Mutiny in the ranks sours regimental reunion

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The Independent Online
The issue of whether wives can accompany a dwindling number of Second World War veterans to a reunion lunch has led to something resembling a mutiny in the ranks. Jojo Moyes charts a peculiarly English battle.

Next Thursday will see the annual reunion of the First Household Cavalry Regiment. Usually, these gatherings are occasions for solidarity and goodwill. But this year it has become the unlikely battleground for a bad-tempered dispute between the Duke of Wellington and his old soldiers.

For the past 50 years, veterans from the Household Cavalry who served before or during the Second World War have been meeting at an annual reunion at Hyde Park Barracks in London. Due to their age, numbers have inevitably dwindled, to the point where there was a question over the event's future.

Charles Farrow is a 78-year-old former Royal Horse Guards trooper from Sussex, who spends his retirement "riding a 3.5 litre V8 engine tricycle which terrifies small children, old ladies, horses and myself". At last year's event, he proposed including wives and siblings (and, optimistically, "live-in-lovers'), who had previously been allowed entry to the barracks, but had to wait for the men in a separate room.

His idea says Mr Farrow, received the "overwhelming support" of all the soldiers present. But following this decision, the regiment's president, the Duke of Wellington, ignored the soldiers and reinstated the embargo on women.

The ensuing battle took place not in the trenches, but via the Post Office. The exchange of correspondence has left Mr Farrow accusing the Duke of still behaving as if the men were his subordinates. Meanwhile, the exasperated representatives of the Duke have suggested that the "confounded" Mr Farrow stay away.

The dispute began in February, when Mr Farrow wrote to the regiment's dining club asking why "such a small change had been vetoed - I have always felt that it was humiliating, especially for wives, to have to sit alone in the bar waiting for their menfolk to conclude their celebration".

The refusal, he claimed, could not be on security grounds, as women were allowed to wait in the barracks, nor could it be a case of sexual discrimination "as this would be against the law".

In June, the Duke replied, saying: "I am not prepared to countenance any alterations to the arrangements already made for this year's luncheon." He took "great exception" that Mr Farrow should consider raising "a domestic and private matter" with the press, and asked him to desist.

Mr Farrow considered the Duke to be pulling rank, and offered a swift counter-attack. "May I point out that it is now more than 50 years since any of our surviving members were subject to the rules and regulations of the British Army ... The fact that you seem determined to ignore is that an unelected cabal of just three men have seen fit to arbitrarily reverse the democratically expressed wish of our members," he replied.

For the Duke's representatives, this may have been seen as something close to mutiny. On 31 July, Mr Farrow received a letter from the club's assistant secretary: "Dear Farrow (sic), Since our last reunion dinner you have proved to be a confounded nuisance. I have had enough! If you do not like what is on offer, the best option you have open to you is to stay away. Yours very, very truly ..."

Mr Farrow did not buckle. Here was a man, after all, who had been "chased all over the Western Desert by Rommel", and wounded in Normandy.

"The tone and content of the letter that I have just received from you really worries me. I cannot help but think that you are losing your grip on things and I am truly sorry if the strain is proving too much for you," he replied. "One would have thought that, after 50 years, those of us that survive, from top to bottom, could think of themselves as a unified band of old warriors - comrades. Bound only by friendship and no longer restricted by rank. But it just ain't so."

Despite the unpleasant tone of the correspondence, Mr Farrow said yesterday that there may be hope for a truce. He had just received a "communication" informing guests at the lunch that there would be a discussion on one item - whether wives should be allowed to attend future reunions.

"I consider that I may have won the battle but not the war," Mr Farrow said yesterday. "In the meantime, another year will have gone by where the wives cannot attend, and there will be even fewer of us left."