‘Time for another military museum’ said Jo and it’s true there are several left on our list, which at about two years into this particular Project stands at something like 100/250 venues… Some off our original list have vanished (or moved to the country) but others have been added as we go along so this may be a Project without end – but I digress.
Today’s destination could not be easier to find though I wonder how many people know it is actually there, tucked away in a cobbled corner of Horseguards Parade behind the arch (built by Charles II as we learnt). I stepped through rather gingerly as it means passing close to the horses on guard and I always think they seem a bit frisky and unpredictable and really rather large.. I have managed to get to my 7th decade of life without ever having been on a horse (donkeys yes) and they really take centre stage for this museum.
The Household Cavalry comprises two regiments – the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, the latter itself the result of a merging the former Royal Horse Guards (Blues) and 1st (Royal) Dragoons. It seems Charles II much admired the personal bodyguard maintained by Louis XIV in France and ‘wanted one too’. When you consider what then happened to royalty in France perhaps they weren’t the best role model to follow and the English Parliament was understandably nervous about having the monarch with a standing army so to speak until persuaded by the paranoia of the ‘Popish Plot’. The Titus Oates claims (bit of bias here I think) may well have been an early forerunner of the ‘dodgy dossier ‘ type and it is far from clear whether there really was a plot against the king or merely Titus Oates and co out to get a few more Catholics disposed of. Whatever, having a ‘life guard’ after this seemed less extreme or exotic.
Given its corner location the Museum is pretty compact – we were offered a tablet-based headset but actually found just reading the display captions and watching bits of video were more than enough to tell the story of the Regiments’ origins, traditions, exploits and ceremonials.
The uniforms (at a current cost of about £700 each) are what you see sitting proudly on a horse on most state occasions when the sovereign is out and about needing protection, though the role is largely symbolic nowadays. Probably the Met, who have their own stables across the road, do a fiercer job of security and protection. The Museum allows you to look at the uniform in quite some detail and tells you the specific names of the bits of uniform – the boots reach to mid-thigh and the breast plate is known as a cuirass, the gloves as gauntlets, and the belt as a cartouche belt. Today the Lifeguards were wearing heavy red topcoats which split neatly at the back and fall beautifully over the horse’s rump. The helmets, also brass, have white plumes for the Lifeguards and red for the Blues (who have blue coats) and Royals. Part of the discipline is keeping your uniform and that of the horse smart and shiny – a volunteer told us this took 10 hours a day but I’m not sure this leaves much time for any ‘soldiering’ even if only of the ceremonial type. There is also a more gold coat as worn by the musicians who are expected to play heavy brass instruments whilst on horseback – I think maybe they are spared from having a sword as well. Though there was a lot of shouting going on during the ceremony, loud music (kettle drums and tubas) were sounded to send a message across the battle field rather than for any musical entertainment.
The cases contain small ivory ‘pass cards’ which succeeded the need to know today’s password. I suppose if you are the sort of person who forgets today’s password you might just remember to bring your ivory pass?
The Household Cavalry recruits from the whole country and Commonwealth and 85%of the soldiers learn to ride. There was an interesting interview with two recruits who talked us through the sometimes painful process of learning to ride – and training which takes about 10 months and includes the personal care of the animals and familiarising them with noise and sudden startling so they cope with both the tourists and the ceremonial occasions. The horses are mainly bred in Ireland and their names come from a pre-selected list issued on an alphabetical basis – a cross between car registration and hurricane naming… We did reasonably well on a ‘horse quiz’ but strangely failed to recognise Sefton – the horse who was so badly injured when the regiment was nail bombed by the IRA in Hyde Park in July 1982.
This led us neatly into the section of the museum which is adjacent to but glassed off from the stables where the 6 or so horses are kept for the day’s changing of the guard ceremony; we were there just around 11 AM so watched a couple of soldiers mount their horses and trot off to do their thing. Virtually throughout our visit, there was a soldier (in camouflage not dress uniform) sweeping the seemingly endless supply of horse droppings and wet straw from the cobbled surface. Jo when still a history teacher and author had learnt that horses can evacuate their bowels up to 13 times a day so you can see why cleaning the Augean stables was a Herculean Task though to be fair these were mainly cows.
For children there are small size replica uniforms for ‘dressing up’ opportunities.
After the chance to look behind the scenes the museum then resembles other regimental displays. The usual pattern is a history of engagements successful or otherwise with the exploits of outstanding heroes detailed, often with their accompanying medals or accoutrements. Needless to say just following the bicentennial, the Dragoons (forerunners of the Blues & Royals, pay attention) were at Waterloo with both other ranks and officers gaining awards. Lingering before a caption naming the most decorated UK soldier Jo reminded me however successful an ordinary soldier may have been he could not rise above a certain rank.
After Waterloo there was a six decade gap of non combat mainly because Victoria chose to keep her Household Cavalry about her (there are further stables and training opportunities at Windsor) so they did not take part in the Crimea. However in 1882 they were deployed to Egypt to suppress a nationalist uprising (sounds familiar). Time to swap horses for camels.
Before long they found themselves deployed to France where at Zandvoorde close to Ypres they suffered heavy losses and later photos from this conflict show the Household cavalry with bicycles as both sides found to their costs that cavalry charges were tantamount to suicide missions.
According to their captions they did not motorise until 1941 which seems quite late and by 1942 had armoured cars and conscription. As equestrianism (as opposed to keeping a working horse) was something of a rich man’s sport conscription would have widened the intake. Amongst the medals you can see the cap and shirt worn by one Jackie Charlton footballer who of course played for the Blues team before having a professional career in football.
The Household Cavalry’s post-1945 engagements are pretty standard, having sent soldiers to the first Iraq conflict, Afghanistan and numerous peace keeping missions in Cyprus and the Balkans. They also spent some time in Northern Ireland which may well have precipitated the nail bomb attack in Hyde Park, which killed seven horses and 4 men and injured 23. To see the size and viciousness of the nails is really chilling.
Gladly from this dark episode we emerged into the sunshine in time to join others watching the horses lined up to change the guard. This is a regimental museum like many but stands out for its amazing location and chance to see the mounts close up – a must for anyone who loves London or horses.