This week, thousands of English people are rushing, facing miles of queuing in the heart of London, and hours of waiting in the rain, to pay their last respects to their beloved queen.
From Wednesday September 14 until the day of the funeral, Monday September 19, the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II is exposed, covered with the royal flag and the imperial crown, under the vaults of Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the building housing the British Parliament.
To watch over the monarch’s body, an extraordinary device has been put in place. Military units surround the coffin at all times, impassive. Thursday night, one of the royal guards, from the royal company of Archers, suddenly collapsed, seized with discomfort, during his relief. The scene, filmed live by the BBC, did not fail to shock.
But such an accident is not uncommon among these soldiers like no other.
With their long fur hat and recognizable carmine red jacket, the Royal Guards are an emblem of the monarchy, and have protected monuments such as Buckingham Palace since 1660.
But they are not the only soldiers assigned to the service of the British monarchy.
“The Royal Guard is a generic name that brings together different regiments of infantry and cavalry. “Royal Guard” or “Her Majesty’s Guard” or “Queen’s (or King’s) Guard” are terms that are often heard, but do not correspond to any real regiment. Several regiments can assign their officers to guard duties,” explains Nicolas Martin Fontaine, historian and founder of the Histoires royales site.
The different regiments that make up the “Royal Guard” are actually grouped together under the name Household Division. “It has five infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments,” says the specialist.
Among them are the (Welsh) Welsh Guards who wear the famous red and black uniform. But there are also the Scots Guards (Scottish, like the soldier who collapsed at Westminster), the Irish Guards (Irish), the Grenardiers Guards and the Coldstream Guards, whose uniform is more “classic”.
The fact remains that their role is very specific, strictly supervised, and requires a lot of skills…
“Their main mission is to monitor royal residences throughout the United Kingdom and to participate in ceremonial or festive events that involve the royal family”, explains Nicolas Martin Fontaine.
These soldiers with special status, who must stand still for long hours, are not recruited by chance by the Crown.
“You have to join the British Army first,” notes the historian. So, be a British, Commonwealth citizen, or have been a resident of the UK for at least 5 years.
Depending on age, physical performance, tests and other criteria, soldiers from the five infantry regiments and those from the two cavalry regiments of the Household Division are chosen to guard the royal residences.
This is followed by 30 weeks of intense training, and infantry combat courses in Catterick
Once in post, the challenges are many for the guards of the Household Division. Soldiers have to stand for long hours. “From 6 to 8 hours before the changing of their guard” notes the historian.
The job is, in any case, extremely demanding, both physically and mentally.
For the specialist, “staying up for long hours is much more complicated than one can imagine”. Especially since some guards also have a directive function, and must be able to make decisions, or give orders, if a specific situation arises. “It’s not just for show. Their role is also operational”, notes Nicolas Martin Fontaine.
It also takes a mind of steel to exercise this function, considered, moreover, as extremely prestigious across the Channel.
“The guard has to stay focused, regardless of external elements like heat or rain. Concentration and discipline are two qualities necessary to perform this function correctly”, explains the historian.
The daily life and private life of soldiers is also punctuated by their role. Most live in barracks, where they are fed and whitewashed. “Some can live in a house made available by the army, and very often they are therefore separated from their families for the time of their mission”, also states Nicolas Martin Fontaine.
If it happens that some foreign tourists do not care, or even try to destabilize them (without effect), the guards of the Household Division, are widely respected by the British.
Like all soldiers, they receive a salary in proportion to their seniority in the army. According to the historian, the average annual salary of a soldier in the United Kingdom is 19,000 pounds sterling on average (21,703 euros), and that of an officer generally exceeds 28,000 pounds (31,984 euros).