For military history enthusiasts, London has a number of museums and points of interest to visit. As many of the 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.
One of the many models at the Household Cavalry Museum.
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 10h00 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 16h00, as it closes at 18h00. Although the total walking time is 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. This is a free navigation app where each three metre square in the world is given a unique, three word identifier that never changes. You can download the app to you smartphone, then all you do is enter the three words into the app’s search field app and it will give you the directions to where you want to go.
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
A display of uniforms inside the National Army Museum.
This fantastic 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.
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
A Chelsea Pensionner leading a guided tour around the grounds of the Royal Hospital.
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.
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 interior of the Guards Chapel is all new, except for the glittering mosaic of the apse, the only thing to survive the 1944 bomb.
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.
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 depicts five soldiers at ease, each representing a different Foot Guard Regiment.
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.
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
The museum is filled with the impressive uniforms and objects used by those who protect the monarchy.
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.
Walk through the archway onto Whitehall, and turn right.
The Memorials of Whitehall
The Earl Haig Memorial.
The Monument to the Women of World War II.
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.
The Monument to the Women of World War II
Further down is the Women of World War II memorial, a large bronze memorial depicting the many roles women played during the war, with 17 sets of uniform and clothing around the outside of it, both civilian and military. Dedicated in 2005, it is a really interesting memorial and worth spending some time looking at to see if you can identify all of the types of uniforms. The lettering on the memorial is the same font used on World War II ration books. It was designed by sculptor John Mills, with his design based on a 1940s photograph of a cloakroom in a dance hall. Uniforms include WRENS, WAAF, the Land Army and a welders.
The most famous of the Whitehall Memorials, the Cenotaph was designed by Lutyens in 1919 and is the UK’s official national war memorial. The original cenotaph was made of plaster and wood for a service in 1919, where people spontaneously laid wreaths around it when it was unveiled. It was decided that a permanent memorial should be created, and the one we see today was unveiled in 1920. Made of Portland stone, the inscription simply reads ‘The Glorious Dead’. It features each year in the annual Rememberance Sunday service, which has remained unchanged since 1921, with hymns, prayers and two minutes silence. Members of royalty, politicans and senior armed forces lay wreaths and a march past of war veterans ends the service, in a moving show of respect for their fallen comrades.
Keep walking down Whitehall until you get to Parliament Square, its just a couple of minutes. Cross Parliament Square and walk straight down Abingdon Street which is directly opposite you, through Victoria Tower Gardens and turn left onto Lambeth Bridge. Turn left after the bridge and walk a little way up, until you reach the monument (w3w: assume.deeply.yours). It is a 15 minute walk.
The S.O.E Monument
A close up of the monument, showing Violette Szabo, a female agent who was captured and killed during a mission to France.
This relatively recent monument honours the men and women behind the S.O.E or Special Operations Executive, a secret organisation which operated behind enemy lines during World War II. It depicts Violette Szabo, an agent who was captured and killed on a mission to France and is in memory of the 470 agents who were sent to France, as well as to the Norwegian Resistance fighters, who thwarted German attemps to create an atom bomb.
Go back to the traffic circle, and walk up Lambeth Road (first exit to your left) until you reach the Imperial War Museum (w3w: cloud.harsh.mild) on your right. It is about a 13 minute walk.
The Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is fronted by the guns of HMS Ramilies and HMS Resolution. Photograph © Chris Gunns
Open every day until 18h00, the Imperial War Museum is five floors of in-depth military history. Opened during World War I as a way to preserve and commemorate the atrocities of the war, it now covers all military events since. A detailed look at World War I leads to the events leading up to World War II, as well as a look at family life during the war. There is an exhibition on campaigns since the war, and finally the permanent Holocaust Exhibition, a truly harrowing look at the events and life stories of the Holocaust.
The museum is vast and detailed, and a must for anyone with an interest in military history from the 20th century. It is also completely free of charge and has facilities such as a cafe and shop.
More places to visit
If you have got another couple of days to spare to explore military history in the capital, then H.M.S. Belfast in central London is a fantastic place to explore naval history on a World War II warship, which fired some of the first shots on D-Day. Churchill’s War Rooms are also in central London, right next to the Household Cavalry Museum, and you can explore the bunker where men and women lived and worked underground throughout World War II, as well as see a comprehensive museum on Churchill.
Further out, the Battle of Britain Bunker is on the outskirts of London, about 1 hour 40 minutes away on public transport and takes you straight to the heart of World War II, with the operations room laid out as it was. The RAF Museum is about an hour away on public transport, which explores the first 100 years of the RAF. Just a bit further out is Bentley Priory, the HQ of Fighter Command during World War II and now a museum.