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.
Overseas cadets come from four distinct groups – the Commonwealth, NATO allies, the Middle East and a disparate group from countries such as Chad, Mali, Paraguay and China. This final group tends to get promoted quickly within their home countries after their time at Sandhurst, and they end up very high up in their governments. This is very useful for Britain and the implementation of soft diplomatic skills, as in times of crisis, Brigaders from the British Army can get in touch with their old mate from Sandhurst and problems can often be ironed out before any diplomatic incident occurs.
The room is filled with display cases of gifts given by their overseas cadets and families. All of the ‘bling’ in the room comes from the Middle East, including a golden sword which is worth half a million pounds, given by the Sultan of Oman. The Jordanian Royal family use Sandhurst as a finishing school, and as with all overseas students, they have to pay £99,000 per cadet for the 44 week course.
Sandhurst has a policy of never allowing more than a 15% intake of overseas students at any one time, to ensure full integration of all of the cadets, with no sub cultures being allowed to develop. The policy works, as our guides told us how everyone fully integrates. Cadets have regular International Evenings, where they all try to outdo each other with producing the best of their national cuisine, with cadets and staff trying everything from goats heads to crunchy locusts.
The Lord Room
The Lord Room is named after Sergeant Major John Lord MBE, a soldier of high achievements and high standards who is little known outside Sandhurst anymore. He has two rooms named after him at Sandhurst, one is a bar in the Warrant Officers Mess, the other is this room in the Old College. Lord was a Warrant Officer (Warrant Officers are called ‘Lords’ after him to this day) before he became the Regimental Sergeant Major of 3 Para during World War II, where he fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden.
It was at Arnhem where he was captured by the Germans and became a Prisoner of War at Stalagluft XIB, a camp in north west Germany. When he arrived there, he found that many of the existing POWs had given up, morale was low and they were living in squalor. He turned their lives around, made them shave, wear immaculate uniforms, got them marching, cleaning uniform, mustered and introduced formal burials for POWs who had died, rather than them just being carted away. He became famous for his high standards and iron discipline. When it became obvious that the Germans were losing, he took over the guarding of the camp to keep the POWs safe and actually ran the camp before they were liberated.
“At the gate was an impressive guard in maroon beret. We thought that the 6th Airborne Division must somehow have got there first but when I asked the guard commander when he’d arrived his answer was, ‘Just after Arnhem, sir.’ It was faultlessly turned out, that guard. It could have gone on duty at Buckingham Palace and done credit to the Corps. Then a majestic figure appeared, the RSM himself, with gleaming brass, immaculate webbing, razor-edged trouser creases, dazzling boots, a spectacular salute. As the officers walked with [RSM Lord] to his office, hundreds of prisoners, though wild with joy of liberation, saluted with precision. In the office he produced chairs and offered cups of tea.” (Major Ralph Cobbold)
After the war he was the first Academy Sergeant Major at Sandhurst, where he was known as ‘The Voice’ and for being strict but compassionate.
In display cases in the room are objects such as the ‘Big Red Book’ from when he was on This is Your Life with Eammon Andrews in 1959, which had guests such as King Hussein of Jordan, who had been one of his cadets. Other objects include his medals, photos, his black edged eulogy by a Major General, his pace stick and his uniform.
Indian Memorial Room
The Indian Memorial Room used to be the chapel. After the Indian Mutiny of the 1850s, when the British took over the running of India from the East India Company, the army had to expand, and so the new chapel was built. The room was refurbished last year and now has many uses. On our visit it was in use for a conference, but we were able to nip in while the attendees were on their lunch break. There are stained glass windows from the National Army Museum in Chelsea, a huge chandelier of 10,000 pieces of glass, display cases filled with silver and medals, and the walls are covered in paintings and regimental badges.
One room is dedicated to a museum, telling the story of Sandhurst from its origins to the present day, and how it led to a greater degree of professionalism in the army. Amongst the expected displays of uniforms and militaria are some surprising objects, including a large electro-magnet made by Michael Faraday in 1830. At the time he was a Lecturer in Science at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, where the artillery was trained.
There are some amazing sketches, as the Gentlemen Cadets had to be able to produce accurate maps and route reports. The display includes a map hand drawn by Douglas Haig, who went on to command the Allied forces on the Western Front during World War I. There is also the famous Senior Under Officer Edward Bear, a small teddy bear who enlisted in the 1950s as mascot to the parachuting club at Sandhurst. He made over 400 parachute descents using his own small silk parachute and a specially made uniform, until he was retired in 1972, having lost a few body parts over the years.
The tour of the Old College ended in Toppers Bar, a comfortable room of stuffed leather armchairs set around a fireplace, with walls adorned with artwork from official war artist, Anna Redwood. She took quotes from cadets training there and created her art based on their words; they give a real flavour of what it is like to be a cadet.
My favourite quote described Sandhurst as ‘A very British Hogwarts, with weapons for wands and Colour Sergeants for Dementors’.
THE MEMORIAL CHAPEL
The original chapel at Sandhurst, now the Indian Memorial Room, became too small as the amount of cadets increased, so it was extended in 1921. The chapel acts as a memorial to dead officers and has 40,000 names inscribed within, most of the names being infantry or cavalry. An A or T next to the name shows if they were acting or temporary in that rank, such as a Captain who was made a Lt Col in World War I, which shows there were no Majors still alive to take the role. The life expectancy was just 6 weeks for officers on the front line, a heartbreaking statistic.
The chapel contains several memorial books. There are 3,400 names of those who died in World War I. For World War II, there are 19,700 names of officers, as it includes those from across the Commonwealth. It took a German Jewish lady 5 years to complete writing the book in neat calligraphy. Every Sunday during the service, a cadet wearing white gloves turns over a single page, and it takes six years to go through the whole book.
There is a much smaller book of deaths since 1945, although it wasn’t there on our visit as it was away being updated, meaning there had been a recent death. There is also a Chaplains book on the high altar which contains the names of 390 padres killed in action and which dates back to the 1700s.
Claude Templer was a cadet when war broke out in 1914, and spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war, escaping and being recaptured twelve times, before he finally succeeded, only to be killed a few months before the war ended.
The services in the chapel are ones of traditional, ‘muscular Christianity’; rousing hymns such as ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’, ‘Jerusalem’ and the ‘National Anthem’. There is no compulsion for cadets to attend the services, but many do, even those of other faiths. The items within the church have come from a variety of places; with a font from the King of Sweden, marble steps from Westpoint in the USA, a cross from the old Staff College, wood panels from the Indian Army and a silver font at the back of the church made from melted down regimental silver of the Machine Gun Corps, which was disbanded in 1922.
A striking mosaic over the altar was made by the White Russian, Boris Anrep, with colours which change as you move around. Above the main door is a plaque which includes the phrase, ‘serve to lead’, the motto of the academy and something which is integral to an officers training. It means that you must put the people you are in charge of before yourself, and as our guide said, ‘if you don’t understand that then you don’t belong there’.
THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHAPEL
The Roman Catholic Chapel was added in 1948 when Sandhurst had a Roman Catholic commandant who said the academy must have a Catholic place of worship, so an old lecture room was converted. It is a lovely room, light and airy with an altar of Portland stone using decommissioned graves from CWGC and a font of Irish marble. Catholic chapels traditionally have 14 depictions of the Stations of the Cross, this one has 15, with all of the paintings on the wooden lids of packing crates, which have drilled holes in the corners, as it was the late 1940s and austerity was still a factor of British life.
Beautiful stained glass windows show life at Sandhurst, with depictions of the porter, chef, the log race they have to do, the cadets commissioning on the steps, poppies and gravestones, all signifying the values of the Academy – respect, service, discipline. A ship’s bell stands in a corner, from the HMS Sandhurst and which was given to the Academy by Dartmouth College, the naval equivalent of Sandhurst.
Padres at the Academy have a role beyond holding services. They lead in pastoral care as well as teaching about ethics and the morality of killing. Some cadets do decide to quit as they think that they just can’t take a life. There is no shame for those that do quit, it actually benefits the army for them to leave at the training stage and not later when it could be life or death circumstances.
I had loved learning the history of the academy and the people who had worked there, seeing soldiers in full camouflage running around with guns, ducking and diving on training exercises in the smart grounds. We passed others who would walk around the site in full marching mode even if they were alone. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would round a corner out of sight and relax, dropping their arms and slouching. Somehow I doubted it.
It was with some sadness that we left Sandhurst, our three hour tour had flown by and not once did my attention waver; it was a fascinating visit. The guides were erudite and knowledgeable, with a gift for sharing the facts and the funny stories connected with the academy. It felt like being in a bubble and was strange to hand back our passes, drive out of the gates and be confronted with the real world, away from the rarefied and civilised existence inside Sandhurst.
One of our guides said, ‘youth just oozes from the walls, you can’t help but feel young surrounded by so much youth, vitality and promise’, and he was right.
VISITING THE ROYAL MILITARY ACADEMY SANDHURST
Buying tickets for a guided tour of Sandhurst
Visits are by pre-booked, guided tours only, which can be booked online through the Sandhurst Trust website.
Getting to Sandhurst
The entrance to the tour is usually though the Staff College Gate which is on London Road, the A30. You will be sent an email about a week before the tour which will have specific instructions and parking directions.
If you arrive by car, pull up into the lefthand lane before the guardhouse, the one which says ‘No Passes’. Park and walk into the guard house where you will be issued with a pass to access the site. You can then drive onto the site to the designated parking area.
Postcode: GU15 4NP
How long does a tour of Sandhurst take?
The tour lasts for three hours.
What is included in the Sandhurst tour?
On the tour you will visit the Prestige Rooms of the Old College, the Memorial Chapel, Roman Catholic Chapel, the RMAS Museum room and a small shop where you can buy souvenirs and guide books. Tea and coffee is available at the start of the tour.
Can you take photos on a guided tour of Sandhurst?
Photography is allowed so long as you do not take pictures of any of the cadets or staff.
NEARBY SITES TO VISIT FOR MILITARY HISTORY ENTHUSIASTS
Only a 40 minute drive away is the Battle of Britain Bunker, the underground bunker which still has the Operations Room laid out as it was during the Battle, as well as an excellent museum which focuses on World War II, the Battle of Britain and the role of the RAF.
Central London is less than an hour away by car, which has an abundance of military museums, such as the Household Cavalry Museum, the Guards Museum and the National Army Museum. Or you could do this self-guided one day military history itinerary which takes in museums and monuments of military significance.