Oct 01 2011
This is the first of three articles on the cavalry regiments which made up the Household Brigade at Waterloo. A fourth article will describe the part they played at Waterloo.
His Majesty king Charles II
The Life-Guards are the senior regiment in the British Army, cavalry taking precedence over the other arms of the service. Officially established in 1660 by the restored king, Charles II, they owe their existence to his period of exile, part of which was spent at the French court. The Bourbon monarchs had already established a royal bodyguard, specially chosen troops designated to protect the monarch, for which they enjoyed higher reward. Towards the end of his years of exile, in 1658, Charles was served by a similar unit, the King’s Own Troop of Horse Guards, a corps of 80 men formed by Lord Gerard of Brandon. By 1660, the number had risen to 200. These men were given the honour of escorting Charles through London in May 1660 when he returned to claim his throne.
In 1661 they became the first troop of His Majesty’s Horse Guards. A second troop was formed from the guard of George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, who had played a crucial role in Charles’ restoration, and a third, from the Duke of York’s troop of Horse Guards.
George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle,
A fourth troop was added the same year. In 1678 horse grenadiers were attached to each troop. At this stage, membership was restricted to gentlemen, the original 200 being cavaliers and/or noblemen. There were no non-commissioned officers; even corporals were commissioned and enjoyed rank notionally equal to a lieutenant. By 1756, however, this was considered too expensive to maintain.
Their primary purpose was to protect the metropolis and the monarch, so it is not surprising that until the Peninsular War their only battle honour was Dettingen, the last occasion when a British monarch (George II) led his army into battle.
King George II leads his troops at the battle of Dettingen
In 1788 there was considerable reorganisation of the army after the catastrophe of the War of American Independence. Two troops of Horse Guards and two troops of Horse Grenadier Guards became the 1st Life-Guards; the remaining two troops, one the descendant of Albemarle’s Horse, with the remaining Horse Grenadier Guards became the 2nd Life-Guards. They still took precedence, however, and continued to enjoy higher pay, while the troopers were exempt from the normal army stoppages. Furthermore, a major in the Life-Guards equated to a lieutenant-colonel in other cavalry units, and a lieutenant-colonel to a full colonel.
The two new regiments required men at least 5’10” tall, with 6’ as the preferred height. In 1810 the average height of men in the 2nd Life-Guards was 5’11¾”. And they rode horses between 16 and 18 hands. Big men on big horses!
An officer of the Life Guards
The most obvious evidence for the privileges the Life-Guards enjoyed is their rate of pay. To give a few examples, in 1810 a cornet received 8/6d per day against 8/- for a cornet in the dragoons, and 5/3d for an ensign in a line regiment, while a captain was paid 16/- a day, against 14/7d and 10/6d respectively.
Not surprisingly, commissions in the Life-Guards were considerably more expensive. A cornetcy cost £1600, against £1102.10.0 in the dragoons and £406 (ensigncy) in the infantry of the line. The full value of a lieutenant-colonelcy was £5200, against £3500 in the infantry.
Because the men enlisted for general service, as in any other regiment, the Life-Guards were in constant readiness to march. During the Napoleonic Wars the call finally came in 1812. However, they did not immediately impress. They were late arriving for their rendezvous with the Royal Horse Guards at Portsmouth, and when they reached Lisbon concerns were expressed about their state of readiness.
Colonel Willoughby Gordon, the Quartermaster General, who passed through Lisbon on his way to England for recovery of health, wrote to Wellington on the 25th December that, having heard about the regiment’s unserviceable state, he thought it his duty to carry out an inspection.
‘The men and the horses appeared to me in very good condition generally, and perfectly equipped for the field, and that in the military appearance of the regiments no fault could be found. The officers of the 1st regiment under Major Camac offered no difficulty, and expressed themselves fully prepared to do whatever was required of them as to the interior economy of their respective troops, and to inform themselves of the customs and regulations of the service, and to practise them.
‘Lieutenant-Colonel Barton of the 2nd regiment was full of difficulties, none of which are in any manner necessary to be brought before your Lordship, as relating wholly and solely to the interior economy of the respective troops; and this officer appeared to me not only to be wholly uninformed of the most common duties of regimental service, but to be wanting in those exertions which your Lordship has a right to demand from every officer serving under you. This opinion of mine was confirmed in the fullest extent by Major-General Rebow, who also told me that the example of Lieutenant-Colonel Barton had its natural influence on the inferior officers and men, nor can I flatter myself that what I said to this officer will have very much effect, although I was by no means sparing of my sentiments.
‘I hear he has resigned, as well as some of his officers; and I hope it may be so: indeed I have no doubt but that the firm and spirited manner in which the Major-General acts about his duty will ere long put these regiments upon that efficiency of which they are so capable.’ 1
In 1813, the war moved to the north of Spain, to terrain which gave the Life-Guards little opportunity to display that efficiency of which they are so capable. Nevertheless, when the General Service Medal was awarded in 1848, 6 officers and 91 NCOs and men, from both regiments, claimed for Vittoria and Toulouse, while 11 officers and 96 NCOs and men claimed for one or other of those actions. ‘Peninsula’ became the Life-Guards’ second battle honour.
The 1848 Military General Service Medal
- Supplementary Despatches and Memorandum of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington K.G. Volume VII p.504
Next month: the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues or Oxford Blues)