It's a rare honour for soldiers to be allowed to march through the City of London bayonets fixed. Kurt Barling watched an ancient custom and assesses the relevance of the military pageant.
By BBC London's Special Correspondent, Kurt Barling
When two very different worlds collide it can be an unnerving, uplifting and bewildering experience; probably all at the same time.
The military and civilian worlds are mostly segregated in our city. Much has been made recently of soldiers in uniform in other parts of the country being made less than welcome in their home towns. Antipathy towards the role of the British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq has fuelled displays of resentment towards individual soldiers.
Of course, London is accustomed to pageantry and real soldiers partake in it every day at royal venues but that somehow feels different. Lenny Henry once cracked a joke about the Royal Household being 'right on' because they were happy for black men with loaded guns to be seen on the premises. But even that doesn't get away from the fact that soldiers performing ceremonial duties are not on active service.
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers on duty
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
Gathered at Tower Hill last week, over 300 regulars from the Second Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers fell into formation before setting of on the march of a few miles to the seat of ancient power of the City of London, the Guildhall.
If you closed your eyes as the battalion was led off by the regimental band you could almost imagine the march of soldiers to battle in the wars of American independence with penny whistles, flutes and drums.
But let's not beat around the bush. This battalion is recently battle-hardened. They were amongst the first deployed to the Middle East. They have had six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past two and a half years. They have lost soldiers in engagements in Helmand Province fighting the Taliban. Two amongst their ranks hold the George Medal for bravery.
One, drummer Andy Barlow, showed no hint of having lost his leg in the skirmish where he saved one colleagues life and watched another die in his arms after wandering into a minefield in Afghanistan. The George Medal is the second highest award for gallantry, surpassed only by the Victoria Cross. Drummer Barlow remains proud of his colleagues and is a recruitment officer in the North of England.
The public reception
There will be many who disagree with the engagement of British forces in the Middle East so I was curious to see how these soldiers would be received as they marched through the City's streets. Some of the soldiers would have undoubtedly had the same feelings.
As the Battalion approached the City from the East, marching in front of the Tower of London the crowds started to line the streets. Young children excited about the marching band, older people curious about what was bringing the traffic to a complete standstill.
Commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Merriman headed to the front of his troops, sword aloft to negotiate with the City Marshall, sword also at the ready, at the entrance to the city on Byward Street. This is the pageantry bit.
"Who goes there?" cries the City Marshall (the Lord Mayor's right hand man) on horseback. "The Second Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, we have come to exercise our ancient right to march into the City of London with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed," comes back the insistent response from Merriman.
After much kissing of swords the procession moves on into Great Tower Street. Almost immediately the mood changes from pageantry to something seemingly very ordinary. The pavements lined with City workers, some bemused by the spectacle, suddenly burst into spontaneous applause. Shouts of; "well done lads" and "good job boys" reminds us that the soldiers are actually here for a purpose.
The Lord Mayor, Alderman David Lewis, issued a statement saying "We in the City would like to thank this Regiment for their skill, dedication and bravery. The Fusiliers were the first regiment into Iraq, fought the longest battle in Afghanistan and had more service in Northern Ireland than any other regiment. Welcome home."
'Help for Heroes'
There was a sense of real respect from workers who are in the midst of their own battles at the moment to weather the financial troubles besetting their institutions. Some no doubt will lose their livelihoods.
The procession was followed by buckets to raise money and awareness of the forces charity 'Help for Heroes.' This Regiment itself suffered many casualties who will need long term care on its recent tour of duty. At the end of the March, I'm told, the buckets were full of contributions.
The Freedom of the City of London Parade is a rare honour. For over three hundred years its only been offered to six regiments with strong London links. And it's a curious thing but on the day it didn't feel out of place and nor did many of those civilians watching seem to think so.
A morale booster
Perhaps no-one dared to complain (the soldiers had fixed bayonets after all!), but there was no sense of antipathy from Londoners along Eastcheap, up King William Street and in front of the Bank of England and along Cheapside into the Guildhall.
As far as these soldiers were concerned it was an opportunity to gauge how valued they are by civilians for the difficult job they do. Despite military decorum there were plenty of smiles on the faces of the young men and women of the Regiment. It was something their commanding officer suggested will boost morale and stay with them for a lifetime.
The Second Battalion is due back in active service in 2009 in the meantime they will continue ceremonial duties which have included guarding Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.
last updated: 30/09/2008 at 16:33