- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

By Philip Ziegler
Knopf, $26, 331 pages, illus.

An old soldier's daughter took her father with her to a branch of Sainsbury's, the English supermarket chain:
"His scarlet cloak and black cocked hat caused a sensation. One customer touched him and said: 'Oh, you're a real one! I've only seen one on the telly before.' As he and his daughter left the store the supervisor said, 'I want you to know that you've brightened our day.'"
This evidently was "somebody," and he was of course a Chelsea pensioner at the Royal Hospital there. As with each of the nine in-pensioners whose stories Philip Ziegler tells in "Soldiers: Fighting Men's Lives, 1901-2001," there is a small photo of the man as he looks today and a larger one of him in his prime, in this instance Company Sergeant-Major Fernley Small, 1946.
Mr. Small's story is not the same as that of his fellow pensioners these are very different men ranging from engineers and other technical specialists to career infantrymen and at least one real daredevil of the special ops breed, Douglas Wright of the Special Boat Squadron and Grenadier Guards but his tale has strains that become increasingly familiar as one makes one's way through the book's pages.
Fernley Small was born in August, 1916, the youngest of five children in a family living in the village of East Budleigh, Devonshire. Sent out to work while still a schoolboy, he earned seven shillings and sixpence a week working for a newsagent, of which he was allowed to keep 6 pence (try that on a young son today). His father, a World War I veteran, was cold, his mother adoring, but still "the summit of his ambitions was to escape from home." More young men joined up for that reason than ever had any particular ambition to be a soldier.
Surprising for a Devonshire lad another of the pensioners, Arthur Jeffery, served with the Devonshire Regiment and was with them during the 1958 amalgamation with the Dorsets, when the Highland Light Infantry disbanded rather than give up their kilts for "trews" Mr. Small enlisted in the Northamptonshire Regiment.
Following basic infantry training a medley of duties that included chemical warfare work and running a dining hall led to assault training in Scotland in preparation for Operation Torch. Mr. Small's unit was attached to the much admired 78th Division, and he was the first sergeant-major to enter Tunis where, to his surprise, he ran into Gen. Harold Alexander crossing a pontoon bridge and the force commander very cordially walked over and chatted with him. After Monte Casino, Mr. Small had the bad luck to be captured and sent to a POW camp at Moosburg in Germany. British prisoners there were treated correctly but not cordially, while POWS from elsewhere got treated much worse.
Post World War II, Mr. Small served in Malaya, Singapore and a string of other postings that included running a military prison, a job which almost gave him a nervous breakdown.
Mr. Small was discharged in December 1956, considering himself a "nearly man." In Italy his Distinguished Conduct medal had been denied to protect a cowardly company commander. Later, his commission in the Military Police was forfeited because the application arrived 48 hours too late. Mr. Ziegler compares him to Evelyn Waugh's Guy Crouchback "who had expected too much of both Regiment and Army …"
Like many of the men in the book, Mr. Small found civvy street a difficult and demeaning experience. Warrant officers and sergeants who had been accustomed to handling great responsibility and exercising broad authority felt themselves dumped by the Army. Some did better than others, with the government, corporations or as small proprietors, while others were reduced to making ends meet any way they could. One man tried out in a job cleaning chicken incubators, but couldn't stand the stench.
Admitted to the Royal Hospital, Fernley Small, former sergeant-major was welcomed home to the Army life and companionship to which he had become habituated during long service with the colors. What's more, as his supermarket reception demonstrated, he was again "somebody."
Mr. Ziegler is well known for his biographies of, among others, King William IV, Earl Mountbatten, King Edward VIII, Harold Wilson and Osbert Sitwell. "Soldiers" is to that extent a quieter book, for these are not famous men. For all their achievements, they lack the polish and social confidence of the established middle classes, and they owe most of what education they have got to the Army and their own reading. Occasionally they complain, in the spirit of the old saying that an Englishman is never happy except when he has something to grumble about. But they love and remain loyal to the Army; for many of them it was their family and they are grateful to be at the Royal Hospital where their every need is anticipated.
Eight of the nine were "other ranks," meaning noncomissioned, the accommodation of such soldiers in old age being the purpose of the Royal Hospital when King Charles II founded it in 1682, after the model of Louis XIV's Hotel des Invalides in Paris. The ninth in-pensioner is Archibald Harrington of the Queen's Royal Regiment and Royal Artillery. Commissioned in World War II, he went on to become a lieutenant-colonel and on that ground considered himself ineligible for the Royal Hospital until his son found that his 10 years of service in the ranks qualified him. A wise and prudent ex-officer, Mr. Harrington did not let on to his fellow pensioners that he had held a commission. When it was eventually found out, he was respected for his silence.
The pensioners have only one duty, to parade each June 8, Founder's Day, in Christopher Wren's Figure Court. The parade honors Charles II's ignominious escape after the battle of Worcester in the English Civil War, when he hid in the oak tree. In June 2000, when Mr. Ziegler was there, the Duke of Kent took the salute at the march past of some 200 pensioners, while several followed in electric-powered wheelchairs, saluting the duke as they passed the dais, and another 100, unfit to participate, sat on the sidelines.
Pensioners are free to take on duties at the Royal Hospital, if they wish to be active, but again there is no obligation to do so. On the whole Chelsea seems a wonderfully benign institution, an Army establishment but in no sense constraining. Each pensioner has his own small space with a door that can be closed when privacy is desired. There is no obligation to remain on the premises, the pensioners are free to go off and spend as much time as they like with sons and daughters or whomever (most have outlived their wives, an intriguing exception to the usual demographic order of things). Mr. Ziegler puts it charmingly: "If they are in the hospital then they must be dressed and out of their panelled cubicle their berth, as it is called by half past seven in the morning, but this stipulation is only made because it is the easiest way to ensure that everyone has survived the night."
Mr. Ziegler's question in his book: Is this the stuff of Britain's glorious imperial past, or "a bunch of superannuated poseurs … poncing around in fancy dress, trying to recapture lost glories that were spurious at the best of times and are entirely irrelevant today"? The British Empire, as the author remarks somewhere along the way, was to some extent a gigantic bluff. But try telling that to these men whose "self-disicipline, obedience, conscientiousness, loyalty" in policing that empire between the wars and fighting to defend it in two wars governed their lives. Mr. Ziegler acknowledges as much and the point is his closing one more or less.
Just one World War I veteran has been included and he leads off the book. Albert Alexandre, born 1901, of the Guernsey Light Infantry and Royal Artillery, witnessed the horror of Passchendaele and lived on to be still doing press-ups in his 90s; the author leaves him on the verge of his centenary. The marvel to me was how little the Army changed over all those years; though as one pensioner complains, by the late '60s it was beginning to be transformed, and in eyes of the veterans with their respect for severe discipline, not for the better.

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