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The Royal Family on Active ServiceThe Royal Family on Active Service

  • The Royal Family on Active Service
  • King William III and his army at the Siege of Namur, 1695
  • King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, with the Duke of Cumberland and Robert, 4th Earl of Holderness, 27 June 1743
  • William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, c1750
  • Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, reviewing troops in Flanders, c1794
  • Naval presentation sword belonging to the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV), c1800
  • Field Marshal HRH George William Frederick Charles, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, c1862
  • ‘HRH Prince of Wales preparing for the Front’, 1914
  • Princess Elizabeth being trained in map reading, 1945
  • Princess Elizabeth working on a car engine, 1945
  • Uniform worn by Princess Elizabeth when she held the honorary commission of Brigadier in the Women's Royal Army Corps, 1949-53
  • Prince Harry in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter during training, 2011
Active Service

The Royal Family on Active Service

The last British sovereign to lead troops in battle was King George II, at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. However, many members of the Royal Family have served in the Army since that time.

Prince George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, a cousin of Queen Victoria, served in the Crimean War and was Commander-in-Chief of the Army for nearly 40 years. Prince Christian Victor, Victoria’s grandson, served on campaign in the Sudan and was an eye-witness of the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

More recently, the Duke of Kent and Prince Michael of Kent each served as army officers for many years. The Queen herself served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1945. Her grandson Prince Harry is the latest in a long line of royal soldiers. He served in Afghanistan in 2008, and has recently completed training as an Apache helicopter pilot.

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King William III and his army at the Siege of Namur, 1695

King William III and his army at the Siege of Namur, 1695

Oil on canvas by Jan Wyck (c1645-1700), c1700

NAM. 1996-04-110

Situated at the confluence of the Rivers Sambre and Meuse, to the east of Charleroi in the Low Countries, the city of Namur occupied a key position for control of the Austrian Netherlands.

Previously fortified by the Dutch engineer, Baron Menno van Coehoorn, Namur was considered to be one of Europe’s strongest citadels. However, to the humiliation of King William III, in 1692 the French besieged and took the city in 27 days. The city’s defences were then improved by the French engineer Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban.

Although it was generally considered impregnable, in June 1695 William’s allied army, assisted by Coehoorn, laid siege to the stronghold and retook it after two months. The Royal Regiment of Ireland led the storming of the citadel, which resulted in its capitulation on 1 September.

The taking of Namur was one of the main British achievements during the Nine Years War (1689-97). However, the regiments that took part in the siege did not receive Namur as a battle honour until 1910, when it became one of the earliest actions to be commemorated on British Army Colours.

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King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, with the Duke of Cumberland and Robert, 4th Earl of Holderness, 27 June 1743

King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, with the Duke of Cumberland and Robert, 4th Earl of Holderness, 27 June 1743

Oil on canvas by John Wootton (1682-1764), 1743

NAM. 1961-07-116-1

The Battle of Dettingen was fought during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) in what is now southern Germany. When his retreat was cut off, King George II successfully led a multi-national force of British, Hanoverians, Dutch and Austrians against the French under the Duc de Noailles, inflicting heavy losses. This was the last occasion when a reigning British monarch led his troops in person on the battlefield.

As Duke of Cambridge, the King had already fought under the Duke of Marlborough’s command at the Battle of Oudenarde in 1708. Although he displayed great personal courage, the King had little flair for higher military command and wisely left the conduct of the campaign to his generals. His victory at Dettingen brought him much popularity at home.

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William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, c1750

William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, c1750

Oil on canvas, by David Morier (c1701-70), c1750

NAM. 1978-03-40-1

Cumberland was the third and favourite son of King George II. In April 1743, during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), he accompanied his father to Hanover and saw action at the Battle of Dettingen, where he was wounded in the leg.

In 1745 he commanded the Allied army against the French in the desperate Battle of Fontenoy. Ignoring advice, he attacked a strongly-defended position, losing the day with heavy casualties.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland, Cumberland was hastily recalled from the Low Countries to take command of the King's forces. On 27 April 1746 he crushed the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden. Cumberland then instructed his men to search cottages for hidden rebels, plundering cattle and burning homesteads in the process. Reports of such atrocities soon earned him the nickname of ‘the Butcher’.

He remained Captain-General of the Army until 1757, presiding over a number of important military reforms. However, he was later disgraced following the making of an unwise truce with the French during the Seven Years War (1756-63).

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Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, reviewing troops in Flanders, c1794

Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, reviewing troops in Flanders, c1794

Oil on canvas by William Anderson (1757-1837), c1794

NAM. 1993-10-72-1

Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, was the second and favourite son of King George III. Brave but inexperienced, in 1793 he was sent to Flanders in command of the British contingent of an Allied force opposing Revolutionary France.

Although the Allied army captured Valenciennes in July of that year, the campaign was eventually to prove unsuccessful. The French ejected the Allies and then won control of Flanders through their decisive victory at the Battle of Fleurus in June 1794. The Duke of York's force returned to Britain in 1795, having lost more than 20,000 men in the two years of fighting.

Despite the failure in Flanders, Frederick Augustus was appointed field marshal in 1795 and commander-in-chief from April 1798. He presided over a number of important army reforms that contributed to Britain's successes in the wars against Napoleonic France. He was forced to resign his post in 1809 after it was revealed that his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, had made money from the sale of commissions. Despite this, he was reinstated two years later to almost unanimous satisfaction.

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Naval presentation sword belonging to the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV), c1800

Naval presentation sword belonging to the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV), c1800

NAM. 1965-10-205-1

William joined the Royal Navy in 1778 as a midshipman on HMS ‘Prince George’, a 90-gun ship of the line. Two years later, during the American War of Independence (1775-83), he was present at Admiral Rodney’s victory over the Spanish at Cape St Vincent.

During the American conflict William was also stationed at New York and in the West Indies. The latter posting included a spell of service under Nelson on whom he made a favourable impression.

At the age of 21 he was made captain of the frigate HMS ‘Pegasus’ and three years later commanded another frigate, HMS ‘Andromeda’. William was promoted to rear-admiral in command of the 74-gun HMS ‘Valiant’ in 1789. His active service ceased the following year, although he did eventually become Admiral of the Fleet in 1811 and Lord High Admiral in 1827. William had great influence on naval affairs and during his reign was nicknamed the ‘Sailor King’.

This sword was made by Coates of London and bought by Lord Magherambe at a sale of the dead King’s effects and later given to Major-General Sir Robert McCleverty. Both men were friends of the King. Sir Robert was Colonel Commandant of the Royal Marines and the King had presented his own KCH (Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order) insignia to him as a token of their friendship.

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Field Marshal HRH George William Frederick Charles, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, c1862

Field Marshal HRH George William Frederick Charles, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, c1862

Oil on canvas by John Lucas (1807-74), c1862

NAM. 1960-11-155-1

The eldest grandson of King George III, Prince George of Cambridge was a cousin of Queen Victoria. He entered the British Army in 1837, serving with various regiments in Gibraltar, England and Ireland. He succeeded his father as 2nd Duke in 1850.

The Crimean War (1854-56) provided his long-awaited opportunity for active service. In 1854 he commanded the British 1st Division and led his men at the Battle of the Alma (20 September) with an impressive coolness. He was present at the battles of Balaklava (25 October) and Inkerman (5 November), where he showed conspicuous bravery and had a horse shot under him. Invalided back to Britain with exhaustion at the end of 1854, he was mentioned in despatches and received the thanks of Parliament.

For 39 years, from 1856 to 1895, the Duke of Cambridge was commander-in-chief of the Army, and completed nearly 60 years’ military service before he was forced to retire. Although keenly interested in the Army’s organisation and administration, he was opposed to many of the reforms introduced during the 1870s and 1880s, leading General Sir Garnet Wolseley to privately call him 'that great German bumble-bee'.

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‘HRH Prince of Wales preparing for the Front’, 1914

‘HRH Prince of Wales preparing for the Front’, 1914

Picture postcard sent by ‘Wally’ in Woolwich, Kent, to Miss K Cook, Islington, London, 9 December 1914

NAM. 2000-10-1-1

In August 1914 Prince Edward (later King Edward VIII) reached the age for active service. He had joined the Grenadier Guards in June and was willing to serve on the Western Front. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, refused to allow it, citing the harm that the capture of the heir to the throne could cause.

Despite this, he witnessed trench warfare first hand and often visited the front. On one occasion a shell hit his car and killed the driver, just after the Prince had left it to inspect the troops. His role in the war, although more limited than he desired, made him popular with the soldiers.

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Princess Elizabeth being trained in map reading, 1945

Princess Elizabeth being trained in map reading, 1945

NAM. 1994-07-291-73

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in February 1945 as a subaltern. By the end of the war she had reached the rank of junior commander, having completed her course at No 1 Mechanical Training Centre of the ATS, and passed out as a fully qualified driver. Earlier in the war the Princess had been appointed colonel-in-chief of the Grenadier Guards.

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Princess Elizabeth working on a car engine, 1945

Princess Elizabeth working on a car engine, 1945

NAM. 1994-07-291-59

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) enlisted as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in February 1945. Her Army Number was 230873.

During her service she trained at Aldershot as a driver and mechanic. These were two operational support tasks carried out by ATS women during the war. In this photograph the Princess is busy removing the spark plugs from an engine.

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Uniform worn by Princess Elizabeth when she held the honorary commission of Brigadier in the Women's Royal Army Corps, 1949-53

Uniform worn by Princess Elizabeth when she held the honorary commission of Brigadier in the Women's Royal Army Corps, 1949-53

NAM. 1994-03-285-1

When the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was founded in 1949 as a successor to the wartime Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) became an Honorary Senior Controller and later Honorary Brigadier. She resigned these appointments on becoming Queen in 1953.

Queen Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother), who had been Commandant-in-Chief of the ATS since 1940, was appointed Commandant-in-Chief of the WRAC in 1949.

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Prince Harry in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter during training, 2011

Prince Harry in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter during training, 2011

Photograph by Sergeant Steve Hughes RLC

After attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Prince Harry was commissioned in the Blues and Royals in 2006. Between December 2007 and February 2008 he served as a Forward Air Controller in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. During his tour there he called in air strikes on insurgent positions and patrolled in hostile territory.

Prince Harry has recently completed training as an Apache helicopter pilot with the Army Air Corps and there is a strong possibility that he will be redeployed to Afghanistan in the near future.

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