History of the Life Guards
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The Glories and Traditions of the British Army. The Life Guards by G F Bacon
The custom of the employing men skilled in the art of war and in the use of deadly weapons to guard the sacred body of the Sovereign is of considerable antiquity, and is said to have been introduced by Saul in 1093 BC. The first English monarch to form a personal guard for himself was Richard I, although there are grounds for supposing that the Saxon and Danish kings retained about their persons a company of picked men, landsmen and sailors, who acted as guards of the royalty. The mighty and chivalrous Coeur de Lion selected 24 archers, renowned even amongst the sturdy soldiers of his army for individual bravery and loyalty, to keep watch around his tent, accompany him wherever he went, and arrest traitors and other evildoers about the Court. Sir Walter Scott, in The Talisman, alludes to this bodyguard, although it is to be hoped for the sake of their honour, that no real foundation existed for the story of their want of vigilance which nearly cost their Royal master his life, when the fanatics dagger was arrested by the disguised knight. These archers, clothed in complete suits of armour, and equipped with bows, and straight bladed cross hilted swords, were the ancestors of those guards whose functions are now wholly of a civil nature, known as Sergeants-in-Arms.
Henry VII also had a special guard of picked men, whom he clothed right royally, called Yeomen of the Guard; while his successor bluff King Hal, created a bodyguard of 50 gentlemen called Spears, each with an archer, a Demilance (light lance) and a Custrell (armour bearer) to attend him. They wore a most sumptuous dress and evidently cost the king an inordinate amount of money, for shortly afterwards they were disbanded, on account of their expensive maintenance. They were restored in 1539 on a less magnificent scale under the title of Gentlemen Pensioners and are known at the present day as Her Majesty's Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms. All these bodies were rather calculated for the splendour of the court than the operations of the field and it was not until the reign of Charles II that a body of the Life Guards was properly organised and equipped; although Charles I after the opposition encountered at Hull, enlisted into his service as a bodyguard a regiment of trainbands, 600 strong and mounted them on horses and appointed the Prince of Wales as their Captain. The year 1660 will remain ever memorable in the annuls of the British Army, for it was then that the nucleus was formed of the first standing army England had possessed, and it consisted of the troops of cavalry now known as the First and Second Regiments of Life Guards. It is true that four years earlier Charles II formed a corps of Life Guards to which he added a regiment of Horse Guards and 3 regiments of Foot Guards; but it was not until 1660 that the Life Guards were placed upon a proper footing. Previous to the Restoration, Charles had with him some 3,000 Cavaliers who after adventuring their lives in many a hard fought battle for the sake of his ill fated father, rallied round the Stuart Standard in Holland, and it was from this body of staunch and true hearts that he selected 80 Cavaliers and appointed Lord Gerard, afterwards Earl of Macclesfield, to be their Captain and Commander. When the king enjoyed his own again, and had been welcomed by the clamouring citizens of London, he took his Life Guards in hand and increased their establishment to 3 squadrons of 200 men each and apportioned to them their duties, which were to mount guard at whichever of his Palaces His Majesty was residing and to attend him whenever he went out of doors. Their Commander was a member of the Royal Household and his special duty was "to wait upon the King's Person at all times of war or peace with a considerable number of horsemen, well armed and prepared against all dangers whatsoever."
At this time the uniform consisted of a round hat with a very broad brim and a profusion of white feathers drooping over the back; scarlet coats trimmed with gold lace, the sleeves being wide and slashed, with lace upon them; very broad white collars covered the neck and parts of the shoulders, a scarlet silk sash went round the waist and was tied at the back; large ruffles of lace at the wrist; and the men wore their hair in long ringlets as became gallant Cavaliers. Boots of /jacked leather (jack-boots) came up to the middle of the thighs; cuirasses of iron covered the back and chest and an iron head piece called a "pott" was worn on the head, presumably underneath the hat. The weapons comprised a short carbine, two pistols and a long straight sword. The horses were as gaily adorned as their riders and had their tails and manes tied up with ribbons. The officers' dresses were the same as the men's but much more gorgeous. The terms officers and men had no social significance for most of the troopers had held commission's in Charles I's disbanded army, in some cases as Colonels and all were gentlemen, indeed they were styled Private Gentlemen hence our word for "Private" as applied to a soldier. The troopers pay was 4 shillings a day, a sum far larger than would be represented by the like amount today. Corporals of the Life Guards - there never have been any sergeants - were commissioned officers, and their army as opposed to their regimental rank, was that of "Eldest Lieutenant of Horse"; they were 1679, styled Brigadiers, although designated in their commissions as Corporals. Their daily pay was 7 shillings.
They had the honour in 1670 of escorting His Majesty when for the first time in history a monarch went by road to open Parliament; the silent highway of the Thames having been before the only route. At this time and for long afterwards the Guards did not live in barracks, but were quartered in inns and other houses of entertainment. Recruits had to furnish themselves with a charger and accoutrements, a sword and pistols, the King providing the rest. Persons of low degree were excluded, the corps being a school were young gentlemen qualified for commissions in other branches of the service.
In 1678, when war was imminent with France, a division of Mounted Grenadiers was formed and attached to the Life Guards. The arms of this hybrid contingent were varied as to description. They carried each a fuzil (similar but lighter than a musket) a bayonet which screwed into the muzzle of the firing piece, hatchet, cartridge and grenade pouches. It may not generally be known that grenades are carried on active service by, and instruction in their use is given to officers of the Royal Engineers at the present day. Disappointed at the chance of foreign service the Life Guards hailed the excitement caused by the Titus Oates Conspiracy in 1679, when the King's life was in some considerable danger, so much so that a captain, a subaltern, and two corporals were detailed to accompany Charles whenever he walked out. It was quite an imposing procession. First marched the captain holding the emblem of his special authority, a short ebony staff with a gold head, then came His Majesty, followed by the lieutenant with and ebony silver topped staff, the two corporals bringing up the rear. The captain and his subaltern relieved each other in attendance on the King indoors as well, and from their wands of office were known as the "Gold Stick and Silver Stick in Waiting" both offices to this day being held by the colonels and lieutenant-colonels of the Household Cavalry regiments on rotation.
In 1685, the Duke of Monmouth made his abortive attempt to overthrow King James II, and place himself upon the throne. As soon as it was known that the Duke had landed in Devonshire, the King exhibited unusual promptitude. The Life Guards and Blues and several infantry regiments were dispatched to the scene of action and some new corps were raised. Monmouth wandered about from place to place collecting troops, but from several causes he was delayed from doing anything decisive and before he had time to invest Bristol, the Kings Army was upon him. Major Oglethorpe pushed on ahead with 100 of his Life Guards and made a gallant dash into Keynsham and by a daring charge against an enemy of whose strength he had no information, scattered some troops of rebel horse, and regularly raided the rebel position. This effectively checked Monmouth's design on Bristol city, so he laboriously and in a futile manner went on, apparently in a most casual manner, until he met the Advance Guard of the Royal Army. James then retired onto the plain of Sedgemoor and encamped, his front being covered by a large pool or "rhine". The plain then hardly deserved the name; it was in reality a dreary morass, frequently flooded by the overflowing of the river Parret. At a village called Weston Zoyland the royal cavalry lay.
About one in the morning of July 6th, 1685, the rebels began their night attack on the royal position but in the confusion caused by a fog and the difficulty of getting the troops and ammunition waggons across the swampy ground a musket went off. the Horse Guards were on the watch and immediately gave the alarm. The drums beat and the Foot Guards fired a volley across the big ditch in front of them and sent the rebel cavalry flying. Then the infantry came into action. Meanwhile the Life Guards and the Blues came hurrying from their quarters, formed up and charged the rebel horse that were endeavouring to rally. The latter fled helter-skelter and the Life Guards and Blues, separating themselves, again formed up and charged Monmouth's infantry on the right and left flanks simultaneously. But the Somersetshire yokels stood firm. Again and again the Life Guards, under Oglethorpe, charged them but were manfully withstood. Then the rebels' ammunition gave out, and the royal artillery coming up, Monmouth's rebellion received its deathblow and the last battle ever fought on English soil was at an end. Oglethorpe fought with such distinguished gallantry that James knighted him and made him colonel of an infantry regiment.
As the Dutch did not find the task of fighting the French quite so easy as they thought it would be, William took his Life Guards over the water. At an action near Catoir in 1691, a Life Guard man charged the Marshal of France, the Duke of Luxembourg's escort, alone and unsupported after penetrating the enemy's front rank, and very nearly succeeded in attacking the Marshal himself. This heroic but useless effort cost the Guardsman his life, for after slaying several of the enemy, a lucky shot from one of the Duke's escort brought the bold horseman to the ground. But gallantry inaction was not altogether confined to individuals. The whole force performed numberless deeds of daring during the campaign; but at Steenkirk even their bravery and dash, could not do more than cover the retreat of the Dutch and English troops. In one of the actions in Flanders, the King was almost surrounded by the enemy, and was implored by his staff to retreat before it was too late.
"That I will not," he exclaimed stoutly, in his strong Dutch accent ever uppermost when he was excited. "They will protect the King!" pointing to the Life Guards close at hand. And they did protect him at a very critical moment. Part of the 3rd regiment made a furious charge under their lieutenant, the Hon. Hatton Compton, and drove back the French and kept them at bay until the King, who was forced to retire, had made good his retreat. Compton was promoted to Colonel on the battlefield at the first convenient opportunity.
The Peace of Ryswick was soon afterwards concluded, and the Life Guards returned to London and a life of idle routine about the Court. The Dutch troop was so disliked by the people that William was obliged to send them back to Holland, and as a sort of peace offering, caused sundry alterations to be made in the uniform.
The Life Guards at this time must have represented a splendid appearance, as they escorted the King to and from Parliament for the first time after his return. the royal carriage was preceded by half the squadron on duty, the Major riding at the right hand window, and the standard being carried immediately behind the state coach; the remainder of the squadron bringing up the rear. The waving plumes of feathers on the broad brimmed hats; the gleaming cuirasses, the rich red colour of the coats and shabraques; and the profusion of gold lace all went to make a gallant show. The officer's uniforms were of course more sumptuous than those of the men, and great extravagance was shown in the broad collars, now made of fine lace instead of linen; in the trappings of the horses; and especially in the gold embroidery and lace on coats, pistol holders, shabraques and waist sashes. Small wonder then that mothers held up their children to see the brilliant spectacle, and that young ladies lost their heads and their hearts over the gallant Gentlemen of the Life Guards.
The establishment was again augmented by a fourth regiment, in consequence of the Act of Union, the Scotch troop was withdrawn from Edinburgh and brought to London where it was dubbed "The Union" troop. In 1715 the Life Guards were encamped in Hyde Park and on the Prince of Wales' birthday, great rejoicings took place. An ox was roasted whole, and 500lbs of pudding were distributed amongst the troops, all of which was washed down with 2 hogsheads each of wine and ale.
George I fixed the prices to be paid for commissions at sums varying from £4,000 for a Lieutenant-Colonel to £500 which had to be given for the post of Adjutant and Sub-Brigadier. The Private Gentlemen also had to purchase their appointments hitherto held by indenture, and the price worked out to a little over 100 guineas.
The peace of Utrecht in 1713, which put an end to the wars of Queen Anne, found England in the proud position of being in the very front of the European powers. As a natural consequence of events, she was bound to be involved in most continental wars, and it was almost equally natural that she would be pitted against France, for that country was terribly jealous of and exceedingly bitter against the power which had destroyed her dream of naval supremacy.
When George I was King and Walpole became his minister, the English Army fell upon evil times. The efficiency Marlborough had given to it was lost. Political corruption was rampant in every department of the Public Service. The establishment of the army was cut down and equipment neglected. The officers did not even train themselves much less their men. The only thing that saved England from sheer and actual disgrace , in battle after battle was the splendid national bulldog, stolid, unflinching courage which never knows and never will know, when its beaten.
The battle of Dettingen in 1743, was not very creditable to the tactical skill of either side. Mismanagement on the part of the French neutralised the disadvantages under which the Anglo-Austrian army laboured, in getting itself shut in by an opposing force far superior in numbers. It was only owing to the great steadiness and the splendid qualities of the English soldiers that the French were badly defeated, though the advantage could not be pushed right home.
Lord Stair, who was in command of the Allied army, was not a military genius by any means. Although he had with him some 40,000 soldiers, English, Austrian and Hanovarian, and could be opposed at the largest computation by not more than 60,000 French, he allowed himself to be completely outmanoeuvred and out generalled by Noailles, the French General. Indeed so stupendous was the Earl of Stair's blunders that his army was neatly cut off both from their own magazines and from all sources of supply. The situation of the army was in truth very critical at the time when King George arrived from Hanover. The soldiers were on half rations; the horses destitute of forage: Lord Stair and the Hanovarian General at daggers drawn; sickness and death had decreased the strength of the troops by 3,000 men. But in spite of their dangerous position and the disadvantages under which they were labouring, the troops were full of spirit and most eager to fight. It was determined to fall back on the reinforcements, which in their turn had become cooped up in Hanau, and on 27th June George II took command of the army. They had not gone far when it became apparent even to Lord Stair, that it was a question of cutting a way through the French lines or being themselves cut up.
At that moment when everything looked so black, the standing luck of the British Army did not desert it. During the temporary absence of the French General, his nephew, de Grammont, full of zeal and impetuosity, ordered his troops to advance, believing that the force before him was only an easily exterminated part of the allied army. This movement was carried out in such a manner as to compel the French batteries which were doing so much cruel damage to suspend their fire, lest it should injure their own side. As the French advanced, King George horse ran away and very nearly carried him into the middle of the enemy's line, but was stopped just in time. When the King dismounted he said "Now I'm on my legs I'm sure I shall not run away". He led the right of the infantry line into action in the most gallant manner possible, waving his sword and shouting loudly " Now boys. Now for the honour of England, fire and behave bravely, and the French will soon run!"
Marshal de Noailles on his return from the other side of the river Mayn, found no efforts he could make would retrieve his fortunes, so he gave the order to retreat. the retreat speedily became a rout. The Allies spurred on by victory and the knowledge that the king was at their head, and inspired by his presence and exertions, fell upon the French and slew them to the extent of about 5,000.
The 3rd and 4th troops of the Life Guards together with one troop of the Horse Grenadier, formed a brigade under the Earl of Crawford, Colonel of the 4th troop, and held the post of honour in the centre of the British line. Crawford, being gold-stick-in-waiting, of course had charge of the King's person. George gave his gold stick a vast amount of trouble, for he exposed himself as freely as any of his men. A trooper of the Life Guards wrote home a most vivid account of the battle as he saw it. For five hours the Guards were exposed to the fire of the enemy's cannon; that was before de Grammont's rashness caused the latter to cease. The Colonel was wounded, the Brigade-Major's leg was shot off, and the Captain "wounded terribly by a fireball." He goes on to say "My Lord Crawford led us on and behaved like a true Son of Mars, for when we charged he shouted, 'Never fear, my boys, this is fine diversion.'" Crawford took such care of the King, and behaved so gallantly, that on seeing him approach the next day, George said to all around him: "Here comes my champion!"
The English cavalry greatly distinguished themselves at Dettingen, and the name of the battle is borne on the colours of the Life Guards. They were men of bone and muscle in those days. For some time they and their horses had been half-starved; they had been moved about in an aimless sort of way all over a strange country, always in the presence of a wily and overpowering enemy; but when it came to hand-to-hand fighting, they made up for all their privations and enforced inaction. When the flower of the French Cavalry came down upon them at the first onset, which temporarily checked the English infantry, Crawford's men went at them and not only withstood the shock, but actually drove the enemy back, sullen and discomfited. And after all this fighting they remained on the field, exposed to drenching rain, unable to continue the pursuit because they had no food or drink, and no tents to shelter them. The commissariat arrangements were conspicuous by their absence. Six standards were taken from the French. One, a splendidly gold embroidered flag, made of white silk, was captured by an English Dragoon, who after killing the bearer had to break the staff in order to carry off his trophy; because the pole was buckled to the Cornet, who in turn was buckled to his horse. This was the last battle in which an English King took part.
At the battle of Fontenoy, "the bloody battle", on May 11th 1745, the Life Guards as well as the Blues, earned great distinction. It was solely due to them that the English army was not thoroughly well cut up. The idea of the battle mediaeval in its simplicity, was direct attack all along the line. Had it not been for the splendid service rendered by the cavalry under that right gallant officer, the Earl of Crawford, very few of the allied army would have been left to tell the terrible tale. The Dutch found the battle little to their liking, and lost no time in running away, leaving the British and Hanovarians to fight it out. In the beginning it was an infantry fight on the British side. The cavalry, owing to the ruggedness of the road, had been left in the rear, while the foot soldiers, with some pieces, made up one dense irresistible column some 16,000 strong. They advanced through a narrow passage between the fortified village of Fontenoy, and some woods and went straight at the French centre. Regiment after regiment charged them; still they advanced. The massiveness of this splendid onset carried all before it, and it seemed as though the day was won. But the French Marshal, Saxe, made one last despairing effort. The whole of his reserves, consisting of the Household troops of the French King, and the Irish Brigade (consisting of several regiments of Irish catholics driven from their country by the Revolution), were ordered to advance. This terrific charge of absolutely fresh troops succeeded - the British column was arrested, shattered and all but dissolved. It was then that the cavalry brigade came to the rescue of their defeated comrades.
Crawford appears to have been a born soldier. He had knocked about all over Europe, fighting first for one cause and then for another. He served as a volunteer under Prince Eugene in 1735, and fought for the Russians in their campaign against the Turks three years later. He was by all accounts, an admirable Crichton and was looked upon as one of the most accomplished men of the age. Not only did he excel in the art of war and leading men but he was a "fine shooter, masterly fencer, elegant dancer, and expert rider." He occupied his spare time in compiling a most elaborate volume of memoirs, containing his reflections upon the different campaigns in which he had been engaged. He was terribly indignant about the retreat at Fontenoy, which he says in his book, was caused by " A damned drum beating a retreat!" He could never find out who gave the order. The Household Cavalry held the enemy in check at the end of the day until the retreat was fully assured. When Crawford saw the troops retiring he addressed his Life Guards:- "Gentlemen, mind the word of command and you shall gain immortal honour." There was not much doubt what word of command he most frequently used, for this mere handful of stalwart troops charged again and again, and with such effect that they absolutely "held" the entire French army, and so ensured the safety of their own. When the retreat was covered, Crawford saluted his troops by pulling off his hat and thanked them. "You have acquired as much honour covering so great a retreat as if you had gained the battle!".
One troop faced the music and took the French fire at thirty yards without flinching, seeing which one of the troopers remarked to Crawford's intense delight:- "For what we are about to receive the Lord make us thankful!" Said the Earl: "I consider the French will be thankful to get out of what they are about to receive! Gentlemen, prepare to charge!" And they charged.
In 1746 after the Jacobite rebellion stirred up by the Young Pretender, the King, in order to diminish his public expenditure, reduced the corps from four to two troops. Several regimental alterations were made. Hitherto their had been no non-commissioned officers. In 1756 the four senior and the four junior right-hand men of each troop were made respectively, Quartermasters and Corporals of Horse.
A complete rearrangement was made in 1788. The two troops of Life Guards and the two of Horse Grenadiers were formed into two regiments, the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, and the troopers were recruited instead of entering the Service by purchase. In 1812, radical alterations were made in the uniform. The cocked hats and feathers were discontinued, and brass helmets with black horse hair crests substituted; "coatees" superseded the long coat; jack boots and leather breeches were worn only on Royal Escort duty and for guards of honour, on all other occasions pantaloons of a blue-grey colour, with a scarlet seam on the outside, were used. The men were armed with carbines without bayonets, and small pistols, instead of muskets and long horse-pistols.
They soon had an opportunity of showing their new uniforms to an enemy. After a continued period of home service for more than 60 years, the Life Guards were again called upon to take the field and join in that stupendous series of struggles, called in history the Peninsula War. Two squadrons from each regiment were brigaded with the Royal Horse Guards, and called the Household Cavalry Brigade, were sent out to Lisbon. They bore no very prominent part in any of the numerous battles, except Vittoria, simply because the ground seldom, if ever, favoured cavalry evolutions. But still they shared all the hardships, and they were many, of the campaign. They executed a charge at Vittoria towards the end of the day, and were very useful in pursuit. During the charge they came across a small ravine, not unlike but on a much smaller scale than the sunken road of Ohain, which caused such terrible slaughter to Napoleon's cuirassiers at Waterloo. The Guards negotiated the obstacle without much difficulty and no loss, and proceeded to rout the enemy.
Vittoria practically concluded the war in favour of the allies, although other and serious battles had to be fought. "Never," says Napier, "was an army so hardly used by its Commander, and never was a victory more complete." Wellington's genius without the splendid dash, endurance and dogged courage of his troops would have availed but little. For six days the men toiled unceasingly. They hauled and dragged the guns over places where horses could not go. When wheels would not roll, they lifted the artillery bodily with ropes, the Life Guards scouting and foraging the while. The French were caught and cut off from the sea, and had not their gallant general, Reille, made a perfectly heroic stand, nothing could have saved them from utter annihilation. As it was, they lost everything- treasure, accounts, ammunition, and clothing. General and Privates alike were reduced to the clothes they wore, and most were barefooted.
After the Peninsula War the dress was again altered. The horse hair gave way to blue and red woollen crests, with scarlet and white plumes on the left side of the helmets, sabtretaches were now worn, and sheepskin shabraques (saddle cloth) for the first time employed.
Wellington's caution and foresight, and his daring, skillful, and bold offensive strategy enabled him to make a clean sweep of the Peninsula; and as Napoleon's power was to be thoroughly crushed, the Duke followed him into France, and was the means whereby the "Corsican Ogre" was caught and caged in the little island of Elba.
On April 27th 1815, the Life Guards again left London for the Continent, on their way to one of the most tremendous battles of modern times. On the 17th June, information reached Wellington that the Prussian Army, under Blucher, had been defeated on the previous day at Ligny. This defeat was prophesied by the Duke, who said, when he saw the disposition of his troops the Prussian General was making, "The Prussians will get most damnably licked!" Wellington therefore resolved to fall back through Quatre Bras, so as to enable him to keep u communications with Blucher. The cavalry took up a position to cover the retreat, and to check the French advance guard a Hussar regiment charged some French Lancers which were supported by a body of Cuirassiers, in the town of Genappe, but they were repulsed; they were too light for the purpose. The 1st Life's were thereupon launched at the enemy. They charged in column, the rear rank of the rear troop charging first. The big heavy stalwart troopers made very short work of the Frenchmen, and so effectually stopped their approach that the army was enabled to take up its position on the plain of Waterloo unmolested. In fact they not only held the French cavalry in check, but absolutely scattered the body in every direction; and even pursued them, and inflicted great slaughter among them all through a neighbouring village. The Life Guards then marched on and rejoined the main body of the army in front of the village of Waterloo.
The night of 17th June was full of misery. The rain poured down incessantly, drenching man and beast alike. Thunderstorms raged heavily from time to time, and the army was thoroughly well soaked to the skin. The troopers wearied with the fighting of the day, had no shelter for themselves or their horses, and rested as best they might. There was not much attempt at encampment, for it was pretty generally understood that the next day would be fraught with momentous issues. So the men grumbled the night away and took what cat naps they could, and when the reveille was sounded at the break of day there was no inducement for the sluggard to resist its summons. There was much to do ere the troops were set in battle array; swords to rub up, horses to be groomed, uniforms to be coaxed into some sort of order, and it was not until 10 minutes to 12 on that every memorable Sunday morning that the first gun was fired from the French centre.
What a striking difference there was on that summer Sunday morning in England and in Belgium! At home, the people of every town and village were in church putting up heartfelt prayers for the safety of their loved ones, fathers, sons and sweethearts, who were fighting far away in a foreign land, peace and calm pervading the warm June air, and the sun shining over all. While there on the rain-soaked plain of Waterloo, there stood two armies facing each other, with the sting and reek of gunpowder in their nostrils, and the lust of war in their hearts.
The French at once commenced the battle with a furious attack on the farmhouse of Hougomont, held by the Guards under Byng, and simultaneously Ney attacked the British centre with 20,000 men. the French pushed fiercely on. Wellington's first line was shaken, and in parts broken, while a whirl of cuirassiers charged up to the very crest of the British position. The moment was critical. The pressure on the infantry was simply tremendous, and for a moment it seemed as though disaster had befallen. Then the Scotch and Irish regiments dashed at the enemy, led by the gallant General Picton, who was shot at the head of his troops with the roar of battle resounding in his dying ears. At the same moment the Scots Greys and Inniskillings were hurled at the French by Sir William Ponsonby, and as they passed through Pictons Brigade, some of the Scotch regiments broke ranks and clinging to the stirrup leathers, charged along with them. The enemy were thrown into the utmost confusion.
All this time the First Cavalry Brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Blues and the 1st Dragoon Guards, were standing still, chaffing at their inaction and longing for the time when they too, might come to close quarters with the enemy. While they were acting the part of spectators of the stirring events that were going on before them in the plain below, let us look at the Life Guards. Great big stalwart fellows they were, not a man under six feet in his boots, mounted on magnificent black horses standing sixteen hands. Their burly frames were clothed in double breasted scarlet coatees, with a scarlet and yellow sash around the waist, and trousers of a blueish mixture with a red stripe running down the outside seam; brass helmets were on their heads with a huge red and white woollen crest and tall straight scarlet and white plumes on the left side of the head-dress. The officers were dressed like the men, but with gold lace on the cuffs and collar, and with black shabraques, the men having white saddle cloths. Each man was armed with a long straight sword, carbine and pistols.
The French renewed the attack, this time supported by their cavalry. The British infantry was formed into squares, on came the French surging up the hillside, the French cavalry actually surmounting the ridge and charging nearly up to where Wellington had taken up his station. The infantry reserved their fire until the cuirassiers were almost upon them, and then each square belched forth sheets of flame. The French cavalry reeled. Wellington seized the psychological moment and ordered the First Cavalry Brigade to charge. The Heavies deployed and advanced in line, the Life Guards on either flank, the 1st Dragoon Guards in the centre, with the Blues in reserve. They halted a few minutes, about 100 yards from the enemy to "dress", the troopers settled themselves in their saddles and then, as the trumpets crashed out with brazen voice, the whole Brigade charged in line. The French cavalry, unlike our men, wore cuirasses and used a longer sword, but such was the terrific onrush of the Heavies that they could not stand the tremendous shock. Horses and men went down like poppies in a hurricane. Nothing could withstand them; the Frenchmen were fairly ridden over, and before long were going helter-skelter down the hill, utterly discomfited.
This portion of the charge was shared by the 1st Life Guards and the Dragoon Guards on the left. The 2nd Life Guards were opposed to the flower of the French cavalry, the famous Carabiniers a Cheval, every man of whom was selected from the ranks of the Army at large for individual bravery. As they charged the British they were thrown into confusion. In their path was a hollowway - the sunken road of Ohain- and before speed could be slackened the foremost ranks went crashing down on to the road 15 feet below, a writhing mutilated mass of men and horses. As soon as what was left of them had scrambled up the opposite bank and had reformed in some sort of order, the 2nd Life Guards raced down upon them. Without waiting for the impact, the French turned and fled across the Charleroi Road. But the Guards went after them and continued the pursuit so hotly and impetuously that they pretty nearly made an end of the entire cuirassier regiment, and absolutely penetrated the French first line. Captain Kenyan's troop actually captured a battery, and endeavoured to carry it off. But they had gone too far. A body of Lancers outnumbering the Life Guards three times over, attacked them and they were besides exposed to the fire of several columns of infantry. They had, therefore, to retreat hastily, after accomplishing- what had never before been attempted, much less achieved - the total defeat of the French Cuirassiers.
Among the many gallant soldiers that took part in this memorable charge of the 2nd Life Guards, one man was elevated by the people into a popular hero. Who has not heard of Shaw the Lifeguardsman? John Shaw was a corporal in the 2nd Life's, and began his career as a prize fighter. He was a Nottingham man and fought his first fight in his own village Woolaston. So pluckily did he stand up under the mauling he was getting from a much more powerful man, that he excited the admiration of Jem Belcher, then a noted "pug". Show won his first battle and then came up to London and enlisted in the regiment. He defeated the celebrated Molyneaux, and just before he went on active service he gave a pugilist named Painter a most terrible drubbing, knocking him down ten times in succession. It will be seen that a man in habitual hard training, with muscles like steel ropes, and a thorough knowledge of how to use his sword, was quite fitted to perform astonishing feats of valour.
When his regiment came into contact with the French horsemen, Shaw selected his man and rising in his stirrups, cut his opponent through the helmet right down to the chin. During the day he is said to have killed at least nine Frenchmen. But the stalwart trooper met his death towards the close of the battle. In the last charge but one made by his regiment, Shaw was surrounded by a dozen of the enemy. He made a gallant stand and when his sword snapped close to the hilt, it is said that he took off his helmet and used it as a cestus, hitting out from the shoulder with the brass weapon, until he was cut down.
Charge after charge was made by the French cavalry, and attack upon attack was delivered by all arms. A tremendous cannonade would be opened, followed by a whirlwind of horsemen, which masked the advance of divisions of infantry. But all to no purpose. The 1st Cavalry Brigade charged again and again, until men and horses alike drooped and were wearied, almost exhausted. Then came the end. Napoleon caused his entire army to advance. The long suffering British squares dissolved into line. They fired one volley then charged. The Foot Guards furious with long restrained passion, rushed on the leading divisions. These wavered, fell back; the British charged home with the bayonet. The cavalry came up, and overwhelmed, utterly and entirely defeated, the French fell back.
At that moment the Duke shut his glass with a snap and said: "The field is won. Order the whole line to advance. Let the Life Guards charge." And the Life Guards did charge! Scattered and flying the French retreated. Napoleon and his brother Jerome tried to stop them , but without success. Cambronne's brigade of the Old Guard alone stood firm. They formed into square and defied the victorious British. Vivian's Hussars charged them, surrounded them on every face of the square. But they refused to surrender. A pause ensued, dramatic in its intensity, while both sides glared at each other. Then at the sight of Napoleon's veteran soldiers, the ever victorious Old Guard, standing defiant to the last, and awaiting total annihilation with dignified composure, the British gave a great cheer of admiration for their heroic bravery.
At that precise moment, the Life Guards swept down upon the stubborn square and dispersed and cut it to pieces, very few of its component parts being left to swell the tide of retreat. All semblance of order was lost in what remained of the French army. A panic set in "Sauve qui Peut!" was the universal cry, and what was, only a few hours previously, one of the finest armies the world had seen, was simply one vast undistinguishable mass. The allied squadrons, the Heavies always in front, gave them no respite, and shattered their flanks and rear, and completed the awful rout. The Duke of Wellington rode up to the Life Guards after the battle and thanked them for their distinguished bravery.
They had 108 men and 217 horses killed during the day. The Duke himself was in considerable danger at one time. An eyewitness records that the French cavalry charged to within fifty yards of the Commander-in-Chief, as he stood with only one Aide-de-camp left out of all his staff, the rest being either killed or wounded, in a square of the Foot Guards.
Napoleon's tactics at Waterloo were described by Wellington in a letter to Marshal Beresford:
"Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all, he just moved forward in the old style. I had the infantry for some time in squares, and we had the French cavalry walking about us as if they had been our own."
During the progress of the battle several of the Headquarter Staff endeavoured to extract from Wellington what his plans were incase he, himself, was killed. But the Duke took no manner of notice until at last he said: "I have no plan. They must be defeated."
When Picton's dead body was carried off the field there was found in his pocket a commission appointing him Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the event of Wellington's death. The Life Guards marched with the army to Paris, which was occupied by the allies, and at the beginning of 1816 embarked for England.
As a mark of approbation for their distinguished bravery at Waterloo, the Prince Regent declared himself Colonel-in-Chief of both regiments, and the word Waterloo was ordered to be emblazoned onto the colours. A year later more changes in the dress were ordered. The brass helmets were replaced by steel head pieces, with bearskin crests and without plumes. The colour of the trousers was altered to what was then known as a claret mixture. Cuirasses which had been discontinued for more than 100 years, were worn in 1821 at the coronation of George IV. On this occasion the Life Guards appeared in huge bearskin Grenadier busbies, with a tremendous plume of white feathers on the left side passing right over the top of the head. In the next year an order was promulgated that the upper lip was not to be shaved.
After the hard fighting and excitement of the Peninsula and Waterloo campaigns, there ensued a long period of uneventful calm. The regiments went through the usual routine of barrack life and attended the various State ceremonials, mounted guard, did escort duty, and took their turns with the Blues to occupy the Windsor barracks. It was not until 1882 that the chance of going again on foreign service presented itself.
When the Arabi rebellion broke out in Egypt in June 1882, almost absolute anarchy reigned in Cairo and Alexandria. At that time there were computed to be living in Egypt 37,000 Europeans, and the fortifying of Alexandria continuing to be proceeded with in spite of the protests of the English and French governments, the late Admiral Beauchamp Seymour, afterwards Lord Alcester, threatened to bombard the forts, after the English people had be warned to leave the country. All the world knows how this threat was carried out, and the subsequent proceedings in which the Life Guards bore a distinguished part.
At Tel-El-Mahuta, on 25th August, Arabi had succeeded in constructing his first dam across the Suez canal in pursuance of his design for cutting off the principal supply of water to the greater part of the country. The troops under Wolseley consisted of three squadrons of Household Cavalry, two guns and about 1,000 infantry; the force opposed to them was about 10,000. The water in the canal was getting dangerously low. Sir Garnet as he was then, determined to capture the dam and sent two squadrons against it. They dashed at the task with such fiery elan and with such success that Wolseley was moved to admiration, and recorded the fact in his dispatch describing the affair. "Under the bursting shells the colossal troopers sat like statues amid a conflagration" (this was at the beginning of the battle, and some of the men and horses had only been landed the day before) "as quietly as they had been wont to sit a short time before in the arched gateways of Whitehall." It was said that Wolseley had no great opinion of the Life and Horse Guards' powers of endurance, or indeed of their use at all, and it was with the idea of proving them that he directed them to charge and take Arabi's dam.
At Kassassin on the 28th August, General Graham's force was vigorously attacked by the Egyptians. He signalled for assistance, which was afforded him by the Life Guards and the Blues with the Horse Artillery, and the 7th Dragoon Guards. Then came the so-called "Midnight Charge". Considering that the attack was not seriously begun till 4.30 p.m., and that General Graham ordered a general return to camp at 8.45 p.m., the title is certainly a misnomer. When they arrived near enough to the scene of the conflict for bullets to drop among the troopers, they halted just to breathe the tired horses, and then came the order to charge. Like a thunderbolt, furious and irresistible, the heavy troopers rode for the enemy. A terrible scene of slaughter and confusion ensued; the enemy fled in great disorder, and the battle was won.
The decisive battle of the campaign was fought on the 13th September at Tel-el-Kebir. The Life Guards bore their share in the fight, which was chiefly confined to the pursuing and the cutting off of the enemy. The battle, however, was not of lengthy duration. From the time the enemy opened fire until he was in full retreat, only about half an hour elapsed; but into that short space a deal of hard and splendid fighting took place. The Egyptians were certainly taken by surprise, despite the fact that they slept fully armed and behind earthworks, for Arabi told the officer who took him to Ceylon as a prisoner, that when our men delivered the attack he himself was in bed; and complained that they did not leave him time enough even to get his boots on. Arabi's army was in consequence of this crushing defeat, completely broken up, and the British entered Cairo the next day. In October the Life Guards returned to England.
In 1884 they went again to Egypt and took part in the Nile Expedition, mounted on Camels. Their uniform when actually on service in Egypt consisted of grey "jumpers," yellow cord breeches, dark blue "putties" and white helmets, brown ankle boots and belts. It did not take long for the gallant troopers to get used to the "gawd-forsaken oont" although the beast was not looked upon altogether with favour. Of course the camels were used simply as a means of locomotion and not as chargers.
The Life Guards shared with their comrades the sickening jam produced by the fanatics' rush on the square at Abu Klea, when it was desperate hand to hand fighting. The Heavy Camel Corps composed of detachments from the Life Guards and other heavy regiments occupied the rear face of the left rear angle of the square, when the troops moved to within 500 yards from the enemy's position, as marked by their flags, a horde of Arabs rose suddenly out of cover and went straight at the square. The Mounted Infantry, on the left face, poured such a scathing fire upon them that they swerved round the left flank and dashed furiously upon the Life Guards. The onslaught was so tremendous that the Guards and their comrades were borne back and their line assumed the form almost of a semicircle. Only sheer bayonet work was possible. The crush was terrific, numbers of camels were killed, and were used as rallying points and as shelter by the soldiers; and the reek of powder and clouds of dust added to the confusion. For about 15 minutes this lasted, and during that time Colonel Burnaby, who went into action with a double-barrelled sporting gun, was killed, his jugular vein being cut through by a spear. Support was forthcoming, however, and shoulder to shoulder the gallant British soldiers simply swept back the black stream, and killed every single man that had penetrated their lines. After the Arabs were driven off 800 of their dead were found inside the square. The British loss was very heavy, for out of 1,800 men there were 9 officers and 65 men killed, and 85 wounded, among the latter being only 2 officers of the Life Guards. But the heaviest loss fell upon the Heavy Camel Corps, six of whose officers were killed. A portion of the Heavy Camel Corps took part in the march of Stewart's Column across the desert from Corti to Metammeh and back which no less an authority but Von Moltke declared to be the work not only of soldiers, but of heroes.
The modern dress of the Life Guards is too well known to need description. There are, however, slight differences whereby the two regiments can be distinguished. The 1st and 2nd wear black and white bearskin shabraques respectively, while the 1st have a red and the 2nd a blue cord along the centre of the belt pouch. It is not generally known that on occasions of State ceremonials, the Speaker of the House of Commons is entitled to an escort of one Life Guardsman, who rides on the right hand side of the carriage. Though the troopers are no longer of the same social rank as when the regiments were first embodied, they are still as a rule, recruited from a class considerably above the generality of the Army; and they are as remarkable for sobriety and respectability as for lofty stature and stalwart frames. The commanding officers have the power of summarily dismissing a trooper without appeal. But that is a power which is fortunately very rarely exercised.
The Nile Expedition of 10 year sago was the last occasion on which the Life Guards went on active service, and since then nothing more exciting than taking part in various State pageants and occasional field days and sham fights has fallen to their share. There is one thing very certain; whenever the two premier cavalry regiments of the English Army are called out on active service, it will be found, as it always has been, that the calm and peace of barrack life in London and Windsor have no ill effects on the soldierly qualities for which the 1st and 2nd Life Guards have been distinguished since their foundation, 236 years ago. Excerpt From The Navy and Army Illustrated October 1st 1896
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