Some old photographs recently passed to me by my mother included a few snaps of a Victorian Military Society fair that I attended sometime back in the mid 1980s. I think I might have attended two or three around this time and I suppose would have been aged between 13 and 16. The fair was been held, I very distinctly remember, at the Victory Services Club in London.
The Victory Services Club was opened in 1907 by Major Arthur Haggard, brother of the famous author H. Rider Haggard and moved to its current site on Seymour Street, near Marble Arch. My admittedly low quality photo below gives an impression of the fair with its crowd of visitors and stands.
I could be wrong but one figure standing on the stage to the side I believe to be Colonel Peter Walton, who remains today the Victorian Military Society’s Vice-President, I’m happy to say.
Looking at the photos, I well recall the range of stands offering all sorts of items for the Victorian military enthusiast including books, prints, old newspapers, clothing, militaria, model figures and more. I believe these items (a sword, bayonets and an assegai) are from the same event, though I can say no more about them.
It was from a VMS fair around this time that I purchased (for a whopping £1.50 pocket money) a Dorset MMS “Armies of the World” 54mm model yeomanry figure which I, as I blogged in 2018, I only recently got around to painting!
I remember at these fairs speaking to the military history authors Michael Barthorp, Ian Knight and Ian Castle. Peter Walton also gave a talk on his new volume of Richard Simkin prints called “Simkin’s Soldiers”.
The occasional re-enactor could be found stalking the floors or giving talks with both men and (judging from my hazy, dim photo of the whole floor) women too.
Upstairs could be found a large wargaming room in which this young visitor could only stand agog at the conflicts playing out before him with a range of wonderful figures. I still remember this skirmish below being played out by the Crimean War Research Group, presumably some sort of raid on the Sevastopol siege lines.
I also have a vague impression of another featuring the 1880s Sudan campaign. Clearly, non-British conflicts were also covered too as this photo seems to show an American Civil War battle.
My overall memories are of a thrilling day out for a young military history nerd who returned home on the train with bags of purchased ‘goodies’.
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…
Finding myself on a rare trip to London with my wife, I somehow persuaded her that a short detour to the nearby National Army Museum might be in order and she graciously agreed. The National Army Museum is situated right next the Royal Hospital in Chelsea and entry to the museum is entirely free. It was founded in 1960 “for the purpose of collecting, preserving and exhibiting objects and records relating to the Land Forces of the British Crown”.
I think I must have last visited when I was about 14 years old for a seminar organised by the Victorian Military Society; so, ah, that’s a few decades ago now. It has changed beyond recognition since being reopened recently after a 3-year, £24 million redevelopment. A press release had this to say about the redesign:
Following an extensive review of the existing National Army Museum brand, the museum set out to transform perceptions of a dark and austere military museum to a modern, bright, engaging and relevant space fit for the 21st century.
As someone with a long-standing interest in military history, I must confess that I’m never happier than in a “dark and austere military museum”! Hearing of its transformation therefore into a “relevant space” concerned me a little. Would it be relevant to me? The press release continued:
Working with creative agencies … the new National Army Museum brand is reflected in the physical museum, its website and has influenced designers across the project in every aspect, from permanent gallery displays and public spaces, to interior design and signage.
We strive to talk about our subject in ways that are at once insightful, sharing, conversational, stimulating and above all real and relevant. We want to inspire conversations, not just questions and answers, and support genuine and meaningful encounters with our story for audiences of all ages and backgrounds. The new brand encapsulates this position.’
OK. I got to admit that I don’t really go in for all this ‘branding’ speak. A “genuine and meaningful encounter” for me is what happens when I see a military exhibit. What’s “relevant” probably depends more on the individual visitor and is difficult for a curator to anticipate. As for what’s “real” – there’s surely nothing more real than an historical artefact; interactive screens, vinyl wall displays and branding designs are ultimately mere simulacrum. So, though I appreciated the desire for the NAM to engage with as wide a portion of the general public as possible, I was visiting with some concerns as to how engaging I personally would find it.
The new National Army Museum is split over its floors into separate galleries respectively titled “Soldier”, “Battle”, “Army”, “Society” and “Insight”. It sounded all a little bit vague to me and, pressed for time, didn’t assist me to identify where I might quickly find topics that I’m most interested in. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s an imaginative attempt to introduce the topic to the more general visitor who might not have such preferences.
Inside, the museum certainly looks impressive. It’s open and inviting, strikingly fresh, modern and clean.
Perhaps it’s a trifle too clean? There are lots of open space which, I couldn’t help but feel could have been used to display more exhibits! Thankfully, there are still plenty of exhibits to be found for a military history nerd like me to enjoy. So, I’m going to review some of the best.
The “Soldier Gallery” contained about a dozen uniforms worn by manikins in glass cases. The arrangement was seemingly random although, with such a wide subject, perhaps such indiscriminate juxtapositions are as good an approach as any. I’d have liked to have seen more of them, nonetheless! Lawrence of Arabia’s Bedouin robes were on display as were the below examples of the superbly ornate 10th (Prince of Wales Own) Light Dragoons (Hussars) and the very smart 1st Duke of York’s Own Lancers (also known as Skinner’s Horse), a cavalry regiment of the British Indian Army.
I was particularly pleased to see an example of the striking First Aid Nursing Yeomanry uniform on display. Having discussed Serbian women’s involvement in WWI and having taken part in FEMbruary earlier this year, female involvement in warfare is a topic that has cropped up a number of times on Suburban Militarism.
The pouch on the rear of the uniform states “FAYC”, referring to them being yeomanry cavalry, i.e. they were expected to ride horses. Any hard riding would have been severely hampered by the presence of that long navy skirt. No doubt many in the FAYC would have rather worn far more practical riding breeches. The very fine scarlet uniform closely resembles the kind of smart Full Dress uniform in use by some of the male yeomanry of the time. For Service Dress, the men were already moving on to the more practical khaki – displayed alongside was the excellent Anglo-Boer War-era Imperial Yeomanry uniform. The style and colour of the FAYC uniform was a sign that women were not at all expected to get involved in the front line of battle. My post on the Female Soldiers of Serbia gives some indication of how this restrictive expectation was thwarted by many brave women in reality.
There was a nice display case (above) of some exhibits which, unfortunately, were not labelled for identification. The interactive screens nearby may well have been able to tell me more but a lack of time moved me on and so I was left to speculate what the peculiar white japanned dragoon helmet was (some yeomanry musician’s helmet?), or the age and regiment of the light-blue sergeant’s coatee of some light cavalry.
I was pleased to see some of the colourful and unusual dress from British empire forces from overseas. A uniform of a West Indian regiment was treat to see, it’s style modelled on the renowned Zouaves of the French army, apparently on the instruction of Queen Victoria herself. A fascinating account of the history of the West India Regiments from its iniquitous slavery beginnings through to 1927, “Slaves in Red Coats“, can be found on the NAM website. Further exploring British army uniforms across the globe was the above West African Frontier Force uniform. Like the West Indian version, this Lance Corporal of the Nigeria Regiment also sports a Zouave-style jacket and red fez but without the white turban wound about it.
Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon loomed large in the displays in the Battle Gallery. It was a great experience to stand so close to exhibits such as Wellington’s cloak and General Picton’s top hat from the battle.
Looking at that top hat, I was reminded of the scene in the epic film “Waterloo” by Dino De Laurentiis where Lt-General Picton is shot and killed leading his troops forward in a scene brilliantly portrayed by Jack Hawkins. The sight of a gentlemanly top hat and umbrella in the midst of a brutal battle was memorably incongruous. In the film, a gruff Hawkins cries to his men “On! you drunken rascals, you whore’s melts, you thieves, you blackguards!” But his tirade is halted as the top hat is suddenly scarred by shot, the only sign that Picton himself has been hit also. The hat is last seen tumbling to the ground alongside it’s owner on the Belgian hillside, swallowed up and lost in the ongoing battle. Picton was described by Wellington as being a “a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived”, but respected his great ability to command. His last words were reputedly a far less coarse “Charge! Charge! Hurrah! Hurrah!” as he lead his troops to counter-attack the French.
An impressive cuirass and helmet of a French Carabinier was displayed as was the skeleton of Napoleon’s famous grey horse “Marengo”, which he rode throughout many a campaign. The Arab mount was visibly a rather small horse, judging by the skeleton. It suffered 8 wounds in battle but survived to a grand old age of 38. Captured at Waterloo, it ended its days living a deservedly quieter life in England. Astonishing to think of the dramatic events, places and people that the now sightless Arabian stallion must have once seen.
I encounted a magnificent diorama of Waterloo that I’d heard about previously. It was first developed by Captain Siborne over a decade after the battle happened making use of his own obsessively meticulous research. Financial issues as well as the immense work involved delayed its completion until 1838. Incorporating, in its original form, over 70,000 tin soldiers (5mm scale) it demonstrated an immensely detailed recreation of the landscape. Siborne reputedly fell foul of the Duke of Wellington, who apparently voiced disapproval for a perceived incorrect excessive bias towards the role that the Prussians had taken, though this is disputed amongst historians.
Finally, I visited the Soldier Gallery which presented a wall resplendent with all manner of exotic military headdress!
Again, it was a somewhat random approach to take but ultimately looked impressive. Up on this wall, I discovered my very first example of a British hussar’s Mirliton, which was very pleasing to see. This headdress was something which I’d modelled for the first time earlier this year when painting my Swedish Morner Hussars.
Amongst other new discoveries was the Light Company helmet pictured below from the time of the American Revolutionary War. Note the face on the crest, the red horsehair and turban. The appearance of the figure of Britannia on the front plate identifies this as being the 9th Regiment of Foot, later the Norfolk Regiment (see Rule Britannia! My report on the Norfolk Regiment Collection from 2016).
More examples of headdress below including some very spectacular Dragoon helmet crests sandwiching a grenadier’s mitre cap.
Exhibits shown below are of the Napoleonic British Dragoon Guards and an 1834 Lancer’s Czapka of the 17th Regiment, notable for its skull and crossbones cap badge indicating ‘Death or Glory’. Both tremendously ostentatious and decorative objects.
My wife and I then underwent instruction by a virtual Drill Sergeant, which involved standing on a specific area and having a video of sergeant bellow instructions at us. He offered “helpful” advice and “considered” assessments of our relative performance. I’m pleased to say that he was slightly less annoyed by my performance than by hers!
Sadly, I then had to rush off before I had a chance to experience either the Society or Insight galleries. All in all, I had an enjoyable visit and discovered some great objects. I’m not sure the ‘theme’ approach quite works for me and some of the efforts gone to engage a wider audience were sometimes just not relevant or of interest to me as a visitor with an established interest in the topic. That said, I do fully understand and accept the drive for a national museum with free entry to engage the widest possible audience and not just the history nerds like myself.
The NAM’s efforts to make its exhibits available online via it’s website – or by appointment to its storage facility – and to also reach out with create ‘extra-curricular’ evening talks, events and displays are to be commended (viz. a recent cultural evening of food, music and performances to launch a display on Romania’s WWI involvement).
The very well refurbished National Army Museum in particular had very helpful and friendly staff. With free entry and lots to see, it can only be recommended to those with any degree of interest in military history.