Waterloo

On this day 203 years ago, the Household Cavalry were soldiers on a battlefield where history was changed.

The regiments of the Household Cavalry all fought at the Battle of Waterloo, June 18th 1815, in the last battle of a brief military campaign to stop the return of Napoleon Bonaparte and all won great distinction in the fighting; over the course of the day, Napoleon sent successive cavalry attacks to try and swamp the British lines, and it fell to the British cavalry to fight them off, pushing the French back despite being outnumbered and pitted against an enemy with better training, mounts and equipment.

The Household Cavalry Museum contains many artefacts from Waterloo which tell the stories of the men who made names for themselves on that field in Belgium over two centuries ago, including:

The Eagle of the 105th Regiment of the Line, captured by members of the Royals at Waterloo: A French Regiment’s eagle, personally given by Napoleon, was mounted on top of its standard, and represented the honour and pride of the soldiers who fought under it. For the enemy to capture an eagle was a terrible blow to the French Army, and a great honour to the man who took it (as such commemorated on the left arm of the uniform of the Blues and Royals)

– A lock of hair and a snuff-box made from the hoof of Marengo, the horse ridden by Napoleon at Waterloo

– The sword wielded by Major Edward Kelly of the 1st Life Guards, with which he killed Colonel Habert of the 4th Cuirassiers during one of the savage cavalry clashes at Waterloo (winning him a knighthood of the Order of St. Anne, as well as the personal commendation of the Russian tsar), as well as the tail of Kelly’s favourite bay mare, which carried him to safety despite a fatal lance injury to the head.

– The uniform of Sir Robert Hill, commanding officer of the Blues at Waterloo, including the musket ball removed from his arm on the field.

– A cast of the skull of Corporal John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards; a veritable Hercules of a man, over 6ft tall with a career outside the army both as a boxer and a life model for the Royal Academy, Waterloo was Shaw’s first and last battle; he died during one of the cavalry clashes, accounting for 10 French cavalrymen before he was cut down (when his sword shattered, Shaw resorted to clubbing enemies with his helmet and the broken hilt). Given a hero’s burial on the battlefield, Shaw’s body was later exhumed and casts of his bones made to feed the vogue in British society for souvenirs with a connection to the battlefield.

– The prosthetic leg of the Earl of Uxbridge. A musket wound sustained at Waterloo necessitated the amputation of his right leg below the knee; dissatisfied with the prosthesis provided for him, Uxbridge commissioned a fully articulated prosthetic leg which would be the standard of such until as late as 1914.

These artefacts and the histories attached to them are just some of the stories that can be discovered at the Household Cavalry Museum, tied to that grey, damp day in June where on a field in Belgium over 200 years ago, the course of history was changed…

Trooping The Colour

Trooping the Colour, in layman’s terms, is the Queen’s birthday parade, which has taken place since 1748. It’s annual – birthdays tend to work like that – and, since the 1950s, has always fallen on the second Saturday of June, the monarch’s official celebration.

This year, it falls on June 9. Although Her Majesty The Queen’s actual birthday is April 21st, her ‘official birthday’ is marked by Trooping the Colour, a ceremony which is always held in June. This was a tradition begun by Her Majesty’s great-grandfather, King Edward VII, who chose to set it in June to compensate for the vagaries of British weather, particularly given that his own birthday was in November! However, the history of Trooping the Colour is much older; on the battlefield, the principal purpose of a regiment’s Colours was to provide a rallying point in the chaos of battle. Given how easy it was for troops to become disoriented and separated from their unit during conflict, it was the habit to have the colours of the Regiment displayed for the troops so they could familiarise themselves with the colours. This was done by having young officers march in between the ranks of troops formed up in lines with the Colours held high. So, what today is a great tradition began life as a vital and practical parade designed to aid unit recognition before a battle began.

After travelling from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade, the Queen inspects around 2,000 members of the Household Division and Horse Guards, made up of 1,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians, who give Her Majesty the royal salute. Then the Colour is Trooped – that is, a regimental flag (the ‘Colour’) is paraded (‘Trooped’) in front of the Queen. Though the flag changes yearly, it will always come from one of the five regiments of the Foot Guards regiments (either the Scots, Welsh, Irish, Grenadier and Coldstream Guards). This year, the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards will be providing the Colour, the first time they have done so since 2009. Their Colonel is Prince William, who took the position in 2011. Back in the 1700s, the flag would be shown off so all troops would recognise it in battle.

This parade is not a simple wave, followed by a brisk dismissal however: it is an extravagant display of military prowess, involving over 100 commands, and following strict timings. Troops begin to form at 9.15am, but things begin properly at 10.45am when the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace to begin her grand birthday parade down to Horse Guards Parade, which she reaches at 11am. Her Majesty then reviews the soldiers before heading back to the palace. At 12.52pm, there is a cannonade of artillery, followed by a Fly Past over Buckingham Palace by the Royal Air Force at 1pm.

Until 1987, the Queen rode alongside the Guards – including in 1981, when she was shot at by a member of the crowd who was later arrested – but now watches the entire parade from a carriage. Her Majesty has attended the event every year bar one since taking the throne in 1953: in 1955, a National Rail strike necessitated the cancellation of the event.

Trooping the Colour is taken extremely seriously every year, with troopers participating in the display taking up to 12 hours to prepare their uniforms and a reported 1200 pots of polish used each year. The streets also need taking care of: a team of road sweepers is employed by the Royal Parks to clear up after the horses, which can leave up to 4.5 tons of manure behind during the event.

For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to get tickets for the event at Horse Guards, it will be possible to view the ceremony from along the Mall and within St. James’s Park.