LONDON (AP) — The British army veterans known as the Chelsea Pensioners traded their famous scarlet tunics for somber navy blue Tuesday as they bid farewell to their commander in chief, Queen Elizabeth II.
The old soldiers, some leaning on canes and others using mobility scooters, gathered under a steel gray sky at the Royal Hospital Chelsea for a service of remembrance honoring the woman who led Britain’s armed forces for 70 years.
The Chelsea Pensioners, known for the knee-length scarlet tunics and black caps they wear to public events, are army veterans who have chosen to live at the hospital, which King Charles II founded in 1692 to care for retired soldiers.
With King Charles III now occupying the throne held for so long by his mother, the Chelsea company includes veterans who served from the battlefields of World War II to the Falkland Islands.
Teetering but determined, 150 or so men and women stood as straight as they were able in the hospital’s quadrangle as a bugler played the “Last Post,” a tradition of British military funerals.
Alan Rutter, 74, an infantryman with more than 20 years of service, met the queen as a young soldier when she attended a demonstration on the use of advanced weapons. Wearing full camouflage from the day’s exercises, Rutter was given a pair of white gloves so he could shake the queen’s hand.
He recalls the day with pride.
“She’s been a rock, really, for 70 years, for this country,’’ he said. “And we’ve gone through so much — and yet she’s always been there for us. So it’s going to be strange not to have her, you know.”
The late queen, who served as a truck driver and mechanic in the last months of World War II, became head of the armed forces when she ascended to the throne in 1952.
She was also the patron of the Royal British Legion, the nation’s main veteran’s support charity, and led the national ceremony of remembrance held every year on the anniversary of the end of World War I.
The men and women who make up the Chelsea Pensioners made their own sacrifices for queen and country, and on Tuesday they gathered around a platform made of drums for a traditional drumhead service to show their respect for a woman who dedicated her life to the nation at age 21.
A few hankies appeared when the assembly sang the hymn “Abide With Me.’’ But the tears flowed with “God Save the King.’’
It was a line the pensioners hadn’t sung for 70 years.
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