A GUIDED TOUR OF RMA SANDHURST: A VERY BRITISH INSTITUTION
The Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst is where the elite of the British Army train to be officers. Cadets arrive for nearly a year of training in the leafy expanses of this military enclave on the Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey border. Founded in the early 1800s, the buildings are suitably prestigious and filled with tradition. Few people are aware that members of the public can take a guided tour of Sandhurst Military Academy, a fundraising initiative that raises money for hardship funds and other charitable causes for the cadets.
“Follow the main drag from the Gate for half a mile, keep left at the statue of the Black Boar, turn right at the fat Indian Howitzer and left at the standing stones with the Golden Torch.” So began the email I received a few days before my booked tour, with directions to the car park. Sounding like an adventure into Narnia, my guided tour around RMAS was highly anticipated, and we arrived with some excitement.
We got to the main gate, where we were met by our guide in a dapper three piece suit, collected our passes and were allowed through the barriers by a friendly guard bearing a gun. We drove to the car park, which was indeed past a black boar statue, a fat Indian Howitzer cannon and a monument of a golden torch atop some standing stones. It was bitterly cold day but the sun was out as we walked up the magnificent stone steps of Old College, through the vast black doors, down the high ceilinged, stone flagged corridors and into the Marlborough Room, our base for the morning.
Here, we stood with our gold rimmed tea cups, silver spoons clattering in our saucers while we were introduced to the other people on the tour and our two guides. There were 10 of us on the tour, which included an army officer, a recent Sandhurst graduate and her parents, the girlfriend of a cadet with her mum and a distinguished American gentleman. Our two guides introduced themselves, both ex-military with illustrious careers; one had been in bomb disposal and intelligence, the other a linguist who had known both Hess and Putin. I noticed that as well as their immaculate suits, their shoes were polished to perfection. Old habits clearly die hard.
The history of Sandhurst unfolded as we were taken on our very civilised tour.
THE OLD COLLEGE
The tour focuses on Old College, which is the oldest building at Sandhurst. With a large parade ground at the front, this is where all new cadets arrive on ‘Ironing Board Sunday’, carrying their ironing boards and irons. They go up the steps of the grand entrance on that day and don’t come down them again until the end of their course. Their final passing out is at the Sovereign’s parade, when all 700 cadets are on parade, the seniors at the front and the juniors at the back so their mistakes are less obvious.
We were shown the route they march, the guide pointing to ‘Chaos Corner’ which is where the groups have to reform and change direction, clearly not always smoothly judging by the name. The Parade involves an inspection, a speech, prize giving, the march past, the band playing Auld Lang Syne, and is concluded by the Adjutant going up the steps and into the Old College on horseback, a tradition which started in the 1920s when the Adjutant at the time wanted to get out of the rain as quickly as possible, so his uniform didn’t get wet.
Photograph © Sandhurst Trust
Inside the hall, John the Porter is waiting with a glass of port for the Adjutant and his groom. There is a lunch for 3000 people and in the evening a Commissioning Ball, when at midnight the cadets can tear the tape off their shoulder pips and drink champagne to celebrate passing out and also the £5000 pay rise that comes with it. (Still less than a management position at Aldi, our guide told us, but it does come with a certain amount of prestige instead.)
The speech is given by different VIPs over the years, some of which are available on YouTube to watch. One worth watching was given by General Eisenhower in 1944 not long before D-Day, where he said to the cadets, ‘if I could only meet you all, somewhere east of the Rhine’, which fortunately wasn’t picked up on by the enemy. You can stand in the exact spot where he and the other speakers have stood over the years, significant foot-sized impressions in the marble that many of us on the tour took turns in standing in to gaze out over the parade ground.
Above the steps of Old College on the façade is a relief of Mars and Minerva, something that all of the cadets will see as they arrive and leave, reminding them that they must combine the virtues of both war and wisdom. The college is fronted by a series of cannons which were captured in various battles, including two from Waterloo and one from the Russians during the Crimea.
The steps up from the Parade Ground lead up to two huge black doors, through which is an impressive entrance hall with a high ceiling, a large lantern suspended from the ceiling, high enough so that the Adjutant on his horse doesn’t walk into it, and walls of paintings and flags. The most striking painting is by the Russian artist Sergei Pavlenko, who painted the royal family at the time of Prince Harry’s commission into the Blues and Royals (Household Cavalry).
This is the first royal family painting ever which includes the Duchess of Cornwall, albeit slightly obscured and in the background. A small portrait above a door is one of the few female portraits in the building, that of Dr. Alexandra Mary Chalmers Watson, who graduated in medicine in 1891. She was a suffragette who enrolled 70,000 women into the Women’s Auxiliary Force, of whom 14,000 served in Flanders as drivers and other roles away from the front line.
The Le Marchant Room
The Le Marchant room is used as the smart dining room and has hosted many VIPs including the Queen, the Princes and Prime Minister May amongst others. It is named after John Le Marchant, one of Britain’s finest military commanders, and it was he who started Sandhurst.
Born in 1766, he came from a family with good ancestry but only enough money for him to afford a commission in the militia, where he fought in French Revolutionary Wars and the Peninsular War. His experience showed him that British army was poorly equipped, poorly trained and that the soldiers were poorly led.
L: Le Marchant is the man who created Sandhurst and brought professionalism to the Army.
R: Le Marchant wrote this proposal to change the way the army was structured and to improve communication.
At that time, officers bought a commission in the army, they were not trained soldiers or leaders. Britain was the only army which did not train its soldiers (except artillery and engineers who were trained at Woolwich, who needed training due to all the technology involved.) Le Marchant went to the treasury with a proposal for military training at staff and cadet level. Initially, Junior Officer cadets were trained at a house called Remnantz in Marlowe, until 1811 when it moved to Sandhurst.
This sword was designed in 1796 by Le Marchant when he saw the need for a sword that could be used for cutting, thrusting and guarding. Its use led to a French Peninsular Commander protesting about the damage it caused. This particular sword was used in the Battle Of Waterloo.
Le Marchant designed a new sword after hearing the disparaging remark of an Austrian officer who thought that British swordsmanship was “most entertaining” but reminded him of “someone chopping wood”. Le Marchant’s sword was lighter, stronger and more deadly. He wrote a manual of sword drill, outlining methods, moves and tactics. In it he wrote that soldiers shouldn’t go for the full kill, but should just maim the enemy, something the French thought to be most ungentlemanly. He revolutionised the way the British Army was trained, educated, looked after and conducted battles.
The Marlborough Room
The Marlborough Room is named after John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. John Churchill was a general at the Battle of Blenheim and was one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. The room has artwork of him and his successes, including his most famous descendent, Sir Winston Churchill, who was a cadet here himself in 1893 – 1895, and who’s reports apparently referred to him as ‘very bad at timekeeping’.
On one wall, protected by nothing more than a table and some tea urns, is the oldest item held in the Academy, a triptych painting by Horensburg on the skins of four cows, of the Battle of Blenheim, which was painted just after the battle. It was found folded up in a dusty attic in a country house somewhere before arriving at the academy. It is very dark, although it has been cleaned and has accurate depictions of uniforms and faces of the people involved.
After the victory, the Crown bestowed upon the Duke some land and a manor house in Woodstock, which was renamed Blenheim Palace after his victory.
The International Room
As we entered the International Room, a group of French cadets were in there on a tour of the building, looking flawless in their uniforms. We learnt that there can be 700 cadets at Sandhurst at any one time, 100 of which can be from other countries, all of them doing the same course.