Stephen Coan
4 minute read
13 Dec 2013

Enduring with honour

Stephen Coan

SPARE a thought for the four guards of honour standing vigil, their heads bowed, one at each corner of Nelson Mandela’s catafalque for one-hour watches, as people pay their last respects...

SPARE a thought for the four guards of honour standing vigil, their heads bowed, one at each corner of Nelson Mandela’s catafalque for one-hour watches, as people pay their last respects.

Standing still for an hour might not seem a particularly onerous task, but it throws up an especial and unusual challenge due to the potentially hypnotic effect of seemingly endless feet passing through one’s area of visual focus.

Major-General David Tabor, who stood vigil at the lying in state of George VI of England in 1952, was aware of this phenomenon, and when his son, Lieutenant-Colonel Paddy Tabor, performed the same role for the king’s widow, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, half a century later in 2002, he advised his son: “Don’t watch the feet of passers-by while standing with your head bowed. Sooner or later you will be mesmerised by the feet and fall over.”

The demanding nature of the duty is detailed in a short story by Rudyard Kipling concerning another royal lying in state, that of Edward VII in 1910.

The story, titled In the Presence, is told from the point of view of a Sikh soldier, a Havildar-Major, who happens to be accompanying the colonel of his regiment on a visit to England at the time “when the King — the Great Queen’s son — completed his life”.

When back with his regiment in India, the Havildar-Major describes to his colleagues how the king’s body was “laid, coffined, in a certain Temple which is near the river. There are no idols in that Temple; neither any carvings, nor paintings, nor gildings. It is all grey stone of one colour as though it were cut out of live rock … In that place … they made, as it were, a shrine for a saint … and duly appointed watchers for every hour of the day and night, until the dead King should be taken to the place of his fathers, which is at Wanidza [Windsor].”

Once all was prepared, the doors were opened and “all the world entered”, including the Havildar-Major, to pay their respects. “When we entered the Temple, the coffin itself was as a shoal in the Ravi River, splitting the stream into two branches, one on either side of the Dead; and the watchers of the dead, who were soldiers, stood about It, moving no more than the still flame of the candles. Their heads were bowed; the hands were clasped; their eyes were cast upon the ground —thus. They were not men, but images, and the multitude went past them in fours by day, and except for a little while, by night also.”

Among the soldiers taking part in the vigil were four Gurkhas, members of the royal bodyguard and representing the Indian army. “It was their honour and right to furnish one who should stand in the Presence by day and by night till It went out to burial.”

While the authorities could draw on “all the armies in England” for the other three guards, the Gurkhas, being only four, had to stand “one hour’s guard in every four … and the honour of Our Armies in Hind was upon their heads.”

The British soldiers “could not endure the full hour’s guard in the Presence”.

According to an officer “the full hour’s watch breaks up our men like water … our men come trembling and twitching off that guard”.

However the four Gurkhas, mindful of the honour of the Armies of Hind, continued to “suffer the full hour”.

The same officer asked the four to explain why soldiers were finding the vigil such a problem.

“The burden is the feet of the multitude that pass us on either side,” he was told.

“Our eyes being lowered and fixed, we see feet only from the knee down — a river of feet, Sahib, that never — never — never stops. It is not the standing without any motion; it is not hunger; nor is it the dead part before the dawn when maybe a single one comes here to weep. It is the burden of the unendurable procession of feet from the knee down, that never — never — never stops!”

“Is it great suffering?”

They said: “It is great honour. We will endure.”

“They endured the burden until the end,” says the Havildar-Major, and when the vigil was over they ate a hearty meal and then slept for many hours. Only then “the procession of the unendurable feet ceased to pass before their eyes.”