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Eccentrics, heroes and all-round cads — tales from the Guards

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In the pink: French portrait of a cavalryman
In the pink: a French portrait of a cavalryman, c1815

Duncan Morrison reviews The Drum Horse and the Fountain by Christopher Joll 
and Anthony Weldon

Any work of non-fiction that contains the sentence “the Duke demanded that 24 hours a day… a hot roast chicken be available for him to eat on demand” deserves attention. The Duke of Portland, Captain William Cavendish-Scott Bentinck (1800-79), had a ballroom, an indoor roller rink and 15 miles of tunnels built beneath his house, Welbeck Abbey, and always “whatever the weather… wore two overcoats with large, turned up collars and carried an open umbrella behind which he would hide if approached”.

He also had a very brief career as an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and in the Household Cavalry, which is what merits his inclusion in The Drum Horse in the Fountain, a collection of accounts of the lives of some of the more extraordinary men (and one or two animals) who have served in the “Household Division”.

The Household Division, the British monarch’s personal Horse and Foot Guards, have fought in every major British conflict since their foundation, and had members gain fame (and infamy) for reasons as diverse as having been offered – and declined – the throne of Albania, being appointed Archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica, and presenting Have I Got News for You, to say nothing of their military distinctions. The book is divided into collections of stories linked by a common thread – be that sport, art, politics, eccentricity or decorations for bravery, or the large chapter dedicated to all-round cads.

On the one hand, the sheer amount of characters who have served in the Household Division mean that The Drum Horse in the Fountain to some extent writes itself. A high-speed account of the life of, say, Alfred Wintle, Patrick Leigh Fermor or Bill Stanley Moss will always astonish and amuse, regardless of the telling. The telling in The Drum Horse in the Fountain, however, is occasionally somewhat flat.

Members of the Household Cavalry arrive at the Palace of Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament Credit: Oli Scarff/PA Wire

The same emphasis is given to the fact that an officer became “Chairman of Rio Tinto plc, the MCC and the Savoy Hotel Group” as to the fact that Colonel David Smiley “rearmed a company of Japanese soldiers [during the Second World War] and with them freed 120 women and children held hostage in Indo-China by Annamite Communists”. The famous Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1890 merits a plodding in-depth seven pages, while the astonishing Second World War kidnapping of General Kreipe is whizzed over in a single page, with no mention of “Tara” – the mad SOE salon and unending drinks party that the Household Division officers ran in Alexandria with a Polish countess. (The authors also several times refer to “insufficient space”, which seems a slight misunderstanding of how books work.)

Still, to dip in and out of this book is immensely enjoyable. Several of the more obscure anecdotes stand out. The Hon Aubrey Herbert, for instance (the same officer who was offered the Albanian throne), managed to become an Irish Guards officer in the First World War simply by buying an officer’s uniform, “joining the Embarkation parade and boarding the ship on which the Battalion was being transported to fight in France”. The Commanding Officer thought this was good enough, and “allowed him to serve like any other officer”.

The Drum Horse and the Fountain by Christopher Joll 
and Anthony Weldon
320pp, Nine Elms, 
£20