THE GUARDS CAME THROUGH
An Illustrated History of the Guards
in the Great War
by Simon Doughty
Foreword by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
Introduction by Sir Michael Howard
‘A Trifle of Swank and Dash’. A family memorial that captures the Guards magic.
With 15,000 killed and over 50,000 wounded, the Great War was a sombre and gruelling five years for the Guards. It was also an heroic period with 24 VCs won and where, as the title of this book suggests, the Guards’ presence in the line of battle was both inspirational and reassuring to the rest of the British army.
In The Guards Came Through, an Illustrated History of the Guards in the Great War, Simon Doughty has written an eloquent and often touching account of the central part the Guards played, leading up to the final victory in 1918. It is written like a family memoir and rightly so because it was, and remains, a family to all those who have served in the Guards.
Writing anything new, fresh and engaging about the Great War needs an author with a clear sense of purpose. It’s only too easy to get bogged down in the regimental archives, or worse still strategy and operational tactics. That’s best left to academics and professional historians. Context is, of course, important and here the author sets the scene well with a succinct summary at the beginning of each chapter. From then on it’s like browsing through a family album, photographs, wonderful vignettes, beautifully drawn portraits of some of the Guards outstanding officers, non-commissioned officers and men, but always against the backdrop of courage and unrelenting self- sacrifice.
I do not know where Richard Curtis and Ben Elton found their inspiration to write Blackadder Goes Forth but Major Guy Rasch, DSO, Grenadier Guards’s account One Day of Crowded Life in the Trenches - Exclusive of Huns, Shells or Bullets would have made a perfect script:
Message from Battalion Headquarters:
0645 ‘Report at once if you have a fully qualified Welsh miner who can speak French and German - Adjutant
0648 ‘The signal for respirators to be put on will be two Gs on the bugle.
0810: ‘Cancel my last, the signal for putting them on will be two blasts of the whistle’
Later that day ‘The signal will now be two beats on a shell gong’.
Guy Rasch’s final diary comment that day reads ‘Departure of Brigade Staff. My brain now in state of coma, rest of day spent eating chocolates’.
The author captures the mood of each passing year of the Great War with just the right touch, and often the right photograph. Julian Grenfell, an officer in the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, later amalgamated with The Blues and Royals, wrote in 1914, ‘I adore war, it’s like a big picnic, I’ve never been so well or happy’. Grenfell died from his wounds a year later and is best remembered for his poem Into Battle with its salute to exuberant patriotism, ‘And he is dead who will not fight; and who dies fighting has increase’.
The photograph of the Welsh Guards on the Somme in September 1916 tells a different story, far removed from 1914’s boundless optimism. But take a look at the glorious photograph of the 2nd Grenadiers near Arras, which is the frontispiece for the chapter on 1918, and you will see in the granite face of the Grenadier standing with a cigarette in his mouth, a sense of conviction that the job was nearly done.
The Battle of Loos in 1915 was a grim and harrowing affair for the Guards. It was the first time they had fought in the Great War as the Guards Division, an idea of Lord Kitchener’s which won ready approval from George V. Simon Doughty tells the story of the battle with clarity and with a narrative, and this is the hallmark of the book as a whole, that makes you feel as though you were a soldier from another battalion watching the 3rd Guards Brigade attack on Hill 70: ‘But when can me or my mates forget, when the Guards came through’.
The author narrates the story of the VC winners with the right mixture of fact - how they won it - and human anecdote. The portrayal of Lance Corporal Michael O’ Leary, VC, Irish Guards is masterful, conveying not only the character of the man but of ‘The Micks’ and the Irish people. The contrast between the extraordinary and the commonplace is often apparent in the lives of surviving VC winners. Many found it difficult to find or hold down a job, a doorman in a drab London hotel, debt and suicide, the illustrious medal sold for a pittance to make ends meet in Lloyd George’s Land Fit For Heroes. The Irish poet, WB Yeats, was surely right with his phrase ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath’.
Harold Macmillan once famously remarked as prime minister that there were three bodies no sensible man should never take on directly, The Catholic church, the Brigade of Guards and the Durham miners. I’d like to think, as I believe the author does, that Macmillan’s affection and deep respect for the Guards was born from his service with the Grenadiers during the Great War. As he lay wounded in a shell-hole, Macmillan recounts: ‘At around 4pm, Company Sergeant-Major Norton, a splendid man, I can see him now.... Bottom of shell-hole, sloped rifle: ‘’Thank you Sir for leave to carry you away’’, as if he were on a parade ground’.
If you were to ask a serving or recent guardsman whether there had been a Sixth Regiment of Foot Guards, you would be met with a quizzical look. The Guards Machine Gun Regiment, the Sixth Regiment of Foot Guards, was formed on 10th May 1918 and disbanded in February 1920. Nothing in the Great War could be described as fun, but the description of ‘Barrage Fire’ in which up to 60 Vickers machine guns created a curtain of fire over the heads of the advancing infantry must have been exhilarating.
The author has worked hard to give each Guards regiment its due share of recognition; inevitably the Grenadiers get a little more exposure, but for no other reason than their regimental history has been particularly well documented and maintained. That said, you will never read a finer regimental history than Rudyard Kipling’s The Irish Guards in the Great War.
Simon Doughty, The Guards Magazine’s current editor, has done us proud in his illustrated history. My grandfather, who won the DSO aged 19 serving with the 2nd Grenadiers, told me as young boy that all his contemporaries killed in action had gone to ‘Valhalla’, the mythical resting place for all those killed in combat. I like to think, having read this book, he was right. And whatever you do, print out Arthur Conan Doyle’s poem The Guards Came Through at the front of the book. Read it through once to get a sense of its rhythm and cadence. Then stand up and read it out aloud. You would be an unforgiving man if you did not feel just that little bit taller.
Paul de Zulueta
The Guards Came Through - An Illustrated History of the Guards in the Great War. Published by Third Millennium. tmiltd.com