I was the RSM of 2UDR. It was early 1977 and the battalion had been taking casualties almost constantly for the past twelve months. The situation was worsening, It was a time when most people looked to each other and thought to themselves 'who's next'.
The ceremonial aspect of the regimental funerals was my responsibility. This was little or no problem as far as the funeral drills and associated actions were concerned, but there was a unique problem concerning the next of kin and the grieving family.
That problem was the lot of the adjutant to sort out. We were caught off guard on a few occasions when the family would announce that they wanted a 'private affair' and no military whatever to attend. It was high policy stuff and we had to be very careful not to offend, nor say or do the wrong thing. The funerals whether civilian or military were high profile affairs in the media, not only in Northern Ireland but also the mainland. A brace of brigadiers and often the GOC would attend the funerals; quite hairy stuff.
After the sad shooting of a young soldier at the border checkpoint in Middletown the family would have nothing to say to us. They were insistent that the funeral was to be strictly private.
During the evening before the funeral at about 9pm they asked for the 'works': A full ceremonial funeral, firing party, a lone piper playing 'the lament' and a full shoulder carry from the home to the cemetery two miles away' all to led by the Regimental pipe band. The carry alone would entail about twenty soldiers, and with all the drills of shoulder changing. To cap it all they wanted the internment in a solid rock grave which was available by arrangement in that particular family graveyard. The Royal Engineers got the grave done two hours after first light on the morning of the funeral. We never asked them how?
This last minute stuff happened to us twice. So very determined not to get caught out again I decided to have a private little funeral squad of about ten of the ex regular soldiers in the regiment, and to drill them about once each week in the gymnasium. Some of these soldiers were in their forties and older than me.
When the drills started, I could sense a cold feeling between them and me. Nothing was said but it became obvious that they objected to slow marching the gym with a step ladder for a coffin and a lone drummer beating the slow march.
Then one morning my funeral party pulled a 'little mutiny' on me. The older soldier acted as spokesman. He glared at me through deep sullen eyes for a long moment before he spoke,
"Surr yous tempting providence on us all, sure you's are" "you'll be the death of us all, you will surely"
All the others stood around him in silence in a half circle, looking at me for reaction and nodding in complete agreement with what was being said.
The spokesman went on; "We'll have no more of it surr, surely, we won't now"
I said nothing. I fell them out, put away the stepladder and went away for a long think.
Over the past six months there had been some 'clangers' on the funerals. On one I had to keep walking past the carrying party pulling the skirts of their tunics down over illegal pistols that were showing at their trouser waist bands. On another occasion in the Cathedral in Armagh a C/sgt went to kneel down and his 9mm pistol crashed loudly across the stone floor in front of the alter for all to see. It was a time when one could lose ones name quite easily, funerals give me the creeps.
I thought about the little mutiny and thought that the Irish temperament could be worked on here with my present problem. The Irish are the salt of Gods earth when there is a problem. They also have a very keen sense of humour. I decided to appeal to both.
I formed them up a few days later, without stepladder or drummer. I sat them down for a smoke.
"Now listen fellers, we are having it quite bad around here lately. Some of your mates are gone on already. (I named a few) "You all have to agree that we saw them off in fine style. Now who's next for the chop? it could be anyone? Perhaps it's going to be me? I'm out every night visiting patrols…Do you think I want a scruffy rag and bone bloody funeral?
"There was silence for a moment then a few of them started to laugh. Then we all laughed and got on with it.
HD RRW RSM 2UDR