When we read of men overseas in the armed forces, we tend to assume that they were all risking their lives all of the time. Even the infantry spent much of their time in training or in reserves. Some men were much more fortunate, being stationed miles from the battlefields. Sergeant P.E. Gayer was one of them, combining being a musician with service in the Royal Flying Corps to stay well away from danger.
Percy Edward Gayer was born in 1874, the son of a Belgian musician named Edouard Gayer and his English wife Jessie. Percy joined the army in 1891 and served his country for most of the next 28 years, all the while staying away from any actual fighting the nation was involved in.
Gayer must have been an impressive musician, because he was twice poached by military units renowned for the quality of their bands. First, he was quickly moved from the Norfolk Regiment to the Coldstream Guards in 1893; later he was picked by the commander of No 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, who set out to build the best squadron band around (see photo above).
While serving with the Coldstream Guards, Gayer appears not to have served in any war zones. Instead, he served in the UK for all but a few months, which he spent in Canada with the regimental band. In the 1901 and 1911 censuses, he is listed as living in the family home at 36 Sutherland Terrace, Pimlico (continuing to live there with Jessie when Edouard died in 1904).
Notice that even the first year of the First World War was a safe period for Gayer. Still he stayed on at home. Not only that, but under the terms of his enlistment he was released from military service after 22 years in the Guards – in September 1915. This was at the tail-end of the voluntary recruiting period, when conscription was seriously being considered – and yet experienced soldiers like Gayer were released from the military. Nearly 200 men were released from military service when their contracts expired after 21 or 22 years in the year September 1914-September 1915.
Presumably Gayer then went back to Pimlico. He rejoined the army in March 1917 and was picked by Major Bloomfield for 56 Squadron. This was the first elite British fighter squadron and included among its first roster of pilots the famous ‘ace’ Albert Ball; later pilots included stars like Arthur Rhys Davids and James McCudden. To entertain his men, Bloomfield set out to form the best squadron band around. As Cecil Lewis (another of the squadron’s original pilots) wrote in his excellent autobiography Sagittarius Rising:
To keep fighting pilots on their toes there must be an A1 morale. For this there was nothing like music: the squadron must have its own band. The Major got scouts out round the depots, and whenever a saxophone player or a violinist turned up, he swapped one of his own men of equal rating for the man who was a musician as well. A sergeant who had been a theatre orchestra conductor was put in charge, and later, in France, whenever things were not quite as bright as they might be, out came the squadron band.
It is not clear whether Gayer was the sergeant that Lewis mentioned. He was certainly a sergeant in the RFC and was the band’s leader, so it could be – which would tell us what he did between in his 18 months out of the military. Sadly, we can’t be sure.
What we do know is that Gayer went out to France in 1917 and led the 56 Squadron band. His official trade in the Flying Corps was ‘disciplinarian’, so presumably this ex-guardsman was the one to tell ground staff of the squadron that they needed a shave or to punish them for being late or misbehaving. He stayed out in France until January 1919 and left the new Royal Air Force (formed while he was overseas in April 1918) in February.
As with many ex-servicemen, it is hard to find out much about Gayer’s later life. He continued living at 36 Sutherland Terrace, Pimlico, throughout the interwar period. In the Second World War, though, his house was destroyed in the German air raids on Britain. The raid on the night of 16/17 April 1941 is described on the excellent ‘West End At War‘ website:
Sutherland Terrace SW1 was hit by two parachute mines and three high explosive bombs, devastating the surrounding area….The first bomb fell at 11:56 pm. Reports of damage started coming in at 1:41am on 17 April with news of a parachute mine demolishing 2 Sutherland Terrace. Seven causalities were reported, all of which were believed dead. Up to thirty houses along Sutherland Terrace were reported as “razed to the ground” (i.e. flattened).
The incident and the damage it caused were so severe that three of the wardens who helped were awarded the George Medal for bravery.
One of the buildings destroyed was Percy Gayer’s house, where he had lived for most of his life. From the map on the West End at War site, it appears to have been almost directly hit by a bomb. In fact, as anyone who knows Pimlico might have noticed, Sutherland Terrace no longer exists. The entire street was destroyed. Today there are a few blocks of flats on the site instead.
Percy Gayer himself survived the war; he moved to Battersea and died in 1947, aged 73. Whether he was in Pimlico that night in April 1941 is not clear. If he was there, or simply in London in the years of the Blitz, it was probably the first time he had been in serious danger in wartime – despite his 27 years of military service.