Wednesday 24 May 1899 was the day of Queen Victoria's 80th birthday, Penzance was en fête and determined to put on a good show. The Second Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry were in town for the first time in their 200 year history and trooping the colour, in honour of the royal birthday, was to take place at Castle Horneck at 10am.
Would the weather be kind was a major question. All the way from Bodmin the 'Duke's' had been plagued by torrential rain but the rain had been accompanied by great hospitality at every stop along the way. The March had finally reached St Ives on Whit Monday 22 May and the sun had shone. The troops camped on the Island and the mayor entertained the officers. Evidently the people of St Ives were impressed, so much so that the Cornishman reported that many of them journeyed to Penzance on Wednesday 24th in order to enjoy another helping.
May 24 1899 dawned wet and overcast. It wasn't what was hoped for (except possibly by those NCOs who'd overdone it in the Star at the NCO dinner the previous evening) but by 10am, when the buglers and band went on parade, the sun shone and their instruments glittered in the bright light. Crowds were already gathering, a grandstand had been erected especially for the occasion, after all, this was a celebration of the birthday of the Queen Empress. Britannia ruled not just the waves but also the world and here were the enforcers of that rule coming onto the parade ground: the 1st D.C.R. Volunteers (Duke of Cornwall's Rifle Volunteer Corps); the local artillery; the Royal Navy; the Coastguards and finally the red coats of the 2nd battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry with the colours. The national anthem plays, three cheers for her Majesty and a march past including the horses and baggage waggons of the army service corps complete the day's main event.
The Cornishman described the trooping of the colour: “What more beautiful ceremony could be seen? The stately slow marches, the lively quicksteps, the marching, counter-marching, the sweet melody of the band, the blare of the bugles, the flashing bayonets, concluding with a march past the Mayor, and an advance in line and general salute of his worship.
There followed a dinner which the Cornishman's enthusiastic correspondent asserted was attended by the all the men. Now he was there and I wasn't but I can't help thinking that his pen may have run away with him. All the men would mean about 1000 from the D.C.L.I alone (unless maybe not the whole battalion was in attendance, he doesn't say) plus all those sailors, volunteers and coastguards. Whatever the details, there is a splendid dinner in the Corn Exchange, hosted by the Mayor Alderman Richard Pearce Couch, mutual complements are exchanged and the Mayor earnestly hopes that the Duke's will be seen in Penzance again long before another 200 years have elapsed.
Outside in the streets and up at Castle Horneck there are thousands of people in holiday mood and a sports day is getting under way on the parade ground. Looked at from a rise in the ground, the crowd is dominated by the white of the ladies hats and clothes, punctuated here and there by the scarlet of the military uniforms. But, aren't those military men still eating their dinner in the Corn Exchange? Our correspondent, who signs himself A Camp Follower, is so overwhelmed and carried away by the splendour and dash of the occasion he has no concern for details like that. He's so proud of the show that Penzance is putting on, assuming its rightful place in the hierarchy and bestowing its benevolence upon “our country cousins who are amongst us, to the tune of many hundreds.”
The troops march (and eat), the bands play, the drums roll and the hearts swell and eventually night falls on the scene and the bonfires are lit and blaze splendidly beneath a pale moon which makes sporadic forays from behind the thickening cloud, glinting on the sharp edged swords and bayonets. By 1015 it's lights out and the day is over. At 8.30 the next day the boys are off, marching away to show the colours and do more eating in Marazion, Helston, Penryn and Falmouth. But in Helston fortune deserts the show and a cloudburst soaks the men who must march 12 miles to Falmouth soaked to the skin.
This account was compiled from the lengthy and detailed reports in The Cornishman of 25 May 1899 and 1 June 1899. The enthusiasm of the reporters comes over clearly. This is the British Empire at its zenith, confident about its place in the world and armed to the teeth for peace and, fortunately, ignorant of what lay just a few short years ahead. On 23 August 1914, the first day of fighting for the British Army in World War One, John Leggo of St Just, Private 7929 in 1st Battalion D.C.L.I, would be killed near the Conde Canal at the start of the Battle of Mons, one of the first of over 6000 Cornish casualties so far identified. At least 9 million military personnel were killed in WW1, the grisly bill behind the glories of trooping the colour.