All guns blazing
Flora Watkins meets the men, women and horses of The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery
The regiment enjoys a warm relationship with the Sovereign
In the airy Victorian Royal Mews at Windsor Castle, tails swish peaceably from the gleaming hindquarters protruding from every stall. There’s no hint of the frenetic activity of a few hours ago, as the men and women of The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery prepared for a visit by The Queen.
‘Her Majesty spent a good hour with us,’ discloses commanding officer Maj Harry Wallace. ‘She’s genuinely interested in everything The King’s Troop does and remarked on how well the horses look, which is a great testament to what my soldiers do.’
When I visited in May, the horses were stabled in the mews for the Royal Windsor Horse Show, where the Troop performs the famous Musical Drive each night—their usual home, since 2012, is a purpose-built barracks in Woolwich, south-east London.
The regiment enjoys a warm relationship with the Sovereign; the ‘King’ of its title refers to George VI. When the last horsedrawn artillery batteries were mechanised after the Second World War, the King requested that one troop—dressed in the traditional manner—be retained, in order to take part in the great ceremonies of State. The first salutes were fired in 1946.
‘We were originally the Riding Troop,’ explains section commander Capt Greg Flynn, ‘but when George VI came on inspection, on October 24, 1947, he crossed out the word “Riding” in the visitors’ book and wrote “King’s” instead.’ On her accession to the throne, The Queen declared it would remain The King’s Troop, in honour of her father.
There’s mounting excitement in anticipation of tonight’s performance. This thrilling piece of equine choreography remains largely unchanged from its first performance in 1897. The complex manoeuvres include the Wagon Wheel and the Scissors, when the six gun teams criss-cross the arena at a gallop.
This will be 20-year-old gunner Jessica Young’s third Windsor, but she admits to having ‘massive butterflies’ beforehand. ‘It’s a mad experience,’ she laughs. ‘I just need to remember to breathe.’
Capt Flynn is trying not to think about the moment when he’ll have to re-mount all 18-plus hands of his charger, Lord Firebrand, or ‘Yogi’, under the glare of the spotlights after the firing of the gun (no leg-up allowed). He texts me the following day to say all went well. The Drive ends with the nail-biting gallop out of the arena. Timing is everything, with each of the six-horse gun teams pulling a 13-pounder field gun weighing 1½ tonnes.
Maj Wallace confesses to pulling rank when it came to the salute marking the birth of Prince Louis in April. ‘Leading the charge from the top of Hyde Park was very much the commanding officer’s privilege,’ he recalls. ‘I think it was one of the fastest gallops they’d seen in a while—that probably came from having ridden in a point-to-point a couple of days earlier.’
Maj Wallace is an accomplished amateur jockey, who has won both the Royal Artillery Gold Cup and the Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown. He’s using his tour as commanding officer to increase the number
‘I think the charge from the top of Hyde Park was one of the fastest they’d seen’
of new recruits who can already ride when they join (many can’t). ‘It’s very niche, very technical, to ride and drive with a tonneand-a-half of gun,’ he explains.
He’s keen to see applications from young people who are confident in the saddle and, to this end, sent Troop instructors to Pony Club camps and horse shows over the summer. His regiment, he stresses, offers wonderful opportunities, with soldiers encouraged to compete in a range of disciplines on Troop horses—because, ‘ultimately, it’s making them better riders to deliver their state ceremonial role’.
In the centenary year of the Armistice, it’s extraordinary to think that these guns, originally used on the Western Front, are still firing. There will be particular poignancy for the Troop when it fires the guns to mark the beginning and end of the twominute’s silence on November 11.
Away from the pomp and circumstance, the King’s Troop is on permanent standby for Operation Temperer, supporting the police in the event of a terrorist attack. Within only a few hours of the Manchester Arena attack last year, Troop soldiers were deployed around Downing Street and Horse Guards in case of further strikes.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, ‘we had the ability to roll in as logistics,’ explains Capt Flynn. ‘The troopers are all trained soldiers, so they can go and pick up a rifle and become infanteers, if needed.’
As Capt Flynn claps a hand affectionately on Lord Firebrand’s glossy neck, he muses on the appeal of The King’s Troop. There’s the fun and excitement of the Musical Drive, the honour of trotting down The Mall for The Queen’s Birthday Parade, but, ultimately, he concludes, it’s about the horses. ‘In my last regiment, we looked after the kit, but you don’t get emotive about a gun or a missile system in the way people do about the horses.’
The King’s Troop will be appearing in the Lord Mayor’s Parade in London (November 10) and in Remembrance Sunday commemorations, as well as performing the salute for The Prince of Wales’s birthday (November 14) Those interested in joining the regiment should visit https://apply.army.mod.uk For information on history and events, visit www.thekingstrooprhaass.co.uk
Above: No State occasion is complete without a salute. Facing page: Standards are as high today as when George VI named the Troop
Seventy years of royal admiration: The Queen inspects the Troop on its anniversary in 2017