For military history enthusiasts, London has a number of museums and points of interest to visit. As many sites are are on the outskirts of London, this one-day, self-guided itinerary focuses on those that are within central London and that can easily be reached on foot or by tube, without taking up too much time travelling from one place to another. At the end we list further sites that may be of interest if you are able to travel to the outskirts.
The collection of museums and points of interest that make up this one-day, self-guided itinerary is intended for those with a specific interest in military history. Besides a few museums, you will also get to see working barracks and various war memorials scattered around London. Each place except one included on the itinerary is free to enter. Although
they will appreciate donations towards the running and maintenance of the attraction.
A good time to start this itinerary is at 10am when the National Army Museum opens its doors. This will give yourself enough time to see everywhere on the list, and aim to get to the final destination at about 4pm, as it closes at 6pm. The total walking time is only around one hour and 15 minutes; with all the stops this is a full day but certainly a worthwhile one.
Directions between the venues are given using what3words.
1. The self-guided tour starts at the National Army Museum in Chelsea (w3w: harsh.sands.move). The nearest underground station is Sloane Square.
NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM
The fantastic National Army Museum covers the history of the army from its beginnings to present day, with a thorough look at the life of soldiers over the centuries. There are some excellent displays which range from recruitment, uniforms, battle, punishments, to protests about war and the relationship between the army and the public.
Artefacts include many items from Waterloo such as the skeleton of Napolean’s horse and a letter written by a dying soldier in his own blood, as well as a lamp used by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea and the actual handwritten order which started the Charge of the Light Brigade.
There are lots of hands on activities for children as well as adults, and you can have a go at marching and being drilled by a Seargant-Major, firing a gun, or trying to carry the heavy backpacks they have to march with. There are regular events and temporary exhibitions as well as full facilities such as a cafe and shop. What is amazing about this museum, is that for somewhere so excellently curated, it is completely free.
2. Turn right as you leave the National Army Museum and walk up Royal Hospital Road for about five minutes. The next destination is on the same side of the road (w3w: gain.dates.moral)
ROYAL HOSPITAL CHELSEA
The Chelsea Pensioners are a familiar sight in rememberance services and parades, wearing their scarlet red coats and tricorn hats, usually with plenty of medals across their chests. They live in the Royal Hospital, ex-service men and women who live communally in small, individual flats in the beautiful grounds in the heart of London.
Built in 1692 and designed by Christopher Wren, with an incredible Wren chapel, the site is open to visitors for either a guided tour with a Chelsea Pensionner or a self-guided tour.
The tour includes a great little museum, a look at the tiny berths that they used to live in, a visit to the communal dining room which has the table where the Duke of Wellington was laid in state, and to the Wren Chapel, all for free.
There is a shop and a cafe on site, as well as a graveyard where you will find Margaret Thatcher and her husband, and extensive grounds with a view over the Thames.
It is a fascinating place, and inspiring to see the ex-service personnel living such full lives after retirement.
Read more about a visit to the site, along with photos and historical background (coming soon) >>
3. You can either walk for 30 minutes to the next destination, or take the underground from Sloane Square to St. James Park, which is direct on the District Line (w3w: water.modes.stiff).
THE GUARDS’ CHAPEL
The Royal Military Chapel, more commonly known as The Guards’ Chapel, is just off Birdcage Walk, next to a small Flanders Fields Remembrance Garden. There has been a chapel on that site since 1838 as part of Wellington Barracks, but that is not the chapel that is there today.
On a night in June 1944, an flying V1 bomb hit the chapel during a service, resulting in the deaths of 121 people, both civilian and military, including five musicians from the band of the Coldstream Guards and the Director of Music. The church was completely destroyed except for the apse, which is still there today. The church was rebuilt after the war and today is a modern, yet very moving, building.
Although rather austere and plain on the outside, the inside is very serene, with regimental flags which date back to the 1700s hanging from high on the walls along each side, small side chapels with engraved glass and the original apse a vibrant golden mosaic. There are memorials to members of the regiment as well as the bombing tragedy, and it is a peaceful and interesting place to visit.
Just opposite is the Guards Museum, a small but well presented museum, filled with Guards memorabilia. It is an excellent museum, but very similar to the one of the Household Cavalry, and as you are unlikely to have the time for both, I would recommend saving your time for the Household Cavalry.
4. When you leave the Guards’ Chapel, turn right onto Birdcage Walk and then up into Horse Guards Road. Halfway up on the left is the next destination, the Guards Memorial (w3w: leader.busy.dare). It is about a ten minute walk.
The Guards Memorial, on the edge of St. James’ Park which faces Wellington Barracks, is a cenotaph in memory of Guardsmen who died during World War I. It depicts five Guardsmen standing at ease, and represents the Foot Guards Regiments, Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scots, Welsh and Irish. The statues are all based on real soldiers who modelled for the sculptures. Although apparently the legs of the Irish Guardsman belong to a different soldier, as the first model got impatient and left before his legs were done.
Made of bronze from melted down German guns captured during the war, there is an inscription written by Rudyard Kipling, whose son was an Irish Guard and who was killed in battle in 1915. The memorial received some damage during bombing raids in World War II, and a small area of damage remains in testament to this.
An inscription was added after the war to commemorate the Guardsmen who lost their lives since 1918.
5. Now head straight across the Horse Guards Parade ground and on your left is the entrance to the Household Cavalry Museum. It is about a two minute walk (w3w: spring.lobby.sparks).
HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY MUSEUM
This excellent museum is attached to the working barracks of the Household Cavalry, who keep a sentry on horseback outside the main entrance every day, much to the delight of the tourists. It is the only place on this itinerary that charges an entrance fee (currently £9 per adult but free to veterans from any regiment or country) so skip it if you are looking for a completely free day, but I do highly recommend a visit if you can.
The museum is located in 18th century stables and tells the story of the Household Cavalry from its inception 350 years ago to the present day and their service in Afghanistan. Formed to protect the monarchy, there is a lot of gilt and glamour on display, as well as items such as the cork leg which belonged to the Earl of Uxbridge, who had lost his real one at Waterloo.
You can see the stables and peer through to watch the soldiers grooming their horses and getting ready to go out on duty, all looking immaculate in their uniforms. There are also regular events held at the museum, which is open every day.
Read more about a visit to the museum and what is on display (coming soon) >>
6. Walk through the archway onto Whitehall, and turn right.
THE MEMORIALS OF WHITEHALL
The Earl Haig memorial, the Women of World War II memorial and the Cenotaph all line the central reservation of Whitehall, and are best viewed from the pavement rather than trying to get close to them
The Earl Haig Memorial
Field Marshall Earl Haig, the World War I commander of the British Expeditionary Force, is still a figure of controversy today, with nicknames ranging from the ‘Master of the Field’ to the ‘Butcher of the Somme’. The statue itself is not without controversy, with criticism of the way the Field Marshall is sitting, his uniform and the position of the horse, none of which are considered to be realistic.