NOTES ON SOME OLD REGIMENTAL CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS. REGIMENTAL CHRONICLE 1914
Every Regiment in the Army has its own peculiarities, or what may be termed customs, which to the outsider seem trivial matters, if not even absurd, but to which the Regiment clings "for old sake's sake," knowing that these help in no small degree towards the maintenance of true esprit de corps. Civilians writing on military subjects are apt to make capital out of these regimental customs, seeing in them peculiarities at which to scoff, chiefly because they are ignorant of their origin. The same writers seek to add to the interest of their popular articles by inventing for regiments customs or traditions of which the regiments themselves have never heard.. In a recent number of a magazine there appeared an article on this subject, in which the author, dealing with regimental customs whose origin was unknown, asked the question, Why does an Oxfordshire Light Infantry officer always put out his tongue when he sees a Durham Light Infantry officer ? The reply is that no such thing has ever been known to occur, and the whole story is a pure invention as well as a base libel, for the two regiments have always been on particularly friendly terms.
Another story, even more amusing, is one dealing with the reason why men of the Regiment wear no collar-badge. A young officer was heard to say the other day that he had been told on very good authority that the real reason was that at the battle of Waterloo the 52nd had had a dispute with the Guards, and as a punishment the 52nd collar-badge had been taken away ! This requires no comment.
The matter of the absent collar-badge has caused a certain amount of trouble in one way or another since 1881, when collar-badges were introduced throughout the Army, and it may be as well to explain what happened in the case of the Regiment. In that year regimental numbers disappeared, and regiments were joined in pairs with territorial designations. Each of the old regiments was asked to devise a badge agreeable to the two battalions, and eventually the selected badges were registered, and anyone who is curious to see what they were will find them figured in the "Dress Regulations." It was suggested by the authorities that the collar-badge of the new Oxfordshire Light Infantry should be either a bugle or a conventional English rose, but neither was favoured by the 43rd or the 52nd. The bugle was, of course, the badge of Light Infantry as well as of Rifle regiments, but the 43rd and 52nd, being the oldest Light Infantry regiments in the Army, had always considered that this fact was too well known to require advertisement, and had, therefore, discountenanced the wearing of many bugle badges, as affected by the newer Light Infantry corps.
The rose meant nothing to either Regiment, and its adoption as a collar-badge was not entertained. For some time the head of an ox (from the Oxford coat-of-arms) was thought of, if the authorities should insist on a collar-badge being worn by the men as well as by the officers. But at the same time an effort was made to obtain sanction for the revival, as the officer's badge, of what is termed the "gorget button and loop," worn at one time by all officers of the Army, and, with short breaks, up to 1881 by the officers of the 52nd who claimed that they had worn it almost continuously from time immemorial. Sanction was given, but as it was purely an officer's badge, it could not be worn by the men.
There has been, at times, a certain amount of feeling amongst the men at their having no collar-badge, as they have been twitted for its absence by men of other regiments, and for some few years now the men of the 1st Battalion in India have worn the gorget button and loop on the collar of the khaki, jacket, though this is only a regimental arrangement, and not officially recognized.
With regard to this button and loop with which the name "gorget" has been connected, there is no doubt that, at one time, there was a button on either side of the front portion of the upright collar of the full-dress coat, and from these two buttons the gorget was suspended.
The gorget itself, it may be remarked, was a piece of metal (up to 1795 silver, and afterwards gilt) in the shape of a half-moon or deep horseshoe, and was worn at the throat by officers when on duty until finally abolished in 1830. It came into use in the time of Queen Anne, and it is supposed that, as its name implies, it was a piece of armour for the throat, as a protection from a sword-thrust. It was hung from the points by pieces of silk ribbon ending in rosettes, which were hooked on to the buttons of the coat collar. About 1792 it became the fashion to wear a roomy linen collar and large black cravat, and to admit of this the collar of the coat was made to turn down if desired, and the lapels to button back, when the gorget was suspended from the top buttons of the lapel. This top button of the lapel, with its buttonhole stitched with silk, is the origin of the "gorget button and loop." It is not, perhaps, strictly accurate to call it a gorget button, but now that the badge of staff officers is officially described as the "gorget patch," the name will probably remain. The button and loop (a vastly exaggerated imitation buttonhole) became an ornament—and nothing more than an ornament — for the coat collar when upright collars were reintroduced, and remained as an ornament after gorgets themselves were abolished.
So barren of designs were the minds of military tailors of that period that when in 1829 a new pattern coatee was introduced, with a high, square-cut collar, they could think of no better ornamentation than the button and loop. The height of the collar required something more, so they put two buttons and two loops of silver lace on each side of the front part of the collar.1 This was worn until 1855, when the coatee was abolished.
The introduction of the single-breasted tunic in 1855 swept away the button and loop ornamentation, as badges of rank were now placed upon the collar, which itself was edged with lace. Thus for a time the button and loop disappeared, but the 52nd had a tradition that they had worn the gorget a little later than other regiments, and they had always regarded the button and loop as commemorative of that fact ; consequently, when the blue undress patrol jacket was introduced (about 1866), the officers of the 52nd had placed on either side of the collar a black braided button and cord loop — of course, without authority. The 43rd did not revive the ornamentation, but the 52nd adhered to it for another twelve or fourteen years, escaping the eagle eyes of inspecting Generals, until it was finally authorized in 1881 as the collar-badge of officers of both Regiments. Little did anyone imagine that it would be adopted as the emblem of the Staff Officer !
There were, at different times, various minor peculiarities in regimental dress by which the officers set great store, but which, being contrary to regulation, were always liable to be swept away by an inspecting General. Amongst these the white linen shirt collar had for a long while a precarious existence. Both the 43rd and 52nd had shown about a quarter of an inch of white collar above the blue collar of the undress coat from about 1830. It was possibly a survival of the high shirt collar and cravat mentioned above, and the officers of the two Regiments argued that the small amount of collar shown was quite unobtrusive, was an aid to cleanliness, and was no more objectionable than the white linen shirt cuffs universally worn in uniforms. Possibly no one would have paid any attention to the matter had it not happened that officers of other regiments broke out into shirt collars of inordinate height and shape, which was too much for the authorities, who forthwith condemned them. Still, for years the 43rd and 52nd managed to stick to them. They were periodically ordered off, and they remained off until the Regiment moved to a new station, when they were taken into wear again. Some Generals said nothing, others saw the officers at inspection only in full dress; so the little bit of collar managed to survive until the early seventies, when Generals became more particular and more suspicious.
The argument that it was an old regimental custom was of no avail, and the collars were ordered off. The C.O.'s now decided to put up a fight, and the question was referred to the War Office, with the result that, in January 1875, official sanction was given for shirt collars to be worn by 43rd and 52nd officers in undress uniform, and there the matter ended.
The black sword-knot was another trouble. The wearing of the black sword-knot by the 43rd and 52nd dated back to Peninsular times. The patterns were slightly different, the 43rd knot being of rounded leather and having a tassel at the end, whereas that of the 52nd was a flat leather strap ending in an acorn; but the whole point was that it was black. The regulation sword-knot was gold for full dress, and pipe-clayed leather for undress ; but for years the 43rd and 52nd wore neither, and the black sword-knot escaped the notice of inspecting Generals. The evil day came, however, when a staff officer, watching the performance of the officers at Inspection Sword Exercise, observed the black sword-knot, and it was ordered off. From that time gold sword-knots were brought out at Annual Inspections, and black ones worn at other times. Eventually there arose a C.O. who refused to permit this somewhat underhand proceeding to be continued, and in 1896 he succeeded in obtaining sanction for the wearing of the black sword-knot by both battalions of the Regiment, the pattern adopted being that originally worn by the 43rd.
These were the principal fights which went on for the maintenance of traditional dress, but there were many minor customs, such as wearing shoes with the mess kit, rolling back the upright collar of the mess jacket, etc., which gave rise to no serious trouble. In 1896 the authorities suddenly became sympathetic, and showed an inclination to respect old regimental customs. The 43rd and 52nd were allowed to revive their old mess-jacket, with rolled collar and having slashed (half-gauntlet) sleeves, wearing a white tie with it. And various other things were sanctioned which previously had been worn only sub rosa.
All these trifles connected with dress may seem to have been scarcely worth bothering about, but officers of the Regiment took them very seriously, regarding them as evidence that they were a little different from other regiments; and it was a very black day when the General's order came in the stereotyped form, "this irregular practice must cease forthwith." The rank and file also had their troubles about dress, owing to C.O.'s authorizing the continuance of customs which had been officially abolished.
The wearing on both arms of chevrons by N.C.O.'s and good conduct badges by the men was continued by the 43rd in India for many years, the extra chevrons and badges being paid for by the C.O.; but the "irregularity" was discovered in the early eighties (1880s), and the distinctions had to be removed from one arm.
In India it was easier than at home for a regiment to adhere to an old custom, probably because Generals in the old days devoted most of their time to looking after the more numerous native regiments. When the 43rd came home from India in 1887 the men were still wearing the old 43rd cap badge (with number), although it had been abolished in 1881. The new badges had been kept in store for all these years, and the stock of old badges was sufficient to carry on with.
So much for the matter of dress, about which, it may be remarked, the 43rd and 52nd officers were always very particular, their watchword being extreme neatness without any appearance of showiness. When other regiments were wearing their undress caps cocked on one side, the 43rd and 52nd (officers and men) wore theirs perfectly straight on the head; while curls and locks (otherwise "quiffs") were strictly "taboo," as were also trousers cut to "bell" over the boot.
All this was unwritten law, handed down from generation to generation as traditions, and watched over by the senior officers, the "father of the subalterns" being responsible that young officers, as they joined, learned these regimental traditions. To talk of the British soldier as a "Tommy" or "Tommy Atkins," or to write Light Infantry as "L. I.," was an enormity which in the old days would have been visited on the offender by his being charged before a subalterns' court martial. And there were a hundred and one other small peculiarities which, it was thought, helped to make the Regiment superior to other regiments.
Occasionally, it is true, owing to force of circumstances, old customs have had to go, but opportunity for revival is patiently watched for. For many years after 1881 it was fondly hoped that the old numbers would come back in one form or another, and that 43 and 52 would live again officially—for unofficially they have never died; but after a lapse of upwards of thirty years hope has grown faint. The number, however, still remains within the bugle on the note-paper and plate of the 43rd, and 52 still appears on the garter surrounding the Oxford arms used by the 52nd; but these are private affairs with which the authorities do not concern themselves.
With regard to the so-called crests of the Regiments, i.e., the badges used on note-paper and plate, that of the 43rd has never varied, except when occasionally an officious engraver or die-cutter has taken upon himself to make an alteration in some small particular, such as the arrangement of the strings of the bugle. Sometimes the strings have tassels at the ends, and sometimes the ends are hidden altogether under the crown, but the oldest and most correct form is that shown on the cover of the chronicle. This is copied from the badge worn on the officers' breast-plate (1804-1855), and subsequently on the waist-clasp of the officers' sword-belt. It dates, therefore, from 1804, when the Regiment had recently been made Light Infantry, and it has been used continuously ever since, save for a brief period about the time of the South African War. Then the Oxford "crest" was adopted, in order to bring the two battalions into line; but the innovation found little favour, and with a change of C.O.'s the old 43rd badge was restored. The crown has, since been altered to an Imperial Crown
The 52nd do not appear to have incorporated the bugle in their badge for some years after becoming a Light Infantry Regiment, for the breastplate worn from 1804 to 1825 was without it. In the latter year, however, a new pattern breastplate was introduced, and on it appeared the bugle and strings, with 52 within, surrounded by a garter bearing the words "Oxfordshire Light Infantry," the garter surmounted by a crown. Whether this design was ever used on the note-paper and plate seems doubtful, but it is figured on the side of the cover as well as on the first page of Moorsom's Historical Record, from which it may be assumed that it was considered the regimental "crest" or badge equally with the plain stringed bugle and 52, shown on the back of the Historical Record. The latter badge was certainly used for many years on the plate and on the writing paper, and its very simplicity probably appealed to the taste of 52nd officers. At what date the next change came cannot be ascertained, but the change was somewhat drastic; the bugle and 52 were removed from the gartered design mentioned above, and for them were substituted the Oxford arms (i.e., the Ox and Ford), with 52 appearing almost unnoticeably on the end of the garter. Moorsom (1860) does not figure this design, neither does Leeke (1866); but the general impression among old officers of the Regiment is that it was introduced about 1866, or a little before. The innovation was probably intended as a compliment to the county to which the Regiment had belonged since 1782, but it-was undoubtedly made at the expense of regimental tradition. Of course regimental "crests" are not registered at the College of Arms (Heralds' College), and have no official recognition, so it is possible for officers to have new designs put 011 their paper whenever they wish.
The additon of "Buckinghamshire" to the title of the Regiment will probably bring about another change in the 2nd Battalion badge, and the inclination would seem to be to hark back to the old bugle and 52, which, indeed, appears on the cover of the latest edition of Standing Memoranda (1911).
It is evident from old Regimental Standing Orders, even of the earliest times, that the greatest attention was paid by the 43rd and the 52nd to the interior economy of companies. Originally, when a new regiment was being formed, and there was difficulty in obtaining recruits, an officer was allowed to go off to his home or county and try to raise men. If he were fortunate enough to bring a sufficient number of men to form a company, he would be promoted captain and given command of the company, which henceforth was known by his name. The men were regarded as his own, and they looked on their captain more or less as a father. A good captain, therefore, devoted himself to the welfare of his men, and was careful to see to their comfort.
That tradition was handed down from generation to generation of 43rd and 52nd officers, and it has been kept alive by companies being distinguished by the name of the captain (or sometimes major). On parade, of course, companies were numbered consecutively, and there is evidence to show that at one time companies were known (off parade) by a permanent number in addition to the captain's name. In the Waterloo Medal Roll the company to which each man belonged is entered by the captain's name. The Roll was compiled in August 1815, but in the Peninsular Medal Rolls, compiled in 1847, in one or two places there appear company numbers, such as "No. 1 Company," "5th Company," etc., which probably resulted from the command of the company having changed hands more than once during the long war. Still, this is proof that numbers were used to distinguish companies in quite early times, and the transition from numbers to letters had taken place certainly before 1840, as company letters are mentioned in a 52nd officer's diary of that date, though coupled with the name of the captain of the company.
Numbers and letters were probably adopted throughout the Army when regimental officers began to seek extra-regimental employment, resulting in frequent changes in the command of companies. The 43rd and 52nd, however, appear to have adhered to the old system for a long while, and when eventually forced to adopt letters, they continued to use the captain's name as well The 43rd wrote "A, or Captain -------'s Company," while the 52nd generally used the form, "Letter A (Captain ---------'s) Company."
In Levinge's Record ofthe 43rd (1868) and in Moorsom's Record of the 52nd there is no mention whatever of a company letter, the captain's name alone being given. This, perhaps, testifies to the fact that the officers of the two Regiments disliked the method of distinguishing companies by letters, and preferred to maintain the tradition that a company belonged to a certain captain, and that it was his own particular little "show," run by him with a measure of independence. This is supported by Standing Orders, for we find in the Standing Orders ofthe 43rd, printed in 1861, and in the Standing Orders of the 52nd, printed in 1862, many Company Forms required to be furnished periodically to the orderly-room, and on none of them is there any suggestion of a company letter, but always " Captain-----------'s Company." But it must be admitted that the use of letters was of much convenience in many ways. Take, for instance, the case of an orderly bugler told to sound for the orderly sergeant of a certain company. Only by a great effort of memory could he carry in his head the name of a captain who commanded a particular company, and distinguish each company by its captain's name. In all probability it was never tried, and from earlier times buglers learned the company calls by distinguishing numbers and letters. The rank and file naturally adopted the same method, and only the officers kept to the old traditional nomenclature.
There is a certain amount of interest connected with these Company Bugle Calls and with the words fitted to them by the men; thus, in the 43rd, for A Company, "Captain Lambert's Company Call"; B Company, "No. 1, No. 2, No. 3"; C, "Away to the Mountain Tops"; D, "You dirty, you dirty, you dirty D"; E, "Success to the Rifle Corps"; F, "Little Joey and I"; G, "There goes Robinson's Call" ; H, "Good-bye, come and have a drink"; K, "To Hell, Brave Boys."
Letter A Company of the 52nd was represented by "I've lost the ball of my old shako"; Letter D by "A B C, and then comes D"; Letter H by "Captain Lambert's Company," This last is curious, as Captain Robert Lambert, of the 43rd (1835-1851), certainly never served in the 52nd, and there is no record of any 52nd Captain Lambert.
The words put to the 52nd Regimental Call are, " Oh, you won't go to Heaven when you die"; and the Orderly-room Call, "That's the place where you get satisfaction—seven days' cells."
One last word about bugle calls : Ever since Peninsular days, the 43rd. the 52nd, and the Rifle Brigade have preserved the Light Division Call as the Officers' Mess Horn, the " Puddings-and-Pies" Call of other regiments being used as the first, or warning, Mess Call.
In the 52nd Mess, grace has been said at dinner every night for a great many years,' and the oldest 52nd officer now living maintains that it was said when he, joined—before the Indian Mutiny. It does not appear, however, to date back to Waterloo times, otherwise some mention of it would certainly have been made by Leeke in his Lord Seaton's Regiment. Leeke, as a matter of fact, does refer to the practice of saying grace before meals, as he held very strong views on the subject; and he describes how, on one occasion, when entertaining some brother officers at his house, he wondered how they would take it when he said grace. If it had been a regular practice in the 52nd Mess at that time (1822), Leeke would not have expected 52nd officers to have shown surprise at his saying grace at his own table. The fact, however, remains, that in the memory of living man grace has always been said at the 52nd mess dinner. Young officers on joining saw nothing peculiar or extraordinary in the practice, since they knew nothing of other messes; and if they had observed that it was a peculiarity of the 52nd, probably they would have been told that 52nd officers regarded their mess as a private house, and the officers as members of the family of the house, and that the saying of grace at dinner was customary in most families. Possibly for the same reason it is customary in the Navy, but we do not know of any other regiment in the Army who has ever adopted it, except, of course, when a clergyman happens to be dining.
This brings us to the matter of Permanent Honorary Members of the Mess. Officers of the three Peninsular Light Division Regiments and the Chestnut Troop, R.H.A., are, and always have been, honorary members of each other's messes. The 43rd have exchanged a similar compliment with the Royal Fusiliers, dating from 1814, when the two Regiments were brigaded together in the New Orleans Campaign, and continued together during the following four years, in the Army of Occupation of France.
Reproduced from the Regimental Chronicle of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry 1914.