Travails of a Royal Horse Guards Cornet, 1930s

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 5-8:

In September 1936 I had arrived at Hyde Park Barracks, Knightsbridge, commissioned a 2nd lieutenant (cornet) in the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). At Sandhurst I had lost six months’ seniority by ‘dropping a term’ after a crashing fall in a point-to-point which put me in hospital for six months. My only academic achievements at Sandhurst were passing out top in map reading and bottom in economics.

Rules in the Household Brigade were strict, even off parade. I was soon to find this out when I was awarded fourteen extra orderlies — an officer’s equivalent to CB (confined to barracks) — for dancing downstairs in the Café de Paris in a dinner jacket. If you chose to dance downstairs in the Café de Paris you had to wear a white tie and tails; in a dinner jacket you had to confine yourself to dancing on the less conspicuous balcony upstairs. White tie and tails were also de rigueur at the theatre and I was once reprimanded for being seen in a party at the theatre wearing a dinner jacket — at my hostess’s request.

I accepted these rather strange rules and customs, chiefly because life as a cornet in the Blues was, in most ways, idyllic. Like our sister regiment The Life Guards, we were a very small unit, almost a kind of club. The peacetime strength in 1936 was 14 officers, 419 men and 250 horses. Our only motorised transport was about a dozen Austin Sevens and a few motor cycles used by the signals troop.

Everything in a young officer’s life depended on his NCO. We had no experience; many of the NCOs had served ten to twenty years. They knew all the tricks of the trade and the characters of our senior officers. A good NCO was one part nanny, one part coach, and one part poacher turned gamekeeper. I was lucky to have an excellent corporal of horse (sergeant).

Soldiering, however, played only a small part in our lives. Officers were encouraged to seek adventure on leave. Bob Laycock sailed home from Australia in a windjammer. Others went on big game safaris to Kenya. Some did a stint as ADCs, usually to the Viceroy of India or Governor-General of Canada. Hunting, shooting, polo and steeplechasing were regarded as duty; in other words they didn’t count against one’s leave. Before the war leave was the same as it is today — six weeks in the year; but adding to it the days spent away hunting, and weekends, it must have amounted to three or four months. In those days we were informed that leave was a privilege and never a right. All my army life I failed to understand the logic of this, but I did find that the higher you climbed the ladder of promotion, the less leave you seemed to get.

The Munich crisis caused a flap. I was orderly officer and had to telephone every officer who was on leave recalling him to barracks. This did not make me very popular. We dug slit trenches and weapon pits in the sports fields in Hyde Park just opposite the barracks. To the delight of the more insubordinate, so many sandbags were piled on the roof of the Orderly Room block, which included the colonel’s and the adjutant’s offices, that the roof collapsed.

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