By Hugo White
The old county regiment titles were officially dropped on Vesting Day; 10th July 1968. On that day the 14th Battalion of the Somerset & Cornwall Light Infantry, the Kings own Yorkshire Light Infantry , The Kings Shropshire Light Infantry and The Durham Light Infantry became respectively the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalion of the new regiment – The Light Infantry.
At that time I was commanding the half Battalion of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry involved in aid to the civil power operations in Mauritius (still known as Maurice Ile De France by the predominantly French inhabitants) .
Regardless of Military operations, we were determined that this once in a three hundred year occasion should be memorable. Parties for the Battalion, the Corporals’ Mess and the Serjeants’ Mess went off with great aplomb and the consumption of much beer!
The final celebration (or maybe wake) was the Officers Mess Dinner. I approached the Proprietor of the French Club which was famed throughout the island for its most delicious meals! She was a young woman in her mid-twenties with natural red hair and green eyes; to say that she was stungingly beautiful would be a gross understatement.
The menu and the wines were agreed; for the port I went to the aged steward of the Vaquoi Royal Navy Wardroom. He produced six bottles, dusty and devoid of labels, assuring me that I would never drink anything so superb again in my life. We strained it though a pair of underpants (clean!) into the decanters and then conveyed it down to the French Club that afternoon.
The meal was a resounding success. The guests were the British High Commissioner, The French Consul, The Chief of Police and the Commanding Officer of the Mauritius Defence Force. The meal was delicious with many toasts to The Queen, the Regiment and France proved that the port was indeed quite out of this world!
The British High Commissioner departed at about midnight. It was then that the party, which up to then had been conducted with the utmost decorum, somehow became less formal. It should be pointed out that the French Club occupied the top floor of an eight-storey tower block (the only one in Mauritius). Leaning over the balcony, the chief of Police, a most charming Frenchman, challenged our officers to dropping wine glasses into a lidless dustbin far below. The sound of breaking glass attracted the attention of a police patrol. As they approached the Chief of Police uttered a wild gallic war cry, simultaneously showering his long-suffering policemen with a hail of glass!
The guests away and the party over, we drove back to our billets in a state of happy euphoria. My only memory of that trip was that three officers drove the minibus – one steering, one changing gear, and the third lying on the floor working the pedals.
Next morning I went down to the French Club to thank my beautiful redhead for providing us with such a memorable evening, and had carefully prepared my speech in my best school boy French. Knocking on her door I went in, my appearance had an explosive effect. Before I could open my mouth she was at me, her green eyes blazing!! “You Hooligans; You English Hooligans…How dare you wreck my club?!” I thought of telling her how she looked even more beautiful when angry, but discretion prevailed as she would undoubtably have killed me otherwise. I told her we were penitent and would certainly pay for any damages in full. She thawed a bit, and I told her that this was a one in three century event so she could rest assured that we would behave ourselves for the rest of our stay in the ‘Ile De France’!
Whatever was to happen in the future, we can claim that what might have been a sad occasion to mark the demise of our county regiments, turned into a splendid and joyous evening which is still celebrated annually by some of the officers who were present on that momentous night!
Thank you, Hugo, for regaling us with this fun tale of a rambunctious night in Mauritius on this Day 50 years ago!
We are currently setting up an exciting new exhibition at the museum which will be ready in September, to celebrate the formation of the Light Infantry.