Up The Micks!
An Illustrated History of the Irish Guards
Foreword by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge
Pen & Sword 2016
Pen & Sword link:
Colourpoint Books link:
“The Irish Guards – the ‘Micks’ as they are known to one and all – are unique. They are steadfast and feared in action. Their battle honours read like a roll call of the world wars and conflicts of the past century, including the recent campaigns in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet, whenever the name of the Micks is mentioned, a smile tends to play across the lips. This is because they are loved, as much as they are feared and respected.” His Royal Highness, The Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, KG KT – Colonel of the Regiment.
I have read several military biographies and autobiographies written about and by individuals but this is the first time I have read a biography of an entire regiment. In fact, the writing which is very good indeed, is outweighed by an enormous selection of photographs in this 350-page, beautifully produced celebration.
The Irish Guards were formed in 1900 to commemorate the bravery of the Irish regiments in South African military operations. A recruiting poster advised that “men of good character are invited to join” from the 18 to 25-year age group with a minimum height of 5 feet 7 inches for under 20s and an inch taller for over 20s.
I’ve think the easiest way to explain the book is to treat it like a photo album and I’ll comment generally as I browse each section.
1900–1914 The Early Years:
Most of the photographs in the early years are quite formal, groups of men sitting stiffly, looking intense, an indication perhaps of strict disciplines. I liked the shot of the Battalion Swimming Team, Chelsea Barracks, 1903, that shows seven swimmers, all with stern expressions, dressed in vests and trunks. They are flanked by two fully-uniformed officers - informal yet still formal. There is a similar photograph of the tug-of-war team, arms tightly folded, just as formal but with an extra layer of muscular toughness.
1914-1918 The Great War:
The Great war, 1914-18, was a whole gamut of emotions from the initial excitement of mobilisation through the horror of it all to the final tally of the dead and wounded, the human cost. A stark photograph of stretcher bearers captures a sullen moment, with the lead bearer looking at the camera and possibly wondering who has time to take pictures in this hell. We get many images of what battlefields and trenches looked like but can only imagine the appalling conditions. There are plenty of photographs in this section and throughout the book emphasising the collective commitment and pride amongst the Irish Guards.
1919-1938 Between the Wars:
Between the wars, there were many parades, marching bands, ceremonial occasions and involvement in overseas military operations. There is a great shot, from 1938, of dozens of small tents erected in the shadows of pyramids at the Mena Camp in Egypt as well as a number of interesting photographs in the field, on the road and a couple illustrating the importance of camels and donkeys for transport in desert conditions.
1939-1945 The Second World War:
There is an interesting collection of shots of training sessions including rifle and bayonet practice and general physical exercises. Some photographs show off new tanks and scout cars. The Queen (Mother) strikes a relaxed pose in conversation with a soldier. There is a fascinating assembly of images out in the field in various parts of Europe, images that help to tell at least part of that grim story. We are still in an era of black and white photography which somehow underlines the seriousness of war.
1946-1965 Post War Years:
For those who thought the two great wars would be enough for mankind to handle, smaller but no less challenging conflicts continued with the Irish Guards involved in operations in Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, Libya and other places. But, in this section, there are also shots showing soldiers relaxing and enjoying relative peace, getting stuck into sports days, for example. The most important Royal occasion, though, was as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Irish Guards stood tall and proud outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, emphasising how important a regiment they were to have received such a prestigious role. This was also the time period that marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Irish Guards. St Patrick’s Day was a bit special in 1950!
1966-1985 End of Empire:
Apart from the odd photograph up to this point, we have had little colour but now things change. The Irish Guards played a part in operations in Malaysia, Aden, Rhodesia, Ghana and elsewhere, and even, back in the UK, they were heavily involved in firefighting during a national firemen’s strike (Operation Burberry) and on standby for London flooding (Operation Giraffe). The photographs here are varied with many images of the work overseas as well as several examples of the Royal family’s strong connections to the regiment.
1986-1999 End of the Century:
The Irish Guards were in Berlin in 1990 when the wall came down. They were in Northern Ireland, Belize, the Balkans, the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong. The major operational posting was to support the relief efforts in Kosovo. Up to now, I have failed to mention the Irish wolfhounds, such amazing mascots, and there is a brilliant photograph of Malachy on his hind legs standing taller than Drummer Coates. Reflecting back to the stiff formality of very early photographs, there are many here in contrast that seem to be ad-lib, off-the-cuff, on-the-hoof shots, all a bit more human, if I can put it that way.
2000-2007 Into the New Millennium:
This was the era of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the Queen Mother’s death and the Iraq War. All three events, for various emotional reasons, are illustrated with that usual mixture of formal and informal shots. The joy and celebration of the Queen’s reign, the sadness of the Queen Mother’s funeral and the sight of young soldiers faced with enormous challenges in a vicious campaign. Perhaps, because this is more recent history, I found this selection of photographs more compelling than others.
2008-2016 Bearskins and Bayonets:
The main military mission at this time was in Afghanistan with all the horrors that that war entailed. You get camaraderie, spirit, pride and concern in various shots. One photograph, of LCpl Jacob Draper, judged as Best Cadet, reminds us how young some of these soldiers are. There is no age given but the youth in his face tells it all. There are more ceremonial duties back home not least the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. William wore the Irish Guards uniform on the big day. A few months later, William became the Regiment’s 10th Colonel.
There is so much to absorb in this quite superb book. My comments above only scratch the surface and I will be returning to study favourite photographs and also to find others that I missed first time around. The appendices are magnificently detailed and include the Regiment’s honours, colours, Victoria Cross recipients, casualty numbers, Colonels of the Regiment and so on.
The book is a credit to the compilers, an education for readers and a monumental tribute to the Irish Guards. The contents will enlighten and amuse, amaze and inspire, and will also explain, via a huge variety of illustrations, the wide range of work that is done by the Irish Guards and other regiments - war and peacekeeping duties as well as ceremonial involvement.
Up The Micks! is a fine salute to the Irish Guards.
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