What to do when the girls of my household are in London to see a musical leaving me in the capital city with a few hours to kill until they come out of the theatre? Why, visit a military museum, of course!
I decided that I’d walk down to Horse Guards Parade and take a look around the Household Cavalry Museum which is housed within the buildings there. Horse Guards was subject to some redevelopment in 1758 resulting in the Life Guard being based at the site, a tradition that continues to this day. In the 19th Century, the Duke of Wellington as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army used Horse Guards as the British Army HQ. In the 20th century it shamefully was allowed to become an enormous civil service car park, but it reclaimed its dignity and eventually reverted back to its original purpose as a parade and events ground in the 1990s.
The entrance fee is £8 which, though modest enough, is slightly more than many of the other military museums I’ve visited (many of which are free), but for London that’s positively cheap!
On entry, I soon found the display of the modern-day Full Dress uniform for which the Household Cavalry are famous worldwide. The uniforms are based on a 19th century-style heavy dragoon with polished steel cuirasses. The two regiments of the Household Cavalry have distinctively different uniforms; the scarlet tunics and white plumes of the Life Guard and the navy tunics and red plumes of the Blues and Royals. The colours of these regiments are a tradition which goes back a long way. For the Blues and Royals, their uniform harks back to the Horse Guards of the late 17th century.
Also in this contemporary display were the instruments of the mounted band. It was terrific to see the polished kettledrums and drum banners of a regiment which still uses them even today.
The Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) has a lineage that goes back to the distinctly un-royal cuirassiers in the Parliamentarian Army in the Civil War (known as ‘Haselrigge’s lobsters’). An example of this type of armour is on display.
In the early 19th century, Wellington’s Household Brigade performed a famous role in the Battle of Waterloo, comprising both regiments of the Life Guard and the Royal Horse Guards. The Royals (the 1st Dragoons who would later merge with the Blues) took part in the same general charge as part of the Union Brigade, in the process capturing a French Eagle. Helmets from this charge were on display. The images below show a Royals helmet top and a Horse Guards helmet below:
Back in 2016, I posted on a series of cigarette cards featuring British cavalry uniforms, one of which included this trooper below of the Royal Horse Guards in 1815. The same helmet but with the crest and plume in place can be seen.
A life-sized model reproduced the moment that Captain Alexander Kennedy Clark of the Royal Dragoons captured the French Eagle of the 105th Line. An original heavy dragoon helmet with horsehair plume could be viewed close up in a cabinet too. Great for comparison with my own 1st Royal Dragoon figures painted for the Nappy Cavalry Project a few years ago.
After Waterloo, the British Army enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace in which Britain and it’s forces were largely pre-eminent and unchallenged on the world stage. This allowed the army to explore more extravagant uniforms of immense grandeur, often without such indulgence ever being exposed to the proving ground of hard campaigning. With the prestigious Life Guard and the Royal Horse Guard regiments, this trend reached particularly exuberant proportions in the realm of headdress, as can be seen below in this 1832 Life Guards helmet with its outrageous bearskin plume.
The plume can be seen to be protruding slightly further forward on the helmet seen above compared to the design that it succeeded shown below.
This older 1817 design replaced the iconic, though short-lived, Waterloo helmet. The new design’s astonishing plume had its drawbacks, however, and apparently unbalanced the riders who wore it, hence the 1832 redesign. It must have nonetheless been a terrific sight in Full Dress occasions such as parades or reviews.
My aforementioned series of British cavalry uniforms on cigarette cards also pictured this helmet on a trooper of the Horse Guards in 1818.
Another version of this style of bear-crested ‘Romanesque’ headdress was this version worn by the 1st Dragoons, ‘the Royals’. There are notable differences, however. The helmet has been ‘Japanned’ in a black lacquer and has ornate gold-coloured leaf designs featuring on both the sides of the helmet and on the chin scales.
It’s an imposing piece of headgear, though another piece I discovered was arguably even more so. It was a headdress which I had been hoping to see up close for a long time. Described by the museum as a ‘bearskin cap’, this particular specimen was worn by a captain of the Life Guards at the coronation of the Prince Regent in 1821 and reflected the obsession that the would-be King George IV had with Napoleon’s recently defunct Imperial Guard.
The grenadier badge is a direct reference to Napoleon’s grenadiers. The ‘comb-over’ plume is made of swan feathers. Once again, another of those cigarette cards depicts this headdress. In fact, it reproduced the exact same coronation headdress on display in the museum, describing the illustration as “an officer of the Life Guards in the full dress uniform worn at the Coronation of George IV”. Notably, the artist has wrongly envisaged a direct copy of the French version with a shorter swan plume, a front plate and other Imperial Guard details, different to the original shown in the museum.
It would hardly be the Household Cavalry museum without plenty of cuirasses on display. Below is the cuirass worn at the same coronation as the bearskin cap. It’s quite a curious shape, quite elongated, which I suspect may have made being mounted for long periods uncomfortable.
The difference in cuirass shape can be clearly seen when compared to the version below;
For ceremonial occasions, cuirasses could be incredibly ornate. The black lacquered cuirass in the photo below was worn exclusively for the state visit of the Russian Tsar in 1814, no doubt deliberately resembling the Russian cuirassiers’ own black versions. It was interesting for me to discover that cuirasses were therefore being worn by the Life Guard, albeit briefly, pre-dating Waterloo. I’d always assumed that the regiment’s encounter with the French cuirassiers had been the instigator of a relationship between the cuirass and the Household Cavalry.
There was a particularly nice display relating to Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards. To the Victorian public, Burnaby was a famously heroic character; the epitome of the recklessly brave Victorian adventurer. Being a member of the Victorian Military Society, he was already familiar to me and I have encountered a number of accounts of the man and his life. Burnaby was larger than life in every sense; being 6ft 4in tall, immensely strong and 20 stone. In the Victorian era such vital statistics was particularly impressive. As sense of the man’s still considerable stature could be gleaned from standing near his uniform, cuirass and boots.
Feats of his astonishing physical strength and endurance was subject to many anecdotes. Most of all, his adventurous and impetuous spirit guided him through many solo adventures across Central Asia, Spain, the Balkans and Russia at a time when being in the Royal Horse Guards meant limited exposure to direct military action.
Finally, desperate to see some combat, Burnaby took an unofficial appointment in the 1884 Sudan campaign. He subsequently died in desperate hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Abu Klea. One wonders whether his ceremonial cuirass would have proved of real value in such fighting? The boots displayed above were the same ones he was wearing when he was killed in the act of recklessly engaging the famously fierce Sudanese Hadendoa warriors virtually single-handed. The knife and it’s scabbard seen above are Sudanese weapons found on the field of battle where he lay. The book is a copy of “A Ride to Khiva”, Burnaby’s own popular account of his astonishingly daring trip to the distant silk road city which was then a newly acquired part of the Tsar’s empire.
Nearing the exit, I saw a poignant exhibit from aftermath of the IRA bombing of the Blues and Royals near Hyde Park in 1982. Four soldiers and seven of their horses died in the atrocity. The ornate dragoon helmet on display has been grotesquely damaged and deformed by the blast, a sobering reminder of just how far removed the smartness and beauty of traditional British army ceremonial uniforms are from being appropriate military equipment in the modern era. With the story of the wounded horse Sefton, it was also a reminder of how much appalling suffering cavalry horses must have endured through the ages.
To conclude with, a few more images of uniforms through the ages included in which is Lord Uxbridge’s artificial leg! Uxbridge was Wellington’s 2nd in command at Waterloo and in command of the Allied cavalry (he even recklessly joined the charge of the Heavy Brigade).
Recently, I also encountered another exhibit relating to a member of Wellington’s senior staff when I saw Lt-General Picton’s top hat displayed in the National Army Museum. Just as Picton’s hat reminded me of a famous scene in Dino De Laurentiis’ superb film “Waterloo”, so this leg also made me recall another scene from it; when Uxbridge (played by Terence Alexander) tragically loses his leg to a stray cannonball at the very conclusion of the battle:
Uxbridge: My God sir, I’ve lost my leg.
Wellington: My God sir, so you have!
On exiting, I took a final snap of a statue situated right outside the museum door. The statue commemorates a former colonel of the Horse Guards, the esteemed Victorian Commander-in-Chief, Sir Garnet Wolseley. He is sitting astride his mount and looking out across Horse Guards Parade. Another colossus of Victorian generalship, Lord Roberts, is just yards away, mounted upon his own plinth.
Glancing at my watch, I decided I still had plenty of time before meeting my wife and daughter. So I walked off down to the excellent Guards Toy Soldier Centre which is outside The Guards Museum and just off Birdcage Walk…