Obituary: Lt-Col Sir Martin Gilliat

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The Independent Online
Martin John Gilliat, soldier and courtier: born 8 February 1913; MBE 1946; Deputy Military Secretary to the Viceroy and Governor-General of India 1947-48; Comptroller to the Commissioner-General for the UK in South-East Asia 1948-51; Military Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia 1953-55; CVO 1954, KCVO 1962, GCVO 1981; Private Secretary to the Queen Mother 1956-93; Vice-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire 1971-86; died 27 May 1993.

MARTIN GILLIAT was one of the Royal Household's most efficient and also most popular members. For nearly 40 years he was the devoted Private Secretary and Equerry to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and shared in all the facets of her varied life - the solemn functions as well as the numerous lighter occasions to which the Queen Mother has brought her special gift of enjoyment.

He arrived at Clarence House when the Queen Mother was becoming attuned to the life of a royal widow (the King had died three years previously) and played a major part in assisting her to carve out a role which has made her, over the years, perhaps the most loved person in the Western world. He shared his mistress's love of people and the enjoyment that she infused into all her activities, which he both echoed and enhanced. Like her, he took a genuine interest in the lives and doings of all with whom he came into contact and made them feel that they were important to him. He made no distinction between old and young, rich and poor, high and low, white and coloured. He thought the best of everyone - someone said of him, 'All Martin's geese are swans' - and treated them all alike. Although he claimed no academic distinction, his generosity and experience of life enabled him to draft many speeches in which Queen Elizabeth could give expression to her humanity. He was a man of simple faith, deeply held, and a regular worshipper at the Chapel Royal.

Martin Gilliat was born in 1913, the second son of Lt-Col John Gilliat DSO, the descendant of a distinguished Huguenot family. He was educated at Ludgrove and Eton, in the house of CHK Marten (later Provost) and JHL Lambart (later Vice-Provost), for both of whom he had an unqualified admiration. Among his contemporaries were Martin Charteris, later Private Secretary to the Queen (now Lord Charteris of Amisfield), William Douglas-Home, the playwright, and Brian Johnston, the cricket commentator. Throughout his life, he maintained an unquenchable loyalty to the school, of which he was proud to wear the Old Boys' tie as well as that of the Eton Ramblers, to which his engaging personality rather than any outstanding ability as a cricketer secured his unquestioned election.

After passing through Sandhurst, Gilliat was commissioned into the King's Royal Rifle Corps (the 60th Rifles) in 1933 and served in Northern Ireland and Palestine. In May 1940 he was captured by the Germans with the rest of his battalion in Calais and after twice slipping away from the column being marched into captivity was each time recaptured. During the five years of imprisonment in various oflags which followed, Gilliat made several further attempts to escape, twice being at large for some days before being recaptured when within walking distance of freedom. As 'a persistent escaper' he was then sent to Colditz, where he played a large part in maintaining the morale of his fellow-prisoners and was elected as their Adjutant. For his services in the war he was mentioned in despatches and appointed MBE. His experiences as a POW remained vividly in his memory, though he was always reluctant to speak of them.

On his return he rejoined his regiment and, after a short spell in the Mediterranean, he was appointed successively Deputy Military Secretary to the Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, and Comptroller to Malcolm Macdonald, High Commissioner for South-East Asia. While in Delhi, he was shot and wounded in the neck and his Sikh driver was killed in an ambush. In 1953 he became Military Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia, Field Marshal Sir William (later Viscount) Slim. His friendliness and approachability won him many Australian friends. The successful discharge of his duties in all these appointments made him an obvious choice to succeed Oliver Dawnay as Private Secretary to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1956, an appointment which he was to hold (after a year as Assistant Private Secretary) for the next 37 years.

While single-mindedly carrying out his duty of attending on the Queen Mother and dealing with the many requests that she received from all parts of the Commonwealth, he never failed to keep his personal friendships in good repair. The catholicity of these - alike with both sexes - perhaps kept him from marrying, but there can be few men who have commanded greater affection from friends of all ages. He was equally at ease with the Benchers of the Middle Temple (they made him an Honorary Bencher in 1977) as with visiting Australian Test teams or the schoolboys whom Queen Elizabeth used to ask to tea at Royal Lodge and whom he paired with distinguished guests like Lord Hailsham or Sir Nicholas Henderson for croquet matches.

The sport in which he shared a passionate interest with his 'employer' was racing - in particular, steeplechasing. He not only encouraged Queen Elizabeth in the purchase of jumpers, but eventually became an owner on his own account. He was a familiar figure at Sandown, Newbury and Cheltenham, field-glasses in one hand and race-card in the other, slightly bent and in a floppy fedora; popular with owners, trainers, jockeys and bookmakers alike.

He also had an abiding interest in the theatre, to which he gave expression by backing productions as an 'angel' with the mixed success that such ventures entail. It did, however, give him an entry into the closed world of the theatre and nothing gave him greater pleasure than taking the Queen Mother to a play.

Although some 20 years beyond the normal retiring age for a courtier, Martin Gilliat died in office having been persuaded that if his employer, who was 13 years older than he, could continue so could he. But with declining health he had laid tracks to retire by buying a flat for himself in Belgravia, in which he had spent only two nights before he fell seriously ill with a cancer, which killed him within a few weeks.

(Photograph omitted)