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The Household Cavalry: still riding high
As the Household Cavalry celebrates its 350th birthday, Allan Mallinson, an author and former officer, explains why it remains a force to be reckoned with

By Allan Mallinson
Published: 7:00AM BST 28 Mar 2010

The scene is Blackheath, south-east London, May 29 1660, the King's 30th birthday. Charles Stuart, as he was still officially known, had stepped on to English soil – or, rather, shingle – at Dover four days earlier for the first time in nearly a decade of Cromwell's Commonwealth. He now rode ceremoniously on to the grassy parade ground, which since Roman times had served as a marching camp, to take possession of England's army – 30,000 troops, formerly the instrument of his exile, ready to take up their arms again as soldiers of the King.

"You had none of these at Coldstream," someone muttered to General Monck as the glittering party approached. (Monck's midwinter march from the Scottish border to London had set in train the restoration of the monarchy.) "But grasshoppers and butterflies never come abroad in frosty weather!"

Charles did indeed cut a fine figure – tall, "black and very slenderfaced", in a doublet of silver cloth, a cloak decorated with gold lace, and a hat with a plume of red feathers. Behind him rode his Life Guard of 80 troopers – "gentlemen's sons" as Cromwell had once dubbed them – as glad to see their native country again as Charles was himself.

The Household Cavalry, of which the Life Guards form one half, is an enduring example of post-conflict reconciliation. After years of civil war followed by Cromwell's increasingly authoritarian reign as Lord Protector, then an 18-month power struggle after his death, Charles Stuart, the king in exile, had been invited home to take the crown. Before leaving Holland, where he had taken refuge, he had formed his Life Guard from those who had chosen exile with him after the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649. Ironically, as he rode on to parade to receive the symbolic surrender of the parliamentary army, there were men among them who had fought hard for Cromwell and yet would soon be joining the King's close escort.

After 20 years of strife, Parliament wanted an end to soldiers and quickly arranged to disband the army, save for a few hundred as "His Majesty's Guards and Garrisons". But anti-monarchy scares in the following few months meant the number of guards was increased. The Life Guards were placed on a regular footing, and Colonel Croke's Regiment of Horse, which had been raised in 1650 for Cromwell's second invasion of Scotland, was re-embodied to provide a second mounted regiment; Croke, however, was replaced by the Earl of Oxford, a staunch royalist. Oxford's troopers wore a dark blue uniform, from which they took the soubriquet "the Blues" to distinguish them from the Life Guards' red. So men who had only recently been on opposite sides were now united in what in time would be known as the Household Cavalry.

The Household Cavalry today is still a body of two parts. Besides the two separate regimental identities – the descendants of King Charles's Life Guard and the Earl of Oxford's Blues – there is a ceremonial horsed regiment in London, which mounts guard each day in Whitehall, and an operational duties regiment, in light tanks, in Windsor. This mirrors the Cavalry's history from its earliest days – beyond the fine uniforms of the Restoration's horse guards, the regiments were soon needed for action. In 1685 the Life Guards took to the field when the Duke of Monmouth challenged the succession to the throne of Charles's brother James, playing a decisive part in the last battle on English soil at Sedgemoor in Somerset. Five years later, the Blues were in action in Ireland, but fighting against James rather than for him, after his Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange, had taken the crown. In the early days it might well be said that the Household Cavalry lived on the margins of treason e_SLps

When, in 1743, George II took to the field in command of the army during the War of the Austrian Succession, both regiments went with him, playing a major part in the hard-fought victory at Dettingen in Bavaria, the last battle in which a British monarch was to take part. But it was at Warburg in 1760, in the Seven Years War, that the Blues were to have their finest hour. Commanded by the Marquess of Granby, a great supporter of the common soldier, the regiment defeated a vastly superior body of French cavalry.

Both the Life Guards and the Blues fought at Waterloo, charging Napoleon's main assault troops in the centre of Wellington's line and putting paid to French victory. Then, after a century of war with France, neither the Life Guards nor the Blues saw much fighting for another hundred years, although a composite Household Cavalry Regiment (HCR) was formed for the campaigns in Egypt, the Sudan and South Africa in the latter part of Victoria's reign. This was to establish a unique pattern of integration in the Army, with "red-coated" and "blue-coated" squadrons (by now they were in fact wearing khaki on campaign) serving side by side in a regiment under a commanding officer and staff from either one.

Their part in the First World War was singular, however. At first the two regiments of Life Guards and the Blues were kept mounted. Then in 1916, as infantry losses mounted, a Household Battalion was formed from Household Cavalry volunteers to serve in the trenches. Their first action, on the Somme, cost 300 casualties, and in 1918 they were un-horsed and converted to machine-gun battalions, taking part in Haig's great counter-offensive which brought about the collapse of the German army.

Re-horsed after the war, in 1940 it looked as if the pattern of the Great War was to begin again with an HCR composite mounted regiment sent to Palestine to deal with the Vichy French. 1HCR, as it was designated, afterwards converted to armoured cars and would see action in North Africa.

Meanwhile the rest of the Household Cavalry in England was also converting to armoured cars as the reconnaissance regiment – the "eyes and ears" – of the newly formed Guards Armoured Division for the coming fighting in north-west Europe. In perhaps its most dashing action, 2HCR reached the banks of the Rhine close to Arnhem during the Paras' heroic operation to capture the bridge – but was simply too far ahead of the rest of the division to make any difference to the course of the battle. Incidentally, that connection with the Parachute Regiment continues today with HCR providing the armoured reconnaissance regiment for 16 Air Assault Brigade.

During the Cold War and the two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Life Guards and the Blues played their part as any other regiment on operations, or in the training of the British Army of the Rhine. In 1969, with the relentless pressure on the defence budget, the Blues were amalgamated with the 1st Dragoons – the "Royals" – a regiment raised in 1661 to defend Tangiers, part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry for her marriage to Charles II. The Royals' fighting record was second to none – they too had charged with the heavies at Waterloo – and the amalgamation was relatively smooth. The new regiment's name was not difficult to choose: the Blues and Royals.

In 1991, thanks to cuts known as "Options for Change", the wartime expedient of forming composite regiments became the peacetime one, too. The ceremonial duties regiment in London had long been composite, but now the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals ceased to exist as separate operational regiments, forming the Household Cavalry Regiment. Yet despite the union, each regiment retains a separate identity in its uniforms and traditions.

The Household Cavalry is, indeed, especially proud of its traditions and distinctions. It maintains the peculiar ranks of the old regiments of Horse so that, for instance, it does not have serjeants, only "Corporals of Horse". The (honorary) colonels of the respective regiments bear the title "Gold Stick". This dates from Tudor times when two officers bearing gold-topped sticks were placed close to the sovereign to protect him from danger.

Today's Gold Sticks, who ride in close escort to the Queen during Trooping the Colour, seem particularly apt, for one is an Olympic equestrian, the Princess Royal (Colonel of the Blues), while the other, the Colonel of the Life Guards, is Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, the former Chief of the Defence Staff and SAS officer.

But what of the Cavalry's future? The strategic defence review after the general election is bound to question the place of the mounted and the operational regiments. Some will argue that ceremonial is too expensive (the Army has almost as many horses as tanks); others, that the Army of the future will not need so many armoured reconnaissance regiments.

Yet both arguments would be facile. For a small country with global interests, ceremonial is a powerful symbol of operational heritage, and thereby a considerable instrument of soft power. And since in future the first challenge of conflict will be finding the enemy in an increasingly complex environment, the skills of the recce soldier will be at an even greater premium. The Household Cavalry, both horsed and in armoured vehicles, looks set for another 350 years.

Fine tradition.
I only served in 6 of those 350 years - But what a fantastic time it was - Thank you for sticking such a great article on here about one of oldest and most proud regts! I also agree with the ceremonial side - It does pride (a long side the foot guards) a fantastic opportunity for tourists and must rank in the top 3 most recognisable army regts in the world today.
Thanks for that John, I did 22 years with the Household Cavalry, initially joining the Blues and Royals when they were based in Detmold. I did, in total, 7 years ceremonial duty, and contrary to the undoubted stick we invariable take from the rest of the Army, enjoyed every last minute of it. Worked with some truly outstanding soldiers, not least Craig Harrison, and during our time with the old 5 Airborne Bde and with 3 Commando Bde, had the privilege of working with both airborne and commando troops. Proud of the history, but equally proud of the job the boys are doing now in Afghan.
I enjoy Mallinson's non-fiction writing (even if he was 'beastly' to me in 1972).

He manages to speak to the history of the army without favouring any particular branch, arm or regiment.

Not keen on his 'military Mills & Boon' stuff though.
Am I correct in the fact that Craig Harrison was not originally known by that surname? I read the article in Wiki, very chuffed I might say, but then saw an article in the New York times (Online) with a picture! I know the face - Him and Bully running naked around Allenby bks throwing "Man fat" at each other! He got out in about 2001 and then re-joined.
ex_donkey_man said:
Am I correct in the fact that Craig Harrison was not originally known by that surname? I read the article in Wiki, very chuffed I might say, but then saw an article in the New York times (Online) with a picture! I know the face - Him and Bully running naked around Allenby bks throwing "Man fat" at each other! He got out in about 2001 and then re-joined.[/quote

Yep, changed his name. PM me.

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