Those Must Be The Guards, by Paul de Zulueta and Simon Doughty

David Webb-Carter

The Household Division is given a sincere contemporary review of service over 50 years.
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To write the history of one regiment covering the years from 1969 to the current day would be no mean task, but here we have a book covering the seven regiments of the Household Division over this same period. It is indeed a tour de force and compulsive reading for those who have soldiered or had friends or relations in the Household Division during those latter turbulent years that really started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Those Must Be The Guards starts off with a description of the last VC to be awarded to Lance Corporal Ashworth of the Grenadier Guards, and this sets the scene for a story of the remarkable spirit, steadfastness and courage of the guardsmen and officers who remained unchanged since the formation of each regiment.

Starting from 1969 the book covers a wide canvas, and it is sometimes hard to remember that the British Army included a 55,000 force on the Rhine until the turn of the century, in which the Household troops played a full part. The Berlin garrison was an important part of that period and it was where the reality of the huge Soviet forces presence was tensely felt. Foot Guards battalions played an integral aspect, conducting patrols in the Soviet Sector of the city, border patrols and contributing officers to the Commander-in-Chief’s mission to the Russian forces who gathered valuable intelligence on their movements and technical advances. The ending of the Guards Brigade at Munster is faithfully recorded including some very amusing reminiscences of former senior officers who attended the event. From that period too are a series of descriptions of the many deployments as the nation withdrew from the former colonial possessions, following the withdrawal from east of Suez in the late sixties. Not least is a section on the Rhodesian operation where the Household Division deployed officers, NCOs and guardsmen to oversee the transition to majority rule. There are interesting descriptions of service in Belize, Cyprus and Hong Kong, including a tart observation of the Chinese Guard of Honour at the handover who were all over 6 ft tall and of seemingly identical jaw line, but were unlikely to be as adaptable as guardsmen.

A full chapter is devoted to the Guards Depot where all members of the Household Division were trained until 1993. Whilst the closure is regretted, the point is strongly made how important the basic training was to all guardsmen. Embarrassing incidents reported in the national press never included the Depot, and as the book describes the Brigade Squad system where potential officers were given a taste of military life starting at the bottom, it was those largely boarding school educated young men who were given the most intensive training.  Indeed, in my time other recruits were known to have great sympathy for the extra work expected of future officers. Discussing regimental ethos, later there is an interesting comment on insignia by a senior SAS general who felt the Household Division had an obsession with sartorial detail, but it is that sort of feature that makes members of the Guards feel special.

The authors wisely steer clear of recriminations over events in the Falklands War although undoubtedly there were serious shortcomings in a number of ways and the story of the fighting leads further to evocative descriptions of actions after the turn of the century in the Middle East. A large part of the final pages are devoted to events in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, showing the spirit and adaptability from ceremonial to active service settings. The brilliance of the guardsmen shines through as no doubt it has done since the regiments were first formed. The conditions were at times indescribably poor, but the spirit of each regiment brings them through in a way that is most unusual in the army but sets the standard of discipline and steadfastness that is an example to all. Much has been written about the inadequacies of decisions at the highest level and the authors, whilst quietly noting this, concentrate on the actual fighting and not the talking. One officer is quoted as ruefully saying that operating in Afghanistan now was more challenging as in previous Afghan Wars – doubtless true when he goes on to say his company had ten different weapon systems, eight types of vehicle, four different radio systems and had to learn the rudiments two foreign languages. The book leaves no doubt of the impact these last two wars have had on the officers and guardsmen.

Reading the exploits of these recent wars where the overall political aims were confused and muddled, it is remarkable how well the British Army performed and the Household Division in particular. To quote the famous American correspondent, Ed Murrow: – “anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.”  Thus, it is no surprise that two officers heavily involved in those campaigns have risen to be Chief of the General Staff.

Finally, no history of the Household Division over the past 55 years would be complete without the paragraphs devoted to the Queen’s funeral and the subsequent Coronation – a confirmation of the special relationship with The Royal family and a demonstration of the Household Division’s ability to adapt from war to peace and vice versa.

This is no glossy coffee table picture book; it is a sincere contemporary review of service over 50 years by the seven regiments of the Household Division. Whilst a colleague tells me every aspiring officer should read Those Must Be The Guards it also a faithful record that is of interest to a far wider audience.

Those Must Be The Guards by Paul de Zulueta and Simon Doughty is out now and published by Osprey.

David Webb-Carter joined the Irish Guards in 1959 and commanded the 1st Bn from 1979-81.