Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The romance of the ranks

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
The romance of the ranks
by Mackenzie Walcott


If any one of our readers desires to acquaint himself with all the dreary formalities, drudgery, and minutiæ of a soldier’s life, he may consult at his leisure a volume called the “Queen’s Regulations and Orders for the Army,” a portly octavo, numbering some 450 pages. He will there learn that even in the piping times of peace, there are irksome duties, besides “standing for twelve hours together in the trenches up to the knees in cold water, or engaged for months together in long dangerous marches, harassed, perhaps, in his rear to-day,—harassing others to-morrow; detached here, countermanded there; resting this night out upon his arms, beat up in his shirt the next, benumbed in his joints, perhaps without straw in his tent to kneel on.” He will also then find some excuse if a weary man takes his calumet, or throws himself on his camp-bed, and does not read quite as assiduously as his more fortunate brother citizens, especially when his only library consists of the few books which he can conveniently carry when subjected to frequent change of quarters, and his only additional resources are the meagre circulating library of a garrison town; whilst often, if on recruiting service, or detachment in some remote neighbourhood, he will be denied even those meagre means of relaxation.

There are, however, even in the volume which we have mentioned, a few amusing pages; they are headed “titles, badges, devices, mottoes and distinctions of regiments of cavalry, artillery, engineers, and infantry, to be borne on their standards and guidons, or on their regimental colour.” A few remarks grounded on these interesting pages, and partly illustrated from Mr. Cannon’s valuable, but still incomplete History of the British Army, will not be without their use, when the formation of depôt battalions is tending rapidly to the weakening, and perhaps extinction of the old esprit de corps, which is to a regiment the foundation of its chivalry and well-doing. The blazon on its colours, the distinctive honours bestowed by the sovereign, and the old traditions give a life to individual regiments, which it would be perilous to its good to lose. It has been the policy of the military authorities to foster this spirit, by giving to particular corps a national distinction; as in the case of English regiments which carry the Lion-crest, the badge of the Order of the Garter, with its motto, or that of the sovereign; and in the instance of Scotch regiments which bear the cross and motto of St. Andrew; just as the Irish regiments are distinguished by the Harp of old Erin, or the badge and motto of St. Patrick; and the Welch regiments are known by the Prince of Wales’s plume and motto, or by the Dragon and Rising Sun of the principality: whilst in remembrance of the time when Hanover was an appanage of the British crown, the White Horse and motto of Brunswick have been in some instances retained.

Since the year 1782, county titles have been also borne by particular regiments, in remembrance of the places where they were first raised; although, subsequently, some of the original designations have been changed. The following counties are represented:—Bedford, Bucks, Dorset, Durham, Cornwall, Devon, Essex, Hants, Leicester, Lincoln, Northumberland, Monmouth, Notts, Huntingdon, Middlesex, Hertford, Norfolk, Gloucester, Rutland, Stafford, Wilts, Lancashire, York and Lancaster, York, Suffolk, Kent, Warwick, Westmoreland, Cumberland, Oxford, Northumberland, Worcester, Derby, Somerset, Northampton, Cambridge, Salop, Surrey, Hereford, Derby and the Borders. Several counties give name to more than one regiment, whilst York furnishes a still larger proportion. The titles of four of these corps, the Loyal Lincoln Volunteers, the Bucks and Stafford Volunteers, and the 82nd Prince of Wales’s Volunteers, remind us of that magnificent force which within little more than a year has been raised in this country, where conscription and compulsory service are alike unknown. In Ireland, Connaught and County Down, and the town of Inniskilling; and in Scotland, Lanarkshire, Ross-shire, Argyleshire, Perthshire, the town of Coldstream, and the city of Edinburgh, still give names to regiments. The 26th are “Cameronians,” and the 79th “Cameron Highlanders.”

It was not until the year 1694, that a military board determined the relative rank of regiments in England by priority of formation: and in the case of Scotch or Irish corps, by the date of their being placed on the establishment of England. At a still later date, on July 1, 1751, a Royal warrant was issued requiring the regimental number to be embroidered upon the regimental colour, thus causing the previous inconvenient method, of designating a corps by the name of its commanding officer for the time being, to be abandoned.

The origin of particular corps is a subject of too great a length to be considered in the present paper; the mottoes and badges of some regiments are of historic, whilst others are of a still more special interest. The 1st Dragoons are known by “Spectemur agendo;” and “Vestigia nulla retrorsum” the Coldstream Guards, “Nulli Secundus,” used in the vernacular, “Second to None,” by the 2nd Dragoons in allusion to their position upon the Army List; the 16th Lancers have the apt words, “Aut cursu aut cominùs armis!” the 15th Hussars give the modest promise of “Merebimur;” while the Scots’ Fusilier Guards rejoice in the double motto of “En ferus hostis,” and “Unita fortior;” the 2nd Infantry bear the words, “Pristinæ virtutis memores,” and “Vel exuviæ triumphant.” The former motto was won by that regiment in 1703, at the siege of Tongres: their badge of the Paschal Lamb, the ensign of Portugal, was granted to it in honour of the Queen, Katharine of Braganza, in 1661, as they are known as the Queen’s Royals; but it was perverted into a cruel slander when the regiment was commanded by Colonel Kirke, in 1685, when their popular designation of Kirke’s lambs, was attributed to their presence at the “Bloody Assizes,” of Judge Jeffreys. The “Quò fata vocant,” of the 5th Fusiliers, took origin, probably, in a regimental order of merit, established in 1767. The “Antelope” of the 6th Foot, has been referred to the circumstance of their capture of a Spanish standard, at Saragossa, in 1710. The “Sphinx,” of the 13th and other regiments, commemorates their share in the campaign in Egypt, in 1801. The 12th, 39th, and 56th, and other corps wear their “Castle and Key,” with the motto “Montis Insignia Calpe,”—the Arms of Gibraltar, given by Henry IV, of Castile—for their heroic defence of the “Castle-Key” of the Mediterranean in 1783. The 39th received in 1757, the royal authority to adopt the motto “Primus in Indis,” in 1757. The royal tiger of Hindostan appears on the colours of the 14th and 17th, as the reward of gallant service. The elephant appears also a badge. The “Firm” of the 36th dates back upwards of seventy years. The “Britannia” of the 9th Foot, confirmed to them in 1799, probably refers to their part in the war of the Spanish Succession. The 18th bear the Arms of Nassau in memory of their storming of Namur, in 1695, under the eyes of William of Orange; and the word “China,” with “the Dragon,” for their campaign in 1840-2. The “Green Dragon” of the 3rd Buffs, granted in 1707, has a different origin; it was one of the royal supporters of Queen Elizabeth, in whose reign the regiment was formed out of the loyal London citizens; and it still possesses the peculiar privilege of marching through the streets of the “City” with music playing and colours flying. When the 31st were embodied, the 3rd received the popular appellation of the “Old Buffs,” by way of distinction to the “Young Buffs:” both, however, derived their name from their accoutrements of buffalo leather. The “Bold Fifth” is a sobriquet of long standing; they wore a red and white feather, and subsequently a white plume, in honour of their rout of the French Grenadiers, at Morne Fortune, in the West Indies, when their success was so complete that every man was able to furnish his cap with the white plumes of the enemy. The 87th have the proud distinction of the Eagle of the 8th French regiment of the Line, as it was the first taken in action during the Peninsular war, having been captured at Barossa, in 1811. The kettle-drums of the 3rd, or King’s Own Light Dragoons were taken at Dettingen; and when the 34th Foot embarked for the Crimean war, they were compelled, out of courtesy to our Allies, to leave in store in England, their entire corps of brass drums, having taken them by a curious coincidence from the 34th French Infantry, at Arroyo dos Molinos. The King’s Royal Irish, 8th Hussars, in 1715, were permitted to wear buff sword belts, suspended across the right shoulder, as a memorial of their rout of the Spanish cavalry, at Almanza; they were also the well-known “Pepper’s Dragoons,” whom George I. sent to overawe the Jacobites at tory Oxford, while he gave a fine library to whiggish Cambridge,—a delicate distinction which provoked this witty epigram in reply to a Cambridge sarcasm:—

Our royal master saw with heedful eyes,
The wants of his two Universities.
Troops he to Oxford sent, as knowing why
That learned body wanted loyalty,
Books he to Cambridge gave, as well discerning
That that most loyal body wanted learning.

The 41st carry the Welsh motto, “Gwell angeu na Chywilydd;” the 78th, the Gallic “Cuidich’n Rhi;” the 85th are known by “Aucto splendore resurgo;” the Artillery and Engineers, by the words “Ubique,” and “Quò fas et gloria ducunt;” and the amphibious Marine, by the well-chosen motto, “Per mare, per terras.” The “Death’s Head” and the motto, “Or glory,” have been carried by the 12th Lancers since 1759, when Colonel Hale determined to compose the regiment of men of decided character, emulous of the gallantry of General Wolfe, whose death he had witnessed on the heights of Mount Abraham. The name of the “Carabineers,” 6th Dragoon Guards, dates back to 1691. The 56th are popularly known as the Pompadours, as, when raised in 1756, their facings were originally puce, the favourite colour of the worthless Madame de Pompadour; and when their facings were changed, their colonel, failing to obtain “blue,” the distinction of Royals, for the regiment, adopted purple as the nearest approach to it. The Royal Horse Guards are ordinarily known as “the Blues,” from the colour of their uniform. It is an old mess-room joke and legend, that the tailors having used up all their scarlet cloth, were compelled to make up the deficiency in cuffs and collars, by fragments of various colours; and this was the origin, (so the veracious “oldster” assures the “youngster,”) of the facings of the British Army. The 13th Light Dragoons were known from the colour of their facings as “the Green Dragoons,” to which their motto, “Viret in æternum” refers, and was confirmed in 1836, the green facings having been restored three years before. The 97th are known as “Celestials,” from their sky-blue facings. The “Lincoln Green” of the 69th, is a subject of their pride. The dingy, and ill-assorted black-and-white worsted braid of the 50th, caused them to be known as the “Dirty Half-hundred.” The sombre dress, blue-black and green tartan, worn by the companies raised for the protection of Edinburgh in 1730-2, was the origin of their name “Freicudan Dhu,” the “Black Watch,” in contradistinction to the scarlet of the Line, who were called “red soldiers,”—an appellation which was transferred to the 42nd Highlanders, who were formed out of their ranks in 1740. The 2nd Dragoon Guards, are known as the “Queen’s Bays,” from the fact of their being mounted on bay horses in 1767. The “Fighting 9th,” were also called in the Peninsular war “the holy boys,” from a sale of Bibles. The 57th, from their bravery at Albuera, were known as the “Die Hards:” the 62nd for their courage in America, were famous as “the Springers.” The Light Company of the 45th wear the distinctive mark of a red ball instead of green, the usual colour; in 1777, the Americans were so galled by their fire, that they vowed that they would give them no quarter, and the gallant fellows stained their feathers red to save their friends from suffering by any mistake. The 22nd wear a sprig of oak in their shakoes on the Queen’s birthday, in memory of services rendered to George II. at Dettingen. The 28th wear the plate in front and at the back of their shakoes, in memory of their gallant defence in Egypt against a charge of cavalry in front and rear, and are known as “the Slashers,” owing to their terrible use of the short swords, then worn by the infantry, during the American war. The 87th are called the “Faugh-a-ballagh Boys,” from their famous faction-fight cry of “Fag-an-bealac,” “clear the way,” at Barossa.

The 14th Dragoons carry the “Prussian Eagle,” as it was called in 1798, in honour of the Duchess of York, the Princess Royal of Prussia. The titles of “King’s Own, “Queen’s Own,” “Royal,” the “Prince of Wales’s” (82nd and 10th Hussars), “the Princess Charlotte of Wales” (49th), the “Earl of Ulster’s” (97th), the “Duke of Wellington’s” (33rd), have all been won by

By moving accidents bMost disastrous chances,
By moving accidents by flood and field,
By hair-breadth scapes i’the imminent deadly breach.

One curious circumstance is on record. We all know that regimental colours are consecrated, and generally find their last home in the aisles of a cathedral, or in the Hall of Chelsea: but in 1763, the colours of the 25th Regiment, then commanded by Lord W. Lennox, having been riddled with shot, at Minden, and hanging in mere strips from the staff, were interred in Newcastle-on-Tyne, with military honours. On the other hand, the standards captured at Culloden, were burnt by the common hangman.

A few more notes, and we must draw these sketches to a close; although we are tempted to dilate on pedigrees and achievements, and the succession of colonels of the various regiments. In 1572, troops of horse were called cornets; and companies of foot were styled ensigns. In the reign of Charles II. the junior officer of horse was known as a “cornet,” and in 1679, a corporal of horse, saluted as a “brigadier.” The dragoon derives his name from the Elizabethan fire-arm, called dragon, from the monster which figured on the muzzle; the Carabineers represent the Spanish Light Cavalry first mentioned, in 1579, as Carabins, possibly, from their use of the carbine—a weapon employed on board of the vessels called “carabs.” The Scotch Fusiliers, now the 21st Foot, raised in 1678, were the first to take that name, which is one of French origin, denoting a weapon lighter than a musket: while the bayonet was invented at Bayonne about the same period. The helmet and the cuirass are the last relics of the old armour of our troops, since the gorget, a diminutive breastplate, has been discontinued; the sash, once worn round the waist, was designed to give means of removing the wounded officer to the rear: the aiguilette of the Cavalry represents the cords with which they bound up their forage, and the cord on the belts of the Household Cavalry was once attached to the priming-horn of the bandolier. Scarlet was worn by the soldiers of Henry V.; green and white were the Tudor colours; in 1678, Evelyn describes Grenadiers (a French term) in piebald red and yellow: and it was only in the reign of Queen Anne that scarlet was definitely established. The officer’s cockade of the time of the Georges has been removed to the hats of servants, and naval officers alone retain it. The serjeant no longer carries a halbert. The Prussian sugar-loaf cap, immortalised by Hogarth in the March to Finchley, is a costume of the past. Pigtails and pomatum, the three-cornered cocked-hat, gaiters, and docked horse-tails, have all happily followed the same example; while the Polish caps of our Lancers date back about forty years, and the bearskins of the Guards to the reign of George III. The three-tailed bag of black silk worn by the officers of the 23rd Fusiliers is, probably, a relic of the queue. The uniform of the present day is certainly more convenient and handsome than, if not so picturesque as that of an earlier period, and when stocks are unknown, shakoes made of an improved shape, and knapsacks better adjusted, we may, perhaps, believe it incapable of improvement.

Glorious, indeed, it is to read on the colours of our regiments the scrolls labelled with the names of hard-won fields, in every quarter of the globe; they are subjects for an honourable pride, and incentives to a generous emulation. Let us have examinations, and motives and necessity for study on the part of both candidates and actual officers, though we cannot fail to remember that many a gallant fellow, whom we remember incapable of application to books, down in the lowest form of old Winchester, did good service at Alma and Inkermann, and by an acquaintance with manly sports has raised up a cheerful spirit amongst his men in the piping time of peace. A mere pedant in any class of life is a poor creature. We do not want “the gallant militarist that has the whole theorie of war in the knot of his scarf, and the practice in the chape of his dagger.” The future battles of England will never be won by men who cannot “set a squadron in the field, nor know the division of a battle;” never by the mere successful competitor who achieves his superiority by force of memory, or the cram of a few months.

Wherein the toga’d ConThe bookish theorie
Wherein the toga’d Consuls can propose
As masterly as he; mere prattle, without practice,
Is all his soldiership.

Mackenzie E. C. Walcott.