Finding myself on a rare trip to London with my wife, I somehow persuaded her that a short detour to the nearby National Army Museum might be in order and she graciously agreed. The National Army Museum is situated right next the Royal Hospital in Chelsea and entry to the museum is entirely free. It was founded in 1960 “for the purpose of collecting, preserving and exhibiting objects and records relating to the Land Forces of the British Crown”.
I think I must have last visited when I was about 14 years old for a seminar organised by the Victorian Military Society; so, ah, that’s a few decades ago now. It has changed beyond recognition since being reopened recently after a 3-year, £24 million redevelopment. A press release had this to say about the redesign:
Following an extensive review of the existing National Army Museum brand, the museum set out to transform perceptions of a dark and austere military museum to a modern, bright, engaging and relevant space fit for the 21st century.
As someone with a long-standing interest in military history, I must confess that I’m never happier than in a “dark and austere military museum”! Hearing of its transformation therefore into a “relevant space” concerned me a little. Would it be relevant to me? The press release continued:
Working with creative agencies … the new National Army Museum brand is reflected in the physical museum, its website and has influenced designers across the project in every aspect, from permanent gallery displays and public spaces, to interior design and signage.
We strive to talk about our subject in ways that are at once insightful, sharing, conversational, stimulating and above all real and relevant. We want to inspire conversations, not just questions and answers, and support genuine and meaningful encounters with our story for audiences of all ages and backgrounds. The new brand encapsulates this position.’
OK. I got to admit that I don’t really go in for all this ‘branding’ speak. A “genuine and meaningful encounter” for me is what happens when I see a military exhibit. What’s “relevant” probably depends more on the individual visitor and is difficult for a curator to anticipate. As for what’s “real” – there’s surely nothing more real than an historical artefact; interactive screens, vinyl wall displays and branding designs are ultimately mere simulacrum. So, though I appreciated the desire for the NAM to engage with as wide a portion of the general public as possible, I was visiting with some concerns as to how engaging I personally would find it.
The new National Army Museum is split over its floors into separate galleries respectively titled “Soldier”, “Battle”, “Army”, “Society” and “Insight”. It sounded all a little bit vague to me and, pressed for time, didn’t assist me to identify where I might quickly find topics that I’m most interested in. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s an imaginative attempt to introduce the topic to the more general visitor who might not have such preferences.
Inside, the museum certainly looks impressive. It’s open and inviting, strikingly fresh, modern and clean.
Perhaps it’s a trifle too clean? There are lots of open space which, I couldn’t help but feel could have been used to display more exhibits! Thankfully, there are still plenty of exhibits to be found for a military history nerd like me to enjoy. So, I’m going to review some of the best.
The “Soldier Gallery” contained about a dozen uniforms worn by manikins in glass cases. The arrangement was seemingly random although, with such a wide subject, perhaps such indiscriminate juxtapositions are as good an approach as any. I’d have liked to have seen more of them, nonetheless! Lawrence of Arabia’s Bedouin robes were on display as were the below examples of the superbly ornate 10th (Prince of Wales Own) Light Dragoons (Hussars) and the very smart 1st Duke of York’s Own Lancers (also known as Skinner’s Horse), a cavalry regiment of the British Indian Army.
I was particularly pleased to see an example of the striking First Aid Nursing Yeomanry uniform on display. Having discussed Serbian women’s involvement in WWI and having taken part in FEMbruary earlier this year, female involvement in warfare is a topic that has cropped up a number of times on Suburban Militarism.
The pouch on the rear of the uniform states “FAYC”, referring to them being yeomanry cavalry, i.e. they were expected to ride horses. Any hard riding would have been severely hampered by the presence of that long navy skirt. No doubt many in the FAYC would have rather worn far more practical riding breeches. The very fine scarlet uniform closely resembles the kind of smart Full Dress uniform in use by some of the male yeomanry of the time. For Service Dress, the men were already moving on to the more practical khaki – displayed alongside was the excellent Anglo-Boer War-era Imperial Yeomanry uniform. The style and colour of the FAYC uniform was a sign that women were not at all expected to get involved in the front line of battle. My post on the Female Soldiers of Serbia gives some indication of how this restrictive expectation was thwarted by many brave women in reality.
There was a nice display case (above) of some exhibits which, unfortunately, were not labelled for identification. The interactive screens nearby may well have been able to tell me more but a lack of time moved me on and so I was left to speculate what the peculiar white japanned dragoon helmet was (some yeomanry musician’s helmet?), or the age and regiment of the light-blue sergeant’s coatee of some light cavalry.
I was pleased to see some of the colourful and unusual dress from British empire forces from overseas. A uniform of a West Indian regiment was treat to see, it’s style modelled on the renowned Zouaves of the French army, apparently on the instruction of Queen Victoria herself. A fascinating account of the history of the West India Regiments from its iniquitous slavery beginnings through to 1927, “Slaves in Red Coats“, can be found on the NAM website. Further exploring British army uniforms across the globe was the above West African Frontier Force uniform. Like the West Indian version, this Lance Corporal of the Nigeria Regiment also sports a Zouave-style jacket and red fez but without the white turban wound about it.
Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon loomed large in the displays in the Battle Gallery. It was a great experience to stand so close to exhibits such as Wellington’s cloak and General Picton’s top hat from the battle.
Looking at that top hat, I was reminded of the scene in the epic film “Waterloo” by Dino De Laurentiis where Lt-General Picton is shot and killed leading his troops forward in a scene brilliantly portrayed by Jack Hawkins. The sight of a gentlemanly top hat and umbrella in the midst of a brutal battle was memorably incongruous. In the film, a gruff Hawkins cries to his men “On! you drunken rascals, you whore’s melts, you thieves, you blackguards!” But his tirade is halted as the top hat is suddenly scarred by shot, the only sign that Picton himself has been hit also. The hat is last seen tumbling to the ground alongside it’s owner on the Belgian hillside, swallowed up and lost in the ongoing battle. Picton was described by Wellington as being a “a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived”, but respected his great ability to command. His last words were reputedly a far less coarse “Charge! Charge! Hurrah! Hurrah!” as he lead his troops to counter-attack the French.
An impressive cuirass and helmet of a French Carabinier was displayed as was the skeleton of Napoleon’s famous grey horse “Marengo”, which he rode throughout many a campaign. The Arab mount was visibly a rather small horse, judging by the skeleton. It suffered 8 wounds in battle but survived to a grand old age of 38. Captured at Waterloo, it ended its days living a deservedly quieter life in England. Astonishing to think of the dramatic events, places and people that the now sightless Arabian stallion must have once seen.
I encounted a magnificent diorama of Waterloo that I’d heard about previously. It was first developed by Captain Siborne over a decade after the battle happened making use of his own obsessively meticulous research. Financial issues as well as the immense work involved delayed its completion until 1838. Incorporating, in its original form, over 70,000 tin soldiers (5mm scale) it demonstrated an immensely detailed recreation of the landscape. Siborne reputedly fell foul of the Duke of Wellington, who apparently voiced disapproval for a perceived incorrect excessive bias towards the role that the Prussians had taken, though this is disputed amongst historians.
Finally, I visited the Soldier Gallery which presented a wall resplendent with all manner of exotic military headdress!
Again, it was a somewhat random approach to take but ultimately looked impressive. Up on this wall, I discovered my very first example of a British hussar’s Mirliton, which was very pleasing to see. This headdress was something which I’d modelled for the first time earlier this year when painting my Swedish Morner Hussars.
Amongst other new discoveries was the Light Company helmet pictured below from the time of the American Revolutionary War. Note the face on the crest, the red horsehair and turban. The appearance of the figure of Britannia on the front plate identifies this as being the 9th Regiment of Foot, later the Norfolk Regiment (see Rule Britannia! My report on the Norfolk Regiment Collection from 2016).
More examples of headdress below including some very spectacular Dragoon helmet crests sandwiching a grenadier’s mitre cap.
Exhibits shown below are of the Napoleonic British Dragoon Guards and an 1834 Lancer’s Czapka of the 17th Regiment, notable for its skull and crossbones cap badge indicating ‘Death or Glory’. Both tremendously ostentatious and decorative objects.
My wife and I then underwent instruction by a virtual Drill Sergeant, which involved standing on a specific area and having a video of sergeant bellow instructions at us. He offered “helpful” advice and “considered” assessments of our relative performance. I’m pleased to say that he was slightly less annoyed by my performance than by hers!
Sadly, I then had to rush off before I had a chance to experience either the Society or Insight galleries. All in all, I had an enjoyable visit and discovered some great objects. I’m not sure the ‘theme’ approach quite works for me and some of the efforts gone to engage a wider audience were sometimes just not relevant or of interest to me as a visitor with an established interest in the topic. That said, I do fully understand and accept the drive for a national museum with free entry to engage the widest possible audience and not just the history nerds like myself.
The NAM’s efforts to make its exhibits available online via it’s website – or by appointment to its storage facility – and to also reach out with create ‘extra-curricular’ evening talks, events and displays are to be commended (viz. a recent cultural evening of food, music and performances to launch a display on Romania’s WWI involvement).
The very well refurbished National Army Museum in particular had very helpful and friendly staff. With free entry and lots to see, it can only be recommended to those with any degree of interest in military history.