Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL, known affectionately as Monty, was born on 17 November 1887. Educated at St. Paul’s School and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, he served with distinction in both the First and Second World Wars and, from 1946 to 1948, as chief of the Imperial General Staff (the professional head of the British Army). It is therefore hardly surprising that Monty’s announcement that he would be inspecting Sherborne School’s Combined Cadet Force on 26 June 1959, was received at Sherborne with a certain amount of fear and trepidation.
However, the occasion proved a great success, with Monty describing the whole show as ‘quite excellent’. Apparently, at every school inspection he carried out afterwards, Monty would compare them unfavourably with Sherborne. Winchester, in particular, objected to being told by the Field Marshal, ‘I want all schools to be like Sherborne!’
Major Michael Earls-Davis, Commanding Officer of Sherborne CCF 1959-1966, wrote a very amusing account detailing the preparations at Sherborne for Monty’s visit and the day itself. This extract is taken from the Old Shirburnian Record, 2009:
‘I think ‘apprehension’ was the CCF’s first reaction to the news that we were to be inspected by Monty that summer term of 1959, the word having got round about the havoc wreaked at other schools during his inspections: caps ripped off to unveil mops of unruly hair, adverse comments about turnout, drill and discipline and, on at least one occasion, the school made to re-do its parade and do it better! On the other hand, we had a lot going for us.
At that time a fair proportion of the School was made up of the sons of serving officers and another good proportion was intending to make the services their career, so there was a promising base on which to build. Furthermore, we still had on the staff a number of war-experienced officers who had a great deal to offer and who had always made the CCF a popular, successful unit.
In particular, we had Captain David Ullman, a former Band Master of the Grenadier Guards, who was determined to build a marching band that would add colour and lustre to our Ceremonial Parades. It was he who persuaded the Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. J.T. Melvin, to ‘Troop the Colour’ for the Field Marshal. Trooping the Colour is one of the most intricate and difficult of military manoeuvres and, one would have thought, well beyond the scope of cadets. However, we had as our Cadet Instructor CSM T. Alden, also of the Grenadier Guards, who in the course of his service career had often taken part in the Monarch’s Birthday Parade. He knew every detail of the procedure and so could make sure that everything was done correctly. We also had John Venning (Harper House 1954-1959), an outstanding Cadet RSM whose smartness and bearing made him an ideal Parade Commander.
With all this going for us, we were confident we could put on a good show for the great man. We then hit a major snag. Although we cited Eton College as a precedent, our application to have our own Colour was refused, almost ridiculed, by the War Officer. Colours were blessed and therefore sacred. They were the ‘Soul of the Regiment’ and to allow them to Cadet Forces would be sacrilege. Eventually, however, by working the Old Boy network to its limits, we were given permission to have a Standard (not a Colour) and we were told that it could be dedicated (not blessed) and carried on parade. Now all we needed was a Standard! Joy Walford, Micky Walford’s sister and a wonderful seamstress, came to our rescue and we soon had a Standard that was colourful, dignified, appropriate and beautifully made.
After that, it was hard work up to the big day. Drill is never a popular pastime but even now, 50 years on, I am amazed at the attitude of those involved. Many of the movements were complicated; to get them right involved endless repetition and some of the cadets were, to put it politely, not cut out by nature to be soldiers. There was, however, an underlying determination to put on a first-class Parade and this attitude made the hours of rehearsal well worthwhile.
We were all overwhelmed by what the band achieved in such a short time. They were boys’ first, musicians and soldiers last. They had to learn to play and they had to learn to march on grass, which even professionals find hard. You can’t ‘hear your feet’. Despite this, David Ullman produced a band of 48. They were all shapes and sizes and ages and some of them were not much bigger than the instruments they carried, but they marched with precision and pride and played their hearts out. As they marched off Parade to the tune of The Carmen, which David had arranged as a march, I saw quite a few mums reaching for their handkerchiefs. The band was the major factor in what was obviously an outstandingly successful parade.
Monty was delighted. He told Field Marshal Sir John Harding, with whom he was staying, that he had never had a ‘Colour’ trooped for him before and that the whole show was ‘quite excellent’… After the parade, I had to take Monty from The Upper back to the School for tea. We travelled in his chauffeur-driven Rolls flying the Commander in Chief’s pennant. The road was lined with spectators and every time he saw an 8th Army badge he had the car stopped and engaged the veteran in animated conversation. By the time we reached the School it felt as if we had refought every battle from El Alamein to Tripoli!
We had our laughs. Major Jim Gibb, who commanded the Royal Artillery Section, was an officer of considerable verve and dash (some may recall with joy how he brought to an end a field day involving several hundred cadets by setting a haystack on fire with his Verey pistol) and he discovered that the Field Marshal was entitled to a Royal Artillery Gun Salute. He spent a lot of the summer term scrounging the precious ammunition from former friends and connections. To make sure all was in order, he decided to let fire with one round at the dress rehearsal but, unfortunately, nobody was let into the secret. The guns were parked in the south-west corner of the Upper, near Cricket Lodge, occupied then by the Cricket Coach, Bill Lander and his family. At the appropriate moment Jim shouted “Fire!” there was an almighty BANG!, the ground shook, windows rattled and Mrs Lander, who was preparing a meal for Bill, ‘jumped out of her skin’ and dropped a carton of eggs on the floor. The CCF accounts for that month included cash for a bunch of flowers and half a dozen eggs for Mrs Lander! On the day itself, the noise was deafening during the cannonade but we were all ready for it and Monty was most impressed.’
Later, in the Courts, Monty noticed that all the boys, except one, were wearing a buttonhole, as was the custom at the end of term. Monty called the boy over who was not wearing a buttonhole:
MONTY: I see all the boys are wearing buttonholes today.
BOY: Yes, Sir.
MONTY: But you’re not.
BOY: No, Sir.
MONTY: Why is this?
BOY: I don’t know Sir.
MONTY: So, you are different from all the other boys, are you?
BOY: Yes, Sir, I suppose I am Sir.
MONTY: Jolly good show. Mind you always have the courage to be like that. Now run off back to the others.
On leaving Sherborne, Monty presented the School with a copy of his Memoirs (now in the School Archives), which he inscribed: ‘Presented to Sherborne School in the hopes that the boys of this great English public school may find in this book some principles which will be helpful to them. With my best wishes, and my hopes that Sherborne will continue to produce men of character who will be of real value to our nation at all times. Montgomery of Alamein F.M. June 1959.’
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Posted 17 November 2017 by Sherborne School Archives.