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  • The Longest Sentry Duty August 17, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Beachcombing is not a huge fan of Bismarck (what’s there to like?), but his memoirs have some great passages. This story is one of those WIBT (Wish I’d Been There) moments and relates to a visit to St Petersburg in 1859. If Beach had read this at second hand he would have pressed the ‘legend’ button but if Bismarck was nothing else he was an excellent witness.

    During the first spring days it was then the custom for every one connected with the court to promenade in the Summer Garden between Paul’s Palace and the Neva. There the Emperor had noticed a sentry standing in the middle of a grass plot; in reply to the question why he was standing there, the soldier could only answer, ‘Those are my ordered.’ The Emperor therefore sent one of his adjutants to the guard-room to make inquiries; but no explanation was forthcoming except that a sentry had to stand there winter and summer. The source of the original order could no longer be discovered. The matter was talked of at course, and reached the ears of the servants. One of these, an old pensioner, came forward and stated that his father had cone said to him as they passed the sentry in the Summer Garden: ‘There he is, still standing to guard the flower; on that spot the Empress Catherine [obit 1796] once noticed a snowdrop in bloom unusually early, and gave orders that it was not to be plucked.’ This command had been carried out by placing a  sentry on the spot, and ever since then one had stood there all the year round.

    Bismarck could have laughed into his sleeve, instead, he make an important reflection. Would he have spoken sense to power in 1941?

    Stories of this sort excite our amusement and criticism, but they are an expression of the elementary force and persisistence on which the strength of the Russian nature depends.  

    A small PS, this story appears in a couple of different versions with daffodils. Most interestingly it is often Bismarck who is given the credit of begging the Emperor to hunt down the reason behind the sentry’s long duty! It is an understandable improvement of the story and a distortion of the truth: that gets this post a cobbers tag. Other examples of orders that continue to be carried out long after their rationale is forgotten: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    18 August 2013: Dennis writes in with this one: I cannot verify this sea story as true, but the originator swore this happened as related. In the late 1970s, the NATO army in germany constantly prepared for the feared Soviet assault over the border from East Germany to West Germany. To keep the troops ready and prepared, there were numerous competitions for things like best tank crew, most accurate bombing squadron, and such. One such event was a competition for the best artillery crews.  This was run by the US Army’s Vth Corps training desk.  Each NATO country nominated it’s best artillery section, which then went through a series of events (like moving on a road to a field, setting up to fire, and getting off an aimed round.)  Everything was rated by accuracy and by time. Surpisingly, the british army, which had a long tradition of excellence with their artillery, regularly came in last.  One of the great innovators, their artillery came to France in 1940 with only gasoline powered vehicles to power the great guns.  Unlike the germans who continued using horses to pull the guns throughout the war, they were totally mechanised.  The evaluators got hold of a video camera and taped the entire event to better understand why some teams did better than others. As usual, the british came in last, even behind the the Belgians and Dutch, who fielded part time soldiers.  On checking the film, they noticed one quirk in the british drill.  After the gun was loaded and aimed, one of the loaders, suddenly ran twenty yards back, about faced, came to attention, and yelled “Ready”.  After firing, he would run back to the crew and assist in loading, before doing it again when the gun was loaded. No one could figure out why the one fellow had to make a long dash to the rear.  A quick check of the british drill manual showed this was a requirement, but did not explain why.  The brits readily accepted this part of the official drill was holding them back, but couldn’t change the rules. It might have lingered there, but the staff did have one objective of better preparing to meet the Soviet assault.  If the artillery drill was holding back part of NATO, it needed to be changed. After many letters and calls, the staff finally spoke on the phone with a really old, sergeant major in the british defence ministry.  Explaining what they had found, they asked what was the loader doing running to the rear and waiting from back there for the weapon to be fired. “Aow, ‘e’s ‘oldin’ the ‘orses!” Next year, the british won the competition. And shockingly we get this from Michel C: I’ve heard a similar story. During WWII, a US general observed artillery drill. The gun (a fairly small one) was unhitched from the Jeep that had been pulling it to the firing range and was loaded. Just before firing, two soldiers took ten steps back and stood there at attention for the entire live-fire exercise. No explanation for this could be found until they found an old soldier who said, “Ah, yes. They are there to hold the horses so they don’t get spooked and run off.” Tacitus from Detritus writes in: The tedium associated with guarding Bess Truman, widow of Harry S. Truman, was the stuff of legend among the Secret Service. Now days ex presidents and their spouses do not automatically get this coverage for life. These guys at least got to work on their Masters degrees!  The poor Russian sentry not so much. Thanks Dennis, MC and Tacitus.

    31 Aug 2013: Larry D writes in ‘I remember a story about a sentry posted on the channel coast of England to raise the alarm if he spotted Napoleon’s fleet, and someone still holding some verison of that job, supposedly, in the twentieth century. but so far I can’t find a reference online. This may not be the kind of thing you’re looking for, but: Japanese hold out…  Thanks Larry!