committed one of the cardinal crimes against the Guards code of discipline. I threw my rifle and bayonet back into the sentry box-and dashed into the open courtyard in time to see the two lifeguard horses and the heavy van wildly charging out of control, down the sloping lawns in front of St. Georges Chapel.
The burly middle-aged policeman whose shouts I had heard, threw his fourteen stone unsuccessfully at the offside horse, narrowly missing the van's heavy wheels as he fell.
Being lighter I had more success, and managed to grab the rein near the double bit of the nearside horse. The horse flung his magnificent head madly into the air, the movement forcing his mane up in a wonderful gesture of defiance-and tearing me off my feet as though I were no hindrance at all.
I don't know how far the frightened horses would have bolted on a straight run. I don't think any man could have stopped the two of them careering down such a slope, I was lucky. My weight was sufficient to swing them round gradually towards the ancient stone archway.
The strong centre shaft of the van hit the cornerstone of the arch and splintered like matchwood. The offside horse, unable to stop struck its head a shuddering blow on the stonework and dropped, stunned.
The horse I clung to reared up on it's hind legs, gashing its shoulder on the ornamental stonework and then dropped onto all fours to stand quivering and snorting with fright.
I have never truly decided who shook the most, the horse or myself. Relieving myself of my charge to a breathless Lifeguards man, I crept quietly back to my post-as quietly as one can creep in iron-shod Army boots on cobbled paving. My bearskin had fallen off, and I picked it up on my way.
In a cold sweat I wondered whether my gross dereliction of duty would go undiscovered. I pictured myself arraigned the following morning for multifarious military offences. Deserting my post, abandoning my arms, failing-----I could see the sentence in the glasshouse mounting; days, weeks, months----
It's the inculcation of rigid discipline that makes a Guardsman a deeply respected fighting man in wartime; a strict subservience of moral courage to physical courage. That discipline made my crimes loom all the larger. If I reported what had happened, I was confessing I had left my post. If I said nothing, I risked a charge of 'failing to report an unusual incident on his post to the officer in charge of the guard. I decided to risk that one-as a dumb man could not have said less about this 'unusual occurrence' than I.
Strangely enough, not a word did I hear either, for nearly a month. Then one day I was mysteriously summoned to appear before the Commanding Officer.
The moment arrived, with a very worried young guardsman standing 'at ease' outside the dreaded door. I was punctiliously attired in my best khaki, my stomach was turning over, and my knee were knocking. At last the Sergeant Majors voice shock me into action. Guardsman Smith! Tee-hun, (some commands are incapable of being written) Quee-ick MaRch; Left-right-left-right:
The C.O. viewed me with a friendly but keen glance. I could only here for? What have they found out? And count up again how many days, weeks, and months I might spend in the glasshouse if my dereliction of duty were known in full.
The few seconds before the C.O. spoke seemed to stretch on and on. Then; "Guardsman Smith; I have to commend you on a very gallant action - etc, etc." in the time-honoured Army style phrasing-the citation now recorded in the back of my army discharge book.
Then he waited, as though for a reply. Lost for words, I managed to stammer, "it didn't seem very important to me sir".
"Well laddie, it happened to be very important", said the C.O. and told why. It seems that on the lawns where the horses were thundering down was a little girl in her pram. A little girl just two years old, named Elizabeth.
The little girl who grew up to be Queen
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