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Household Cavalry

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Royal Horse Guards
Life Guards


Photographs and history of the Household Cavalry, during the reign of Queen Victoria.

This is composed of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards and the Horse Guards.  At first the whole force of isolated "troops" went by the general name of "His Majesty's Guards".  This gradually differentiated into "Horse Guards", "Body Guards" and "Life Guards", the last named title being only officially recognised in 1788, on the formation of the previously isolated troops into regiments.  Of the two regiments the Life Guards is senior by one year in the British establishment; its existence dating from 1660, when eighty cavalier gentlemen, under Lord Gerard (whose official designation was "General of the Life guards" later on), were formed into the personal body-guard of Charles II during his exile in Holland.  The were, therefore, called on parade "gentlemen of the Life guards", a  title still applied to the stalwart troopers who now fill the ranks of the regiment.  The corporals were commissioned officers, ranking with the "eldest lieutenant of horse" in other regiments of cavalry.  Similarly, captains ranked as senior colonels, lieutenants as major, and cornets as captains.  The privates, too, were of gentle birth as a rule, their service in the ranks being a qualification for commissions in other regiments.  the seniority of regiments, then without numbers and called after the colonel's names, depended on the date of commission of its commanding officer for the time being.  At first only three troops were formed, bearing the name of the "King's Own, which received rather better pay than the others, and was in 1679 distinguished by blue ribbon, the "Duke of York's" by yellow ribbon, while green ribbon was worn by the "Duke of Albemarle's" regiment, which was called after General Monk, who on the restoration of the king had been raised to the peerage with this title.  This, on the death of the Duke in 1670, took the name of "the Queen's Troop", and then superseded the 2nd, or Duke of York's troop, taking its place finally altogether.  There appears to have been some difference in the dress of officers and men at different times.  The former at the coronation of the king wore scarlet coats much belaced, cuirasses, leather breeches with high lack boots, and broad rimmed hats with feathers, but the men had pot helmets as their defensive head gear; their weapons being carbines, swords, and a "case of pistols" with 14 inch barrels.  Their first active service was in the dispersion of Venner's "fifth monarchy" men in Wood Street, Cheapside.

A fourth troop was added in 1661 at Edinburgh, and was called "His Majesty's Scots Troop of Guards"; and throughout the force great care was taken to eliminate both roman Catholics and Puritans from the ranks by requiring the men to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, together with the sacrament "according to the rites of the Established church of England".

Only two of these troops now exist.  the 1st and 2nd were expanded into the present regiments of Life Guards, and the 3rd and 4th were disbanded in 1746; as were also, in 1788, two troops of Grenadier Guards, embodied in 1693 and 1702.  These were armed with fusils and bayonets, hatchets, pistols, sword, and grenade pouches for their grenades.  In fighting they "dismounted, lashed their horses, fired, screwed their daggers into the muzzles of their muskets, charged, returned their daggers, fired, and threw their grenades by ranks, the centre and rear ranks advancing in succession through the intervals between the file leaders; they then grounded their arms, went to the right about, and dispersed; and at the "preparative", or beating "to arms", they drew their swords, and stood to their arms, falling with a "Huzza"; they then returned their swords, shouldered and slung their muskets, marched to their horses, unlashed and mounted, after which they fired their pistols and muskets on horseback.  The exercise of the Dragoon differed very little from that of the Horse Grenadier, except in that part relative to the grenade.

One curious duty arose in the latter part of the seventeenth century, that of detailing troops, usually bodies of Life Guards, or "Horse", to act as escort to treasure being conveyed from Portsmouth to London, a custom which survived until 1810.

It was in this regiment that John Churchill, afterwards Duke of Marlborough, and the greatest soldier next to Napoleon the world has ever seen, first gains mention in the pages of military history, for in the siege of Maestricht, in 1673, it is related how, led by the duke of Monmouth, "Captain Churchill and twelve private gentlemen of the Life Guards . . . . led the troops they had rallied to the charge with such invincible courage that they drove back the Dutch".

From the Life Guards came at this time certain court officials.  There were three captains in each regiment whose duty was personal attendance on the Sovereign, and whose wands of office were "an ebony staff, or truncheon, with a gold head engraved with his Majesty's cypher and crown", and who were afterwards called the "gold sticks in waiting".  Relieving them were officers whose wands were silver decorated, and who eventually took the name of "silver sticks in waiting".  Lastly there were subordinate officers, corporals or brigadiers (practically subalterns) whose staves were adorned with ivory mountings.  The first named officers survive still, but the last was abolished in the reign of George III.

On the accession of James II instead of the cuirass was worn the buff coat and gauntlet gloves of the same; and it is curious to read how in 1679 "rifle carbines" to the number of eight per troop were added.

It would be impossible in a brief space to relate the battle history of the Household Cavalry.  At Dettingen, while the trumpets sounded "Britons strike home", they at their gallant leader's shout Trust to your swords, handle them well, and never mind your pistols", broke the French infantry column.  "Lord Crawford", writes a trooper in his description of the battle, "behaved like a true son of Mars, for when the enemy charged them in front and flank he rode from right to left crying 'Never fear, my boys, this is a fine diversion'."  By this time the buff coat had been laid aside, as well as the helmet, and they were dressed in scarlet coats turned up with blue, and wore three cornered cocked hats laced with gold; which was changed to a coat with epaulets, white waistcoat and breeches, with a cocked hat and red and white plume, by 1788.  They had originally been furnished with carbines, which were replaced by muskets shortly after 1660, and for these again were substituted almost immediately short carbines, which in their turn gave way to long carbines and bayonets.  These were in use until 1812.

At Waterloo, again, where they fought without cuirasses and in brass helmets, red swallow tailed coats, and light blue pantaloons, they bravely attacked the French Lancers and Cuirassiers, and in 1816 were rewarded by a silver medal issued to the officers and men.

Cuirasses were resumed in 1821, the head dress was a steel helmet with an enormous coloured woollen crest, and this by 1836 had been replaced by a bearskin grenadier cap with a plume of feathers passing over the crown.  In 1821, for the first time, the men were directed to wear the moustache.

The Horse guards share almost completely the history of the Life Guards.  They had formed part of the Parliamentary army in the reign of Charles I, and, raised in 1661, they were called, to distinguishthem from the Earl of Portland's Dutch guards, who were similarly dressed, the "Oxford Blues", after their commander, the Earl of Oxford.  Later on, in Flanders, they were known as the "Blue Guards", and since then have been familiarly called "the Blues".

Their first important service was when they fought at Sedgemoor, and shortly afterwards they engaged in the campaign in Ireland, under the command of King William III, and suffered severely at the battle of Aughrim.

Like the Life Guards, they were present at Dettingen, and were similarly equipped; and at the disastrous battle of Fontenoy were commended for their bravery.  In the former battle, as a soldier present writes, "The Blue Regiment fought desperately . . . . The king told us we had beaten such great numbers as jnine to one, and for the future we should be more equally matched, for he never would have his English lads starved, but turn them out against two to one with any power in Europe".

There was one peculiarity in the regiment in 1799, in that the quartermasters bore commissions, while with all other cavalry they were warrant officers; and the other officers were supposed to be "selected from troops of the line".

In 1806 they are shown as dressed in blue, with red and gold braid facings on the chest, a cocked hat worn cross wise, and with a red and white plume; and the privates carried long muskets , the butt of which was held in a bucket in front of the off stirrup, the barrel passing out under the right arm; but in 1815 the head dress consisted of a steel helmet, with brass mountings and a heavy crest of blue, and the pantaloons were a light claret, with a broad red stripe down the leg.  In the great battle of that year they were specially mentioned by the Duke as having highly distinguished themselves.  Instances of individual bravery were numerous.  Trooper Johnson took prisoner, with his own hand, three French Cuirassiers; and "Shaw the Life guardsman", who found death near La Haye Saint, accounted for nine of the enemy before, having already received many wounds, he fell pierced with a musket ball.  Ordered to fall out when first wounded, he replied, "Please God I shan't leave my colours yet".  In 1821 they resumed the cuirass, which had been abandoned soon after 1704; and the buff belts that had hitherto been worn were replaced by white.  In other respects their changes in dress have been similar to those in the Life Guards.

The battle roll of the three regiments of Household Cavalry is similar and distinguished, but it does not in this instance, or in others quoted hereafter, represent a tithe of the brilliant services they have rendered in war.  Dettingen, the Peninsula, and Waterloo, indicate that they shared in our early wars; and though they were not employed for many years after the long peace, they fought in the Egyptian campaign of 1882, and have added "Tel-el-Kebir" to their list of honours.  At Kassassin, their dashing charge on the Egyptian infantry, according to the native account, "absolutely annihilated the whole force they struck upon".  but though the regiments have not themselves been ordered on foreign service as a brigade since the long war, their officers have frequently availed themselves of such opportunities of distinction as offered, and the Crimea, the Zulu War, etc, saw many of their officers on the Staff.  Colonel Fraser, of the 1st Life Guards, received the gold medal of the French Republic for his "devoted services to the wounded on the field of battle in the Franco-German campaign of 1870-71"; and the name of "Fred" Burnaby will always be associated with the battle of Abu Klea, where he gallantly met with a soldier's death.  "In the melee," says Sir C Wilson, when describing the broken square, "the Heavies fought with the most determined bravery, and I was told that not a single Arab succeeded in passing through the ranks of the Life Guards and Blues".

Regimental nicknames are always worth recording, whether good or bad; they represent incidents in the domestic life of regiments.  The Life guards were once known as the "Cheeses"; as, when the force was remodelled in 1788, some of its members declined to serve in it, as "it was no longer composed of gentlemen, but cheesemongers".  None the less, their gallantry was shown vividly at Waterloo, and the old name was used by its colonel when he called out, "come on, cheesemongers, Charge!"  The name "Piccadilly Butchers" was applied to them because they were used to check the Piccadilly riots in 1810, when Sir Francis Burdett was arrested on the Speaker's warrant; but the only modern nickname given nowadays to all the Cuirassiers is the "Tin Bellies", or "Patent Safeties", a good humoured reference to the fact that they are the only troops wearing armour in the Queen's service.  the cuirass is only worn, however, for court ceremonies and London duty.  At European warfare if the Household Troops had to meet the heavy cavalry of foreign powers.

The height of the men in both regiments is the same, five feet ten inches.  The tunics are, respectively, red, with blue velvet facings; and blue, with scarlet cloth collar and cuffs; the pantaloons are of white leather; the helmets, of German silver, have gilt ornaments, and a silver garter star in front with the Life Guards, whose plume is white, and the Royal Arms with the Horse Guards, whose plume is red, while the cloaks of the former are red, and of the latter blue.

The standards are similar.  The Queen's colour, of crimson, bears the Royal Arms, V.R., and the battle roll; the second has the rose, thistle, and shamrock crowned in the centre, with V.R. on either side.

The Household Cavalry Regiments are the only ones in the service which adhere to the "long service" system, the troopers engaging for the full period of twelve years with the colours.

Extract from "The British Army and Auxiliary Forces" Colonel C. Cooper King, R.M.A. , 1894

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