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by Paul De Zulueta
formerly Welsh Guards

The poet and writer, Siegfried Sassoon, who fought in the Great War, was always worried that people would forget the Battle of the Somme. ‘Have you forgotten yet for the World has rumbled on’, he wrote in his poem Aftermath in 1919. 

On 1st July this year, as the nation began its commemoration of the Somme’s centenary, a number of us from the Regiment met at 7.30, the time that fateful whistle sounded 100 years ago, to observe two minutes’ silence.   A contemporary of Sassoon’s, the writer A P Herbert, once said that ‘ Every Englishman has an image of the Somme’. For me, the image is of the Pals battalions, that army of friends, sustained by their faith and their sense of duty and service, drawn from the same towns, villages, cricket teams and factories: miners, shipping clerks, porters and errand boys, artists and aristocrats. The image stays with me because it was the gift of family and friendship that the Welsh Guards gave me.

When I was just sixteen, I received a letter from the Regimental Adjutant of the Grenadier Guards asking whether I’d like to come for an interview during the next school holidays. I’m not sure what military talent they had picked up on, but my mother’s family had been Grenadiers. My grandfather ‘Boy’ Browning won the Distinguished Service Order aged 19 in 1917, serving with their Second Battalion. He was just one of three officers from his battalion to survive that day.  

But I was torn between the Grenadiers and loyalty to my father, Peter, and my cousin Philip, who had both been in the Welsh Guards. Only a couple of months ago, someone asked me which regiment I had served with. I said the Welsh Guards to which he replied ‘Really, what with a name like Zulueta, how did that happen then?’ I let the remark pass, though I was reminded that the Regiment was often referred to affectionately as the ‘Foreign Legion’ by the rest of the Household Division.

Still, I was in two minds until Colonel James Malcolm told me that, if I chose the Welsh Guards, I would be going to Berlin. ‘You’ll be right in the permafrost of the Cold War ‘ he said, adding, just in case that didn’t do the trick, ‘Oh, and of course you’ll get a generous overseas allowance to help with the racy social life’. My mind was made up.

What Colonel James didn’t tell me, however, was that within a week of landing in Berlin, I would be responsible for guarding Rudolf Hess, the prominent Nazi politician, serving a life sentence at Spandau prison. But I was more fortunate than a brother officer who, one day, found himself patrolling past Hess who was tending his small fruit and vegetable garden. He heard Hess say ‘Would you like a plum?’ My brother officer, startled by Hess, who was never known to say anything, stammered ‘Well, how kind of you, thank you’. Hess, a wily old fox, later reported him. ‘British officer steals plum’ was then escalated to the highest authorities. 

Colonel James was right about the social life. Our Commanding Officer at one of his regular meetings with the Berlin Brigade Commander, a humourless Scottish Presbyterian, found himself asked by the Brigadier as to why young Welsh Guards officers were so often to be found in nightclubs in the French Sector. The Commanding Officer looked him straight in the eye and said ‘Only on sports afternoons, Sir’. The Commanding Officer went on to be a field marshal. 

It was decided shortly after that I should get down to some proper soldiering, so I was sent to join the Scots Guards who were short of officers on an operational tour of Northern Ireland. The Scots Guardsmen quickly dispensed with my surname and simply addressed me as Mr Smith. A few months later, I was back again to Northern Ireland, this time to South Armagh with the Welsh Guards. It was at the height of the troubles following the massacre, in late August 1979, of 18 members of the Parachute Regiment and the Queen’s Own Highlanders at Warren Point and the murder of Lord Mountbatten and members of his family. I left the Army in 1986.

It’s only when you reach middle age that you begin to realise who, and what, has been important in your life, and the anchors of friendship and family that have held you steady. 

It was the summer of 2009 that brought this home to me. I was walking to my office in Victoria when my Blackberry beeped. It was an email from Colonel Tom Bonas, our Regimental Adjutant, informing me that the Commanding officer, Rupert Thorneloe, had been killed in action in Afghanistan. We’d already been saddened by the deaths of Mark Evison, Sean Birchall, Toby Fasfous and Dane Elson on the same gruelling tour, but Tom’s email shook me.  None of my contemporaries had met Rupert, or any other of the Welsh Guardsmen killed in action. But we all felt a sharp sense of loss as though an unknown, but much respected, cousin had passed away. 

In the autumn of that year, several us got together to climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hrs to remember them and support our Afghanistan appeal. Alun Powell, who had been my platoon sergeant, led the walk, his presence, as well as his ability to read a map, as reassuring to me as it had been 35 years ago. 

In late September this year, I went with the Regiment on a battlefield tour to Normandy to see where the Regiment had fought after D-Day, and to visit the graves of those Welsh Guardsmen killed in action. It was a good mix of us, past and present, senior and junior, to our good and generous friends from the Drapers Company. I remember asking the Guardsmen why they had joined the Welsh Guards. Without exception, they said because a cousin or an uncle had served, or their best mate from school had joined up. One Guardsman told me he’d felt a sense of purpose for the first time in his life when he’d watched a Welsh Guards homecoming parade in his home town of Bangor. 

I once heard Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talk about ‘Leaders as Educators and Mentors’. It’s something we’ve done very well as a regiment. We’re all proud that this single battalion regiment has produced more generals than any other single battalion regiment in the British army over the last quarter of a century. In Normandy, I met one of our non-commissioned officers who, after a very rough start in life, is now the youngest Colour Sergeant in the British Army and about to go to Sandhurst to train our future officers. 

That’s why as we commemorate the centenary of the Somme this year, the image that remains in my mind is that of the Pals battalions, that army of friends and family, ‘To these I turn, in these I trust’ wrote Sassoon a month before the battle. A hundred years later, we would say the same about the Welsh Guards, ‘ To these I turn, in these I trust’.

And as to Sassoon’s gentle rebuke, ‘Have you forgotten yet? I return to 1st July this year. After my brother officers and I had observed the two minutes’ silence, we went our separate ways. As I got on the Underground, in the seats opposite me, sat three men dressed as First World War soldiers handing out cards with the names of those who had died that day, 100 years ago. My card read: Private Micklethwaite, East Lancashire Regiment, Accrington Pals, aged 20. 

Later that day, I watched on the BBC, the centenary commemoration at Thiepval. It was a beautiful and moving ceremony. As Her Majesty said, it was a day for quiet thinking and contemplation. Like today, it was also a time to remember the 1539 Welsh Guardsmen killed in action since we were formed in 1915, and those Welsh Guardsmen who continue to suffer mentally and physically from recent conflict. For me, there is no such thing as an ex-Welsh Guardsman, or a former Welsh Guardsman, just a Welsh Guardsman.

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