London Stories and Tips

Encountering History at Whitehall

Whitehall Parade Ground Photo, London, England

Trite as the observation might seem, one of the many aspects of travel that makes it so compelling is the fact that one never knows who or what will be encountered on a particular journey. We've all heard stories about travelers who chance upon friends or relatives half a world away. More dramatic in my view, however, are those encounters that force us to engage our own convictions—including our sense of history—and still deal honorably with opposing opinions.

A case in point for such an experience occurred during a 1999 trip to London. As part of our standard tourist regimen, Himself and I decided to take in the changing of the Royal Horse Guard at Whitehall. We were attracted to the Horse Guard ceremony in part because we knew it would have a relatively small gallery of onlookers—unlike the throngs of tourists gathered for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

The Whitehall parade ground is a short walk from Trafalgar Square on the site of what was once Whitehall Palace, most of which was destroyed by fire in 1698. Like the guardsmen at Buckingham Palace, the soldiers of the Horse Guard are part of the Queen’s official bodyguard. At Whitehall, the guard-changing ceremony can be viewed daily at 11am, Monday through Saturday (10am on Sunday). The parade grounds are adjacent to St. James’s Park, which in turn adjoins the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London residence, and the Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament.

Sure enough, we were duly impressed by all that we saw. The chestnut horses and the young Royal Guardsmen who commanded them were equally splendid. Who among us could witness such youth and strength impassively? Moreover, I noticed that the young men who represented the remnants of the Empire were indeed its representatives—the imprints of African and Asian heritage, as well as European origins, were clearly stamped on the guardsmen's faces. This recognition both surprised and pleased me: We Americans sometimes forget that the legacy of the British Empire has left the UK with a multiethnic, multiracial population quite similar to our own.

During the ceremony and off to the side of the parade ground, Himself and I noticed the beginning of another gathering that was decidedly not a standard tourist event. As the Horse Guard ceremony wound toward an end, our attention focused more and more on this gathering dominated by elderly men and women. Dressed in an unmistakably British manner, the men wore suits that would have been almost equally at home in the 1920s, 1950s, or 1990s, each veteran with a chest full of medals and many with bowler hats and canes. The women wore matronly dresses (some in muted tones and others brightly colored, but somehow all alike), and each carried the required handbag. One lone Scotsman wore a kilt and sported a bushy white beard, looking for all the world like a stouter version of Old Tom Morris.

Striking up a conversation with one of these medal-bedecked elders, we learned that the men were the last survivors of the Palestine Police Old Comrades Association. Once a year they gather to remember their youth and their role in the empire. They assemble, undergo inspection, and march from Whitehall to the Cenotaph Monument, Britain’s national war memorial, where they lay a wreath. Despite physical ailments of all kinds, canes, and a few artificial limbs, the Old Comrades queued up smartly to follow a military band to the Cenotaph.

As the surviving comrades marched forward, a shadow of the vitality of their youthful selves slipped through time and was reflected in their facial expressions, even more so in their bearing. Their ranks clearly thinning (even though wives, children, and grandchildren now sometimes join the end of the procession to represent deceased comrades), these aging imperial warriors recaptured a longstanding metaphor for the human condition—the prime of youth gradually passes into the infirmity of age, with scant time to notice the process until it's all but over.

This aside, these elderly policemen struck intellectual and emotional chords that resonated to the core of my own belief system. My passionate Zionism is reinforced by graduate and undergraduate degrees in modern European and Jewish history. In my eyes, these proud comrades represented the first-line enforcers of a British imperial policy that barred Jewish refugees from entering Palestine to escape the Holocaust. Reflecting that policy, and often reveling in their role, these Old Comrades had very nearly caused the state of Israel to emerge stillborn into the family of nations. Such broad statements, of course, reduce a huge portion of the historical record covering a complex era to dramatically oversimplified (and admittedly biased) observations. Nonetheless, the historical evidence supporting these conclusions is undeniable by any objective standard.

Knowing my personal investment in these particular events, Himself was concerned about how I might respond. He needn't have worried. I engaged in polite conversation with our new acquaintance, and we exchanged cues that we both fully understood, but that carefully avoided offense. I mentioned my specialization in modern Jewish history and my graduate coursework at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He mentioned his first wife, who was a Palestinian Arab. He mentioned Acre Prison (which housed the gallows where Jewish "terrorists" were executed). I mentioned a visit to the British Military Prison Museum in Jerusalem (where key members of the Haganah, the Jewish "resistance," were held without due process). We exchanged pleasantries about our families and professional lives, and we thanked each other for the time taken and given.

In the end, our chance encounter consisted of a civilized conversation that maintained a respectful distance between vastly differing viewpoints. As we went our separate ways, I wished him shalom aleichem and offered my hand. He wished me alaykum assalaam and kissed my cheek. Thus we become old comrades in our own right, using ancient phrases to seal our shared differences. As the daily headlines demonstrate, there are less cordial ways to disagree.

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