24 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 37

Service to be continued

John Colvin

SECOND TO NONE: THE COLDSTREAM GUARDS, 1650-2000 edited by Julian Paget Leo Cooper, £25, pp. 368 Jackie Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilmerstone, remarked that 'the Royal Navy is a service for which the Archangel Gabriel is only just good enough'. The critic Alan Dent, however, believed that it was only with hindsight that his own time (in the RNVR) had seemed agreeable. But both of them regarded the Navy as their 'family', as do the Coldstreamers their regiment, and the seaborne link between the two institutions is provided by those men of the great General Monck's regiment serving in naval vessels, who became the 'parent' of the Royal Marines: 50 of these, under naval command, took New York in 1664.

Monck, although fighting for Cromwell in the New Model Army, in Ireland, Scotland and at sea against the Dutch, restored civil liberties and, after Charles II's restoration, more than maintained law and order in the kingdom's difficult days. In 1670, this regiment became 'His Majesty's Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards', today the oldest regiment of the British Army in continuous service and 'second to none'. The Coldstream thereafter acquired 113 Battle Honours, against the Dutch; in the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession; the `Forty-Five'; the Seven Years War; the first and second world wars; the Cold and Gulf wars; the wars of colonial disengagement (Malaysia, Cyprus, Palestine, Africa); Balkan peace-keeping. All these were matched by the glittering ceremonies known as 'public duties', the pride that sustains those lucky enough to have known it throughout their lives. And the same names occur and recur: Codrington, Forbes, Matheson, Gibbs, Cazenove, Smith, Riley.

The work is delightfully illustrated and, apart froth Paget and Crofton, employs such distinguished historians as Alastair Home and Michael Howard. To review all the campaigns would be mere list-making, but Julian Paget's account of Hougoumont is unforgettable.

Napoleon in June 1815 had escaped from Elba and surprised Wellington at Brussels ('humbugged me, by God!). 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards marched 26 baking miles in 13 hours, arriving at Quatre Bras without shelter or rations, later to fortify in pouring rain the farm of Hougoumont ('we found some gin and wet rye leaves') while Bliicher hurried in from Wavre. Seven devastating French attacks were made under heavy artillery, repulsed finally by Macdonell's famous 'Closing of the Gate' against the French hordes. The farm blazed fiercely, men and horses died, flames licking Christ's hanging statue, as the timbers fell, the cannonade thundered and red-hot sparks started new fires.

But 14,000 Frenchmen were blocked at Hougoumont, frustrating the emperor's main cavalry charges. Waterloo was won. Macdonell ('the bravest man in England') received 1500 from a clergyman: he shared it with Sergeant Graham. Liberty returned to Europe.

Today, Home tells us that in 1991 Army effectives were cut under 'Options for Change' to 100,000 and yet further under Labour. The Territorial Army is slashed to the bone and, by 2000, 'with only 450 main battle tanks, Britain would rank 44th in the world league of armour'. Yet the Government still claims `to be able to send abroad two complete Army Corps'.

But, as Michael Howard observes, 'firstrate soldiers are no less necessary'. This glorious book demonstrates how very lucky we are to have the Coldstream.