Saturday night was a wonderful event and will be handed down to posterity as a great national occasion and ceremony and yet there was a welcome lack of ceremonial or stiffness.
On arrival at the Houses of Parliament the crowds had to be controlled by Cavalry, Mounted Police and Foot Police plus British Legion Stewards. After eventually crawling inside, lucky if all one's buttons and clothing was intact, we were met at the House of Lords by Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey - the Prince's Equerry. We next went into the Peers' Gallery and were issued with a menu card which was magnificently done up and a treasure for all time. I shall let you see it when I come back. I sat on the Throne, Woolsack and all the Scottish Peers' seats.
At 8 p.m. a big burly sergeant-major looking individual in evening dress complete with red tunic, announced that his Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was waiting to receive us, so we moved off in single file to be announced by Robin Red Breast. I shook hands with the Prince telling him how delighted I was and privileged to dine with him again and he said "Let me see Lyall, the last time we met was 10 years ago, wasn't it, and 11 years since we dined together at Valenciennes in Belgium", "I hope you will enjoy yourself tonight". I assured him I would, and then passed into the Royal Gallery. Before passing on and whilst waiting for the others to come in, I observed all therein and probably you will be interested to hear about this wonderful Banqueting Hall. Along the back wall is a magnificant oil painting of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. All around the walls are oil paintings of past monarchs with the present King and Queen at the extreme end between which is a great archway under which was a huge Victoria Cross made of poppies & leaves by the Disabled ex-Servicemen.
'My Lords & Gentlemen': Our M.C. again appeared and announced "His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, Your Chairman", who came in amidst a loud outburst of cheering to the strains of "God Bless The Prince of Wales". After Grace was said we started to dine. Half way through the dinner the Prince proposed the Toast to His Majesty and at the same time read out a reply from him in answer to one we had sent him earlier in the day. A little later Jellicoe proposed the Toast of H.M. The Queen, The Prince of Wales, and all members of the Royal Family, where upon I can't understand how the roof remained on because we did our damndest to lift it and I am sure the Prince was deeply moved.
Then Jellicoe read an appeal by the British Legion which with our consent was to be signed by each V.C. present taking the form of an urgent appeal for funds to help all ex-servicemen, widows and orphans in distress, and for employers to find employment for 800,000 men who fought for the security of our homes and are still without a job. This was received naturally, unanimously.
Then came the Toast of the Evening by H.R.H. - "Our Guests". It was most inspiring, occasionally with a touch of humour, and by far the best speech he has ever delivered. It seems a tragedy that such an eloquent speech by Britain's Greatest Ambassador she has ever possessed was not broadcast all over the Empire - it was indeed worthy of such. He delivered it extemporary, cool, slow, deliberate and in a clear English accent, typical of the King's English. The reception of his speech was cheered and cheered for at least ten minutes ending in "God Bless the Prince of Wales" and "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
The replies by: Commander Auten for the Navy was short and to the point.
The dinner was brought to a close by the Prince signing a few autograph albums and I received same on the front of my menu card.
On leaving, the Prince presented us each with a copy of the new Legion Book and we tried to get away from the House of Lords quetly, but to our amazement the crowds outside were nearly as large as when we arrived. However, after a struggle we got through - it reminded one of going over the top at zero hour.
On Monday, 11th November, we reported at the Wellington Barracks where R.E. V.C.'s consisting of General Aylmer, General Kirby, Colonel Colvin, Major Waters, Captain Knox, and myself were photographed separately. After a bit of arranging, falling in etc., the Guards massed Bands led the procession of V.C.'s, Life Guards, Guards Regiments, Artillery, ex-Servicemen, and Nurses, in this order, out into Bird Cage Walk, thence The Mall, Admiralty Arch, down Whitehall to the Cenotaph. Our V.C.'s column leading, was given a terrific reception as only London crowds can - we halted right in front of the Cenotaph facing towards Westminster. Subsequently, Ministers of State, Consuls and Ambassadors took up their position facing the War Office each laying a wreath on the side of the memorial. Next came the Queen and Home Secretary along with Princess Mary and the Duchess of York who went up to a balcony looking right down on the cenotaph. Next the Bishop of London, satellites and choir. Now the Prince of Wales with a wreath from The King and Queen and Royal Family followed by the Dukes of York and Gloucester and Prince Arthur of Connaught, several Admirals, Field Marshalls, Generals, Sir Hugh Trenchard and Lord Byng. Immediately a gun boomed forth and Big Ben commenced to chime whereupon everyone came to the General Salute and stood at attention with heads bare whilst Big Ben struck eleven, ringing out in the cold still air like death. At the end of two minutes the Buglers played the Last Post which was magnificent, just like a single bugle call - a short service and Reveille followed by the National Anthem. Our column again received the honour to lead, and after we had placed a huge Victoria Cross next to the King's wreath on the Cenotaph we marched back to The Mall and barracks. Here Lord Jellicoe took the salute and we dismissed. I must say it was a great honour for us to participate in such a glorious and dignified impressive ceremony. We also had a detachment at Westminster Abbey where another duplicate wreath was placed on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.
In the evening we arrived at the Albert Hall for the Remembrance Festival and when we marched into this huge arena what a welcome we received. This affair was a magnificently staged pageant representing Britannia and all outposts of our Empire - every branch of the Services being represented. After the musical programme, the interval arrived and H.R.H. The Prince, Patron of the Legion, entered with Jellicoe. Really, I never saw or heard the like of the welcome given him and it was fifteen minutes before the poor lad could start his speech. He delivered his address eloquently to the delight of all and then walked along the passage and centre of the ground floor up an avenue between the VCs and believe me we didn't forget to let him hear us even above the cheers of the thousands of others assembled. He eventually arrived in the Royal Box behind us and after community singing, rendering all the old war time songs, we had portrayed before us a 'Field of Remembrance' exhibition taking the form of the late Colonel McCrae's "In Flanders Fields". This was followed by a shower of poppies, one for every British life lost in the war which made one's blood run cold at the memory of the loss of our brave heroes and comrades who laid down their lives that we might live. After the National Anthem we dispersed to our respective hotels, some embarking on the midnight train for home.
Oh! what a weekend, one which will be handed down to posterity as an eminently historical chapter of ceremonies made possible at the thought of our beloved Prince.
|Yours very sincerely,
Graham Lyall. Major, Royal Engineers