Somerset Military Museum (Suburban Militarism Day Trip #9)

Happily, while on my way back home from holiday I managed to detour and visit the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton. The gallery is a part of the wider Museum of Somerset and contains a collection which covers the following regiments:

· The Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert’s)
· The Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry
· The West Somerset Yeomanry
· The North Somerset Yeomanry
· The Somerset Militia, Rifle Volunteers and Territorials
· The Light Infantry and its successor regiment, The Rifles

You will note the above mention of militia, rifles, volunteer and yeomanry, which is something of a particular interest of mine and I wasn’t to be disappointed. I was particularly impressed by the museum’s emphasis on letting the exhibits take centre stage and the whole gallery was very well stocked with uniforms – so I was a particularly happy boy!

Painting of the Sortie from Jellalbad by Daniel Cunliffe
The Sortie from Jellalabad, a painting by Daniel Cunliffe (1801-1871)

Near the entrance to the gallery is the above painting by Daniel Cunliffe which depicts the Siege of Jellalabad, First Afghan War (1838-1842). In it, the 13th Light Infantry are depicted capturing sheep and cattle as part of a successful sortie from Jellalabad in which they were besieged. I was already familiar with some other paintings by Cunliffe, so was pleased to see this one. Another painting that would have been wonderful to view but was unfortunately absent on the day (I think away on loan) was Lady Butler’s “Remnant’s of an Army”. This was the great artist’s iconic depiction of William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jellalabad as the last survivor from the 1842 retreat from Kabul.

The city of Jellalabad in Afghanistan played an important part in the history of the 13th Regiment, the name eventually featuring on their cap badge in recognition of their valour in the conflict. The museum displayed a marvellous uniform worn by Captain George Talbot (below left) of the 13th Light Infantry which he would have been seen wearing on parade in Jellalabad. Also displayed (below right) was a fearsome Afghan dagger taken at the fall of Ghuznee in 1839 and a fabric skullcap worn by the 13th’s Captain George Mein during his captivity.

Taken captive by Afghan leader Mohammad Akbar Khan during the retreat from Kabul, Captain Mein was held for 9 months alongside other British survivors (men, women and children) which included Lady Florentia Sale, the incredibly brave and defiant wife of the regiment’s colonel, Sir Robert. Quite a bit of history seen by that little cloth cap! Large portraits of General and Lady Sale were on display, depicted by the artist George Clint (1770-1854).

The 13th Regiment fought all over the world including the Crimea, Burma, India and South Africa (latterly in both the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars). During the Zulu campaign, Major Knox-Leet of the 13th won a Victoria Cross during the disastrous battle of Hlobane and the following day his regiment fought hand to hand with Zulus in the desperate battle of Khambula. The regiment’s band led the British army advance (in square formation) at the concluding battle of Ulundi . The museum had artefacts from the Zulu campaign on display including a Martini-Henry rifle, some Zulu weaponry (see below) and King Cetshwayo kaMpande’s pipe!

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Heavy Zulu iwisa (knobkerries) with a isihlangu (ox-hide shield) taken during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.
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Bust of Lt John Chard of Rorke’s Drift fame. He was not of the 13th Regiment, being a Royal Engineer, but was a local Somerset man.

Anglo-Boer War exhibits included a Boer carving, a century old chocolate box given to troops (with the chocolate still in it) and this helmet below belonging to Corporal Mabey wounded at the battle of Tugela Heights in 1900. Note the hunting horn symbol on his rather campaign-weary pith helmet; an iconic symbol of light infantry troops.

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As I’ve mentioned, the museum was particularly blessed with uniforms such as this sergeant’s from the late 19th / early 20th century. Surrounding it were khaki uniforms and examples of NCOs and officer’s mess uniforms.

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On the right in the photo below can be seen an officer’s sword and scabbard which was carried during the 1st Anglo-Burma War (1824-26), 1st Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and the Crimean War of 1854, possibly even present during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Few soldier’s swords can claim to have been quite so well-travelled! The sword with the white handle belonged to Lt-General Snow, a former colonel of the regiment.

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You may spy in the above photograph a 1930s Gramophone record which featured the Somerset Light Infantry’s suitably jaunty regimental march called “Prince Albert’s”, performed on record by their band. I believe this march featured in the 1968 film “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Coming up in Part 2 of this post; drums, headdresses and lots of colourful volunteer uniforms abound…

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2 thoughts on “Somerset Military Museum (Suburban Militarism Day Trip #9)

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