Back to their roots for future success – Grenadier Guards march 150 miles and four centuries back to the Royal Oak

The Inkerman Company, The Grenadier Guards, will shortly deploy to Iraq on operational duties. Their surprising preparation has involved a fantastic historical adventure worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, an ancient tree and a sapling, and a superhuman march across England during the hottest summer on record.

While weapons and tactics training play a huge part in their preparations, most important of all is the soldiers’ ability to work selflessly and efficiently as a team at all times. They have to know and trust each other completely, be confident that everyone is focussed on the same goal and giving their all for the common cause. 

Building that trust and ethos is an art. 

Setting the standard for success

Company Commander Major Hugo Cartwright decided to set his troops a challenge that would bond the team, test their resilience, their ability to plan and navigate a route cross country over 150 miles, ensure the whole team remained battle ready and healthy throughout, meet a tight deadline, and at the same time do good for others.

The team building that happens on the walk...sets us in a great place ready to do our pre-deployment training and make sure that when we hit operations, we’re mentally resilient Major Hugo Cartwright, Company Commander, The Inkerman Company, The Grenadier Guards

A big part of forging a young soldier’s identity, confidence and courage comes from understanding the history of their unit. It helps to build tribal bonds and loyalty, affords an appreciation of culture and heritage, instils pride, teaches lessons learned from the mistakes of the past, and empathy for others.

The Inkerman Company, The Grenadier Guards, has a remarkable history and Major Cartwright put that history front and centre of his pre-deployment challenge. He tasked them with carrying out a loaded march from their base in Aldershot to the Boscobel Royal Oak in Shropshire.

On 6 September 1651 it was in the protective branches of that noble tree that the first man to serve in what would become The Grenadier Guards hid the fleeing King Charles II, after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester.

During the march the young guardsmen learned about their history and the strange tale of their links to England’s most famous tree.

In the gravest danger

In 1651, King Charles II’s life and the future of the monarchy was in the gravest danger. His father had been executed, the Civil War was over, his Royalist army defeated, and he was a wanted man with a bounty of £1,000 offered for his capture. Cromwell’s entire New Model Army and half the country were hunting for him.

He was an easy prey. King Charles was distinctive in appearance: swarthy and six foot two (1.88m) tall, in a country when most men were just five foot six (1.67m). He would easily stand out, even dressed in rags in a crowd.

The actions, loyalty and innovation of Colonel William Careless changed history when he stood by the King, agreeing to aid his escape. It was at serious risk to his own life as Cromwell had declared all accomplices to the deposed King would be executed. Colonel Careless suggested they hide in a pollarded oak tree in the ‘bosco bello’ (beautiful woods) on the Catholic Giffard estate in Shropshire. Catholics were loyal to the King and since the Reformation had become well practised at keeping secrets.

Pinching him to stay awake

Colonel Careless had food and drink to sustain them both and all day they hid high in the oak’s lush leafy branches, witnessing Cromwell’s soldiers scouring the buildings and land around them. He held the exhausted King in his arms while he slept, pinching him to keep awake when danger approached, until finally Cromwell’s Army gave up the search and left.

The oak tree has long been a symbol of English might, and that day it saved a King so that he could live on to restore the monarchy and rid the land from tyranny.

The man who saved him escaped with Charles II into exile in Bruges, Belgium, and became part of his trusted bodyguard. When the Royal Regiment of Guards was raised in Bruges in 1656 Colonel Careless was amongst them and he rode back to London with the King in 1660 to help him reclaim the throne.

The Royal Oak

The 1st Regiment of Foot Guards would eventually become known as The Grenadier Guards after their successes at Waterloo, but Inkerman Company is proud custodian of the story of their origins in the Royal Oak. Their Company flag bears an image of the King hiding in the oak tree.

The march back to their roots wasn’t an easy one for today’s Guardsmen. The distance from Lille Barracks in Aldershot to Boscobel House in Shropshire is a little over 150 miles and was covered as a platoon relay in just two and a half days. 

Bergans and Blisters

The Guardsmen were entirely reliant on each other, maps, and carrying all they needed in bergans weighing operational weights, they had to plot a fast but safe course. It took them across some of the most beautiful countryside in England, but the heatwave had taken its toll and the ground was rock hard. This made the march physically tough, and they had to work together to prevent blisters, protect joints and to stay hydrated. Learning about their history was motivational but the soldiers had also promised to use the activity to raise money for veterans of the Regiment and families in need, and they didn’t want to let anyone down.

By the end of the first day, they had arrived at Bicester Camp, 60 miles from Aldershot. Foot health was prioritised, a morale boosting hearty, healthy meal and an early night, before they set off once again early the next morning, heading north to their goal.

Inspirational

Major Cartwright said: “The high point for everyone has been being out with the team. Most of them will never have spent so long away from mobile phones and the distractions of modern life on any given day. The conversations, the chatter, and to be honest, the grit when it got hard has been really, really inspirational.”

He added; “It’s all been about getting us ready for Iraq, mentally and physically.

“Physically, it takes the soldiers to a place they perhaps haven’t been before, in terms of distance on the feet, and occasionally a little bit of speed, and certainly for some it will be the longest they’ve ever walked.

“In terms of mentally, the combination of the team building that happens over the walk; but also the understanding of the history of the unit they are a part of, which for some may feel there is pressure on shoulders, but for others it is a foundation on which to build; sets us in a great place ready to do our pre-deployment training and make sure that when we hit operations, we’re mentally resilient.”

Time travellers

Each day the Grenadier Guards learned a little more of their history, travelling back in time through the inspiring stories of soldiers just like them, whose actions changed the world. It helped them to understand the responsibility that comes with being in the regiment, and the importance of decisive, selfless action. 

Together with the rest of the Household Division, soldiers from The Grenadier Guards have formed the permanent garrison of London for almost four centuries and been deployed in virtually every campaign and crisis at home and abroad. Their last major deployment to Iraq was in 2018 where they supported the training of Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against Daesh. More recently they have served in Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands, South Sudan, Bosnia and carried out counter poaching missions in Africa. 

Once the troops arrived at Boscobel House, which is an English Heritage property, they were drummed in like heroes by the Grenadier Guards Corps of Drums dressed in full ceremonial bearskin and tunic.

An emotional moment

Arriving at the tree was an emotional moment.

The Royal Oak became such a legend that when Charles II reclaimed the throne public houses, inns and taverns up and down the country renamed themselves The Royal Oak to show their loyalty to the monarchy. It remains the third most popular pub name in England.

As Charles was crowned, immediately visitors flocked to Boscobel to see the tree that saved a King, and predictably took away souvenir branches until nothing was left. Luckily, the tree had produced hundreds of acorns and a vigorous son of Royal Oak sapling was planted in its place, which stands today.

Protecting the line

As the legend has persisted, just as the Royal Oak preserved the human Royal line, protective measures have been made to keep the arboreal line safe, so descendants of the Royal Oak are protected and grown on around the site.

To mark the historic pilgrimage, a grand sapling of the original tree was gifted by English Heritage to the Grenadiers to plant at their barracks as part of the Platinum Jubilee Queen’s Green Canopy initiative to combat climate change. It will also be a permanent local reminder of their origins.

Raise a glass

The Inkerman Company, their mission complete, posed for a Company photograph by the Royal Oak and raised a glass to the King who raised them. 

This image will go with them on their deployment on Operations to Iraq in a few weeks’ time, a reminder of an amazing achievement and what can be done when you can trust those around you.