Fullofit -- as I said, terrific drunken party. Lou -- that's is one fearsome Norseman you have there. I hope Swany doesn't go too berserker in the next few weeks. Take care. Wulfe -- wonderful storytelling. Fuller's tale is a masterpiece. Harry -- good luck with the balloon claim. It looked like Lazlo's. Carrick -- slow and steady does it. The fifth kill is taking a while but Keith is still alive. That's the main thing. An Airman’s Odyssey – by Capt. James Arthur Collins VC, MC
Part Sixty-One: In which I meet the King
I had planned to drive the Vauxhall to Paddington, but Colonel Holt had laid on a staff car to bring us there: Leefe Robinson, Sowrey, and me. Sowrey had secreted a bottle of champagne for the train, but I held myself to a single glass for fear of embarrassing myself in front of the King. The trip was not long. We detrained at Windsor and Eton Central to find a large and adoring crowd. Overly enthusiastic gentlemen jostled with some truly splendid ladies. Fred Sowrey suggested that we might send our regrets to the King, but we thought better of it. A colonel of Guards met us and escorted us to a waiting Crossley staff car, an open tourer. The scene was overwhelming: cheers, shouts of “God bless you, boys,” and a fanfare from some sort of local band.
The motor made its way from the station up the long hill to the Castle, where we followed the Long Walk to the State Apartments. We were met there by a very jovial fellow, the exact title of whom I did not catch. He briefed us thoroughly on protocol and issued each of us with a clip to fasten to our tunics, on which the King would hand our medals. We practised the handshake the King would offer as the sign we were done and should now bugger off, and we practised the three paces back and salute. I didn’t tell the others, but I’d driven over to Woodford Green the day before to see the Disciplinary Sergeant-Major, a former Scots Guard. As my request he drilled me for two hours until my three paces back, salute, and about turn were Guards-perfect and machine-like.
We made our way up the Grand Staircase, flanked by a guard of the Household Cavalry, to the Grand Vestibule. We were to enter the Waterloo Chamber, where we should meet our family and guests. I begged a moment to visit the Grand Loo (I suppose it had another name) and then rejoined Billy and Fred. There was a wonderful selection of music being performed in the Chamber. I recall particularly the beautiful Merry Widow Waltz. It was a favourite of my mother. And there she was. My mother, flanked by Dorothy in her V.A.D. uniform and Mrs. Winthrop. It was a wonderful moment all together.
Far too soon we were interrupted by the strains of “God Save the King.” And there he was. Four members of the Yeomen of the Guard lined the wall and the King, accompanied by the Lord Chamberlain and two orderly officers of the Gurkha Regiment, entered the Chamber. Behind him was Queen Mary. The fellow who’d briefed us had said she would not be in attendance, so this was a surprise.
It was a small and private affair, without much waiting or preamble. My name was called first and I strode as manfully as nerves would permit towards the waiting King. The drill was to come to a halt three paces before the King. No salute – that would be a hard thing to avoid. The King would present the medal, shake hands, and perhaps say a few words. Then three paces back, salute, about turn, run for cover. I came to a halt sharply and smartly, but being careful not to smash my foot down on the parquet as if I were on a parade square. The King approached.
“Two Zeppelins? That is a feat,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I mumbled.
“You must tell me all about it,” he said. “Let’s get this done and then you and your friends can join me for a drink and a talk. You all have guests, I suppose.”
He hung the crimson ribbon and bronze cross on my RFC maternity tunic.
“We’ll get them some tea or champagne or something. Tell them you won’t be detained long.”
Three paces back. Salute. About turn. A true Guardsman’s snap to it.
We were escorted to the Royal apartments where the King offered us each cigarettes and a glass of champagne and we talked at some length. He wanted to know every small detail about our machines and about downing the airships. He asked me about Canada and expressed genuine interest in my father’s service with the Northwest Mounted Police, saying he was last in Canada in 1908 and should like to visit again after the war.
The King asked me where I would be posted next. I said that I suspected the RFC intended to keep me in England, but that I was determined to return to France. He said it was not usual after a VC, and I suggested that perhaps the award could be returned. The king laughed and said he’d have to ensure that was not necessary.
After about fifteen minutes, we rejoined our families and guests in St. George’s Hall. Mummy had finished her champagne and was eying a footman with a tray of glasses. Mrs. Winthrop made eyes that we should leave soon. We had a rendezvous for tea at four at the Ritz, after which Mummy and Mrs. Winthrop would be off to Kings Cross. I invited Dorothy to come to the Cavendish, but she said with a laugh she was not “that kind of girl.”