By Sudhir K Arora
1910 was the first time ever that a British Sovereign lay-in-state in Westminster Hall, with the public allowed to file past to pay their respects. And braves of The Garhwal Rifles Regiment were there!
The live feed of thousands of people from all walks of life solemnly walking past the catafalque (raised platform) bearing the coffin in which Queen Elizabeth II lies in state has by now been beamed into literally hundreds of millions of houses around the world. The long queues of mourners filing past on both sides of the platform, dividing as a stream flows around an island and then coming together, comprise people from all walks of life.
What is most striking is the sight of the late Queen’s coffin upon the catafalque, draped with the Royal Standard, upon which is placed the Imperial Crown, a wreath of roses and dahlias, and the Sovereign’s Sceptre and Orb. On each corner of the platform stand soldiers from the regiments comprising the Royal Household Guard. Each soldier stands clad in full dress uniform, head bowed, eyes on the floor, perfectly still – standing ‘Vigil’, 24 x 7, as long as the Queen lies in state.
This solemn ceremony brings to mind the first time ever a departed British Sovereign – King Edward VII – lay in state in the imposing Westminster Hall. On the demise of King Edward VII in 1910, his successor King George V decreed that the populace be permitted to pay their respects to their late King (earlier, lying-in-state was a more private ritual, open only to a select few – mostly royals, the aristocracy and other VIPs).
In those days, there was a tradition of appointing King’s Indian Orderly Officers who performed ceremonial duties in the Court, usually for a year. In 1910, Garhwali Officers Subedar Baij Singh Rawat and Subedar Bude Singh Negi (of the First and Second Battalions, respectively) of The Garhwal Rifles Regiment had been selected as two of the four King’s Indian Orderly Officers (the other two were one Gorkha Officer, each, from the 2nd and the 3rd Gorkhas). On the King’s demise, they asked that they too be allowed to mount guard at the ‘Vigil’ along with those traditionally charged with this duty: the Royal Gentlemen-at-Arms, the Royal Company of Archers and officers of the various Guards regiments. Permission was granted.
Thus it came to be that one Indian Orderly Officer came to stand at a corner of the catafalque, with three Grenadier Guards at the other corners. Initially, each soldier on ‘vigil’ stood duty for an hour, to be ceremonially replaced by his ‘reliever’. As the Garhwal Rifles record, drawing upon Rudyard Kipling, states, “The guards were at first relieved every hour but the men came off duty exhausted by the rigid immobility and distressed by a nervous twitching of the eyes: they had to watch the feet of the crowds walking by, step by step, in twos. It was arranged that the British guard should be relieved every half an hour or so; even so, they found the vigil an ordeal and each Grenadier did it only once; there were plenty to draw on. But the Indian Army had only these four and they agreed that they would stand guard each for a full hour, with three hours off. They could not in that short interval cook but took water and parched grain… The time drew near when the coffin was to be moved to Windsor and it was decided that they must themselves take to Windsor the wreath bought on behalf of the Indian Army and that there must be a befitting escort. Three would go and one would stand guard. The youngest took the watch for four hours at a stretch, while eight British guards were mounted and relieved. When the coffin had gone to Windsor, they ate and slept, and after a time their eyes ceased to twitch and they no longer saw feet trudging interminably past.”
As a mark of recognition of their feat, these officers were awarded the Silver Medal of the Royal Victorian Order.
This feat of devotion to duty that epitomises the spirit of the Indian Army soldier has been immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his delightful short story ‘In the Presence’ (1912). An interesting aside is that Kipling confused the Garhwalis with Gorkhas – probably because both wore the same rifle green uniform, pouch belt and head gear as can be seen from the photograph! Kipling was graceful enough to admit to this error, and his letter acknowledging it forms part of the Regimental archives. It must be remembered that the Garhwal Rifles in 1910 was a very young regiment then (just about 23 years old) and they were yet to imprint themselves on the national consciousness as they indelibly did in World War I and all actions they have fought since.
As Kipling says, the Vigil was kept for ‘the honour of all the Armies of Hind’!
(Sudhir Arora is a Dehradun based publisher, editor and military historian. He can be reached at email@example.com)
Photo 1: The Vigil 1910