bearskin hats

One of the regular features of Trooping the Colour which takes place next Saturday on Horse Guards Parade is the playing of the “The British Grenadiers” – the signature marching song of the Grenadier Guards…

Some talk of Alexander,
And some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander,
And such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes,
There’s none that can compare
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row,
To the British Grenadier.

The tune first appeared in the 17th century in the Netherlands as “Mars van de jonge Prins van Friesland” ("March of the young Prince of Friesland). Although it is now associated with the Grenadier Guards this traditional song is also used at Trooping of the Colour by other British and Commonwealth army units whose badge features the grenade. These include the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers, The Royal Gibraltar Regiment and The Canadian Grenadier Guards. At the Trooping of the Colour on Saturday it will the turn of the Coldstream Guards to parade their flag to it.

Those of us living on the fringes of Hounslow Heath have rubbed shoulders with the Grenadier Guards, historically speaking. On 29th June 1678 the diarist John Evelyn was travelling across the Heath from Windsor to his home in London when he saw a large and well appointed army camped there…

John Evelyn

‘His Majesty and a world of company were in the field, and the whole armie in battalia, a very glorious sight. Now were brought into service a new sort of soldiers called ’Grenadiers’ , who were now dextrous in flinging hand grenados, every one having a pouch full; they had furred caps with coped crowns, like Janizaries, which made them look very fierce, and some had long hoods hanging behind, as we picture fools. Their clothing being likewise pybald yellow and gold’

Early grenade

In the 1670’s the Grenadiers were a new military concept – as important in their time as barbed wire, the machine gun and the tank have been more recently. Grenadiers were ‘shock troops’, tough and experienced assault soldiers specially trained to break into enemy defences and siege lines using a new weapon, the grenade. Named after the Spanish word for pomegranate, grenado, the grenade was a cast iron ball the size of a grapefruit filled with gunpowder and shrapnel and fitted with a short time fuse. When a grenade was thrown into closely packed ranks of the enemy it could do significant damage. Soon every English battalion had a grenadier company.

Grenadier Guards pin

The first hand grenades, known as Zhen Tian Lei, appeared during the Song Dynasty in China (960-1279AD) when soldiers packed gunpowder into ceramic or metal containers. Hand grenades reached Europe in 1467 and may have been first used in 1643, when it is suggested that they were thrown amongst Welsh troops at Holt Bridge, near Wrexham, during the English Civil War.

During the mid 18th century the use of grenades fell out of fashion as the rate and accuracy of fire power improved but the grenadier companies were still seen as the ‘elite troops’ of any regiment – the bravest, the tallest, the most deserving of their place on the right of the line. That reputation continues today and is reflected in their marching song, ‘The British Grenadiers’…

’Whene’er we are commanded
To storm the palisades
Our leaders march with fusees,
And we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis,
About the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row,
The British Grenadiers.’

The Grenadier Guards continue to be part of the modern British Army and have the honour of manning the Royal Guard in London. Since their inception in 1656 the Grenadiers has received 79 battle honours, 13 Victoria Crosses and one George Cross… and we saw them first, on Hounslow Heath, over 300 years ago.

Grenadier Guards

Trooping the Colour today involves over 1400 troops, 200 horses and 400 musicians in 10 bands. The ceremony dates back to around 1700, when the colours (flags) of the battalion were ‘trooped’ down the ranks so that everybody could see and recognise them. It was essential that the soldiers knew which flag was theirs as the colours were a rallying point for the troops in battle. Since 1748 Trooping the Colour has marked the Sovereign’s Official Birthday. From the reign of Edward VII onwards, the Sovereign has taken the salute in person.

Trooping the colour in 2008 – 1st Battalion Welsh Guards marching to The British Grenadiers

— from Martyn Day

Credit: The portrait of John Evelyn is by Hendrick Van der Borcht 1641