●”Dad’s b-day – Gave him beer kit”
●”Went to the Royal Tournament at Earl’s Court – Quite Good!”
It feels peculiar to me to be writing about my Dad’s birthday because we were celebrating his 46th…. 6 years younger than I am now! Where does the bloody time go?
It looks like we had a nice pair of days though. On his actual birthday I gave him a beer making kit which, admittedly, may have had more to do with my own teenage love of alcohol than his grown-up one. As I recall it involved a set of bottles, jugs and a barrel which, whilst the mix fermented, had to be kept safely in the hall closet for fear of it exploding. Nothing like having some kind of unlikely incendiary device in the house is there?
The Royal Tournament was a military pageant held by the combined British Armed Forces. It was first presented in 1880 and ran annually (excepting breaks for wars) until 1999 when its running costs started to outweigh the monies it usually made for charities such as the The British Legion.
It was broadcast by the BBC and every year Mum, Dad and I would sit down and enjoy the spectacle of military bands and troops going through their well-practised routines. I was never a huge fan of the music but the visuals usually impressed me… and remember this was on a little black & white telly!
This year however we decided to see it in person, trekking up to the massive Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre in west London.
There was a reason for the family’s fascination for this annual pageant. One of its undoubted highlights was the Field Gun Competition, a traditional trial of strength and agility which celebrated the 1889 siege of the British garrison in Ladysmith, South Africa during the Second Boer War.
In that long 120 day siege the Royal Navy transported and landed a number of field guns over almost impossible terrain for use against the Boers. One of the many stories involved sailors carrying one of the so-called 12-pounder field guns (which weighed considerably more than their name suggests) 2 miles after one of its wheels collapsed.
After years of merely presenting the guns in a parade, the field gun display evolved, contested by teams from various Royal Navy commands, where each had to transport a 12 pounder field gun – and all its relevant limber – over a series of difficult obstacles. The guns were complete at the start of the race – which is always against the clock – where they were pulled, complete, over a 5 foot wall before being dismantled for transportation across a 28 foot chasm. The pieces and all the crew members were then lifted up on what is known as a “wire and line” and sent across the chasm. The team and equipment are then passed through a hole in a wall – representing enemy territory – before the gun is rebuilt and three rounds are fired off. If that wasn’t enough the whole thing is then reversed.. the gun dismantled, back through the hole, across the chasm and up & over the wall to ‘safety’.
As can be seen from the above video of the competition from 1994, it’s a gruelling test of strength and endurance for the teams taking part and was an event taken very seriously by everyone involved…. which one year – I am very proud to state – included my Dad!
He competed in the Field Gun Competition in 1949 at Olympia, representing the Portsmouth Command in a four-way battle against Devonport Command, Chatham Command and the Naval Air Command. My Dad wasn’t amongst those on the pitch but he was the team’s First Aid officer, a hugely important role in the backroom. During the exhaustive rehearsals he had to treat one bloke who lost the tip off one of his fingers (who nevertheless continued to compete) and another who broke BOTH legs whilst hauling the gun over the wall. (Who I’ll guess didn’t compete that year?!)
A competitor from the Devonport Command suffered a worse fate when the 900lb gun barrel fell off the hook & line and killed him. Yes, despite this, the show still went on.
My Dad tells me they won on two out of the three days events, but that some kind of mistake on the third day cost them the ultimate trophy, with Portsmouth Command ending up second overall.
So, on this day in 1975 he doubtless sat in the arena watching the Field Gun competition with a hint of nostalgia in his mind, remembering his involvement 26 years earlier. I probably sat there cheering on Portsmouth too – perhaps the one and only time I could ever admit to that!
To make matters better/worse Portsmouth won that year!