Five hundred and fifty members of The Household Cavalry, together with their horses, departed for South Africa and the second Boer War on 29 November 1899. Two weeks earlier, Queen Victoria had said goodbye to them at Windsor, having interrupted her holiday in Balmoral to do so.

As she inspected each troop, her eye would have been cast over Horse Number D36, Freddy, of the 2nd Life Guards.

Little did anyone realise that he would be the only surviving horse from the regiment whom she would greet on the lawns of Windsor Castle when they returned a year later.

Freddy was sic when he left for South Africa. Purchasedr in Engladn – his records do not specify where – he would have been one of thousands of young horses brought forward for the Army Purchasing Commissions, which roamed the British Isles when the army had to find about 10,000 horses per year, for the cavalry, the artillery and the supporting services.

He was a strong, well-boned black gelding, with one white snip on his near hind – the sort of robust troop horse that became increasingly difficult to find during the last century.

Joining the 2nd Life Guards as a four-year-old in 1897, he underwent his initial training at Knightsbridge Barracks, before moving first to Windsor, and then to Regent’s Park Barracks, from where he left for South Africa.

He went by train to Southampton, before boarding the troop ship Maplemore. Many troop horses died on the month-long voyage to Table Bay.

The cost of the Boer War in terms of horses was horrifying. The Household Cavalry’s sister regiment, The Royal Dragoons, lost 3,275 horses in three years, or six for every one they took out. Most of the 549 the Household Cavalry lost died from disease or exhaustion. It was hardly surprising as, still soft from their long voyage, they found themselves almost immediately in action.

On the first day that they came off the train from Cape Town, they were in action near Kimberley, at South Africa’s hottest time of year, and immediately lost two horses to exhaustion. On 15 February, they had no water all day and lost a further 30.

Between 11 February and 28 August 1900, Freddy covered 1,780 miles, always ridden by Corporal of Horse Stephens, and had only 48 rest days. With each day in action being not unlike a day’s hunting, with all the nervous exhaustion and physical exertion, this was quite an achievement.

Forage supplies were inadequate and there was little to be had off the land; the first re-supplies from England did not reach the regiment until 20 August, nearly nine months after they had arrived.

During that period, Freddy took part in five major actions and several charges. He was at the Relief of Kimberley, and at the capture of Bloemfontein and Pretoria.

The prevailing attitude of the regiment was well summed up by the officer who wrote: “The hour of march is 2pm
Or four, or half past seven,
Provided that no orders come
At nine or at eleven.
The baggage will be left behind,
Or else will lead the advance;
We think that luxuries like food
Are better left to chance.
We are informed the enemy
Are somewhere here or there,
But if this should not be the case
They’re probably elsewhere.”

The Household Cavalry were relieved in November 1900, and, handing over their native replacement horses to other regiments, they returned to England, taking Freddy with them.

He landed at Southampton safely exactly a year later after leaving, and went by train to Paddington and then back to Windsor.

Unperturbed by his ordeal, the next year he became the leading horse of the Household Cavalry Musical Ride, which performed at the Royal Tournament.

Queen Alexandra, who was taking the salute, asked why he wore no campaign medal. She ordered that he be awarded one immediately. A stuffy War Office reluctantly agreed, and Freddy was given a medal with five clasps – for Wittenbereg, Kimberley, Paarderberg, Driefonteinand Transvaal.

He became a Squadron Corporal Major’s horse, carrying the standard of the 2nd Life Guards. He was photographed on one parade, looking as fresh as he did the day he set out for South Africa. The only visible mark of his arduous service was a rather short tail, his original having been worn away swishing the flies veldt.

Freddy finally retired from duty in 1905. He continued to live in Combermere Barracks in Windsor – a regimental celebrity – until he died in 1911 aged 18. He is buried beside the regimental parade square.

  • This article first appeared in H&H (15 April 2004)