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Thursday, 11 July 2013

National Army Museum

National Army Museum, London, Chelsea, soldiers, Britain at war
This tells the story of the British Army.  But don’t expect to see some sort of Xenophobic celebration of British militarism.  Though there is, inevitably, plenty about battles and bravery, the museum explains the development of the institution in the context of an evolving society, and nation.  So, it is a reflection of Britain’s recent story to some extent, covering changes to the world map as well as shifting attitudes – for example toward women and welfare – right up to the present day.  There’s an angle on scientific advances too, not least in the field of medicine.  One of the paradoxes of war is that whilst it is on the one hand destructive, on the other it is a catalyst for technological improvements – not necessarily limited to ever more ingenious means of killing and maiming people.

The museum is set out more or less chronologically, is easy to follow and includes an impressive array of displays and items – weapons, of course, but also uniforms, personal effects, quirky bits and pieces, artwork, photography and maps.  There are some realistic reconstructions – and a good number of fascinating anecdotes and facts.  Did you know that the expression “the thin red line” dates back to a description in The Times newspaper of the 93rd (Highlanders) Regiment at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854?  What the journalist, William Howard Russell actually referred to was the “thin red streak, topped with a line of steel”, which stood facing the advancing Russian cavalry.

Napoleon's horse, Marengo, Waterloo, National Army Museum, Britain at war
There are two obvious prerequisites for a national army museum: a nation and an army.  So when did these two things come together?  The modern British state did not really exist until the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 – though all constituent parts of Britain started sharing the same monarch from 1603.  Traditionally, armies served dynastic or tribal interests, and were mainly comprised of men who owned allegiance to overlords.  So - the ‘English Army’ was really the ‘army of the King of England’ - the concept of a wider national interest would have been alien to most people.  Moreover, armies were temporary things, formed for particular campaigns and then disbanded; apart from a very small number of soldiers, the men returned to their fields when they could.  So whilst the roots of warfare are buried in the distant past, the roots of a modern standing British Army are more recent.  They lie in the Civil War of 1642-51 and the New Model Army largely created by Oliver Cromwell.  This was the first professional army in the British Isles since Roman times. And it was answerable to Parliament, not the King.

The well-disciplined New Model Army was a decisive factor in defeating the Royalist cause in that Civil War, and then helping sustain what was effectively a dictatorship until the monarchy was restored in 1660.  Some of these troops went on to form the basis for the Coldstream Guards – named for the Scottish Town where the regiment crossed the border to give support to the monarchy, and the oldest regiment in the British Army.  These troops swore service to King Charles II in 1661.  And it was Charles who founded the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, next door to the National Army Museum, as a refuge for retired soldiers of the Crown.

Earl of Uxbridge, Waterloo, National Army Museum, Uxbridge amputation, British soldiers
In the late 17th and into the 18th century, Britain was in the process of acquiring, almost by accident, an empire that at its height was responsible for 25% of the world’s population.  Whilst it relied on the Royal Navy to keep the trade routes open, it was the Army that was expected to police it on the ground – and sometimes help expand it.

Partly because of its role as imperial enforcer, the British Army has served all over the world.  Indeed, it would be easier to list the countries where British troops have not served, either in a combat role or as peacekeepers.  When I visited the museum, there was an exhibition of 20 of “Britain’s Greatest Battles”.  Whilst the criteria for inclusion or rejection are unknown to me and may be debateable, the list does partially illustrate the breadth of Britain’s theatres of operation over the past four centuries:



Battle
Date Location
Naseby
14 June 1645
England
Blenheim
13 August 1704
Germany
Culloden
16 April 1746
Scotland
Plassey
23 June 1757
India
Quebec
13 September 1759
Canada
Lexington and Concord
19 April 1775
USA
Salamanca
22 July 1812
Spain
Waterloo
18 June 1815
Belgium
Aliwal
28 June 1846
India
Balaklava
25 October 1854
Ukraine
Rorke’s Drift
22-23 June 1879
South Africa
Gallipoli
25 April 1915 – 9 January 1916
Turkey
Somme
July – November 1916
France
Megiddo
19 – 25 September 1918
Palestine (Israel)
El Alamein
23 October – 4 November 1942
Egypt
Imphal and Kohima
7 March – 18 July 1944
India
D Day
6 June 1944
France
Imjin River
22 – 25 April 1951
Korea
Goose Green
28 – 29 May 1982
Falkland Islands
Musa Qala
Summer 2006
Afghanistan

The National Army Museum tries to tell the tale of the millions who have served the British Army, from private soldiers to generals.  And it does a pretty good job of it.  It does not hold back from describing the harsher aspects – for example the sometimes cruel discipline.  British soldiers were not always willingly recruited, many joined to avoid poverty or prison – the Duke of Wellington referred to them as “the mere scum of the earth” and is also meant to have said (but may not have done), “I don’t know what effect these men have on the enemy but, by God, they frighten me.”  The British Army wasn’t – and isn’t – always comprised of Britons, of course; for example, even in this post-imperial age, Gurkhas from Nepal fight for the United Kingdom.  Notwithstanding any pressure that may have been exerted on potential recruits in the past, unlike many other nations Britain has traditionally mainly relied on volunteers for its fighting services.  Conscription was introduced for the first time during the First World War in 1916, reintroduced for the Second World War in 1939 and this morphed into ‘National Service’ in 1947.  But National Service ended in 1960 and the last National Servicemen left the Army in 1963.  Indeed, one of the fascinating galleries, which relies heavily on the words of those who were there, is devoted to the period of National Service.  Today’s Army is a professionally trained force of men and women who have chosen to join.

National Army Museum, gas attack, Britain at war, soldiers, London museums
You’ll be glad to learn that the National Army Museum boasts a café, as well as a gift shop where you can buy anything from toys to place mats – and there is a good range of books.  The museum has something for all ages – and even those completely disinterested in military matters may be moved by some of the stories.  It’s a great place for kids too – though I should imagine it’s horrendous if there’s a couple of school parties trolling around at the same time as you, dear reader.  But (at time of writing) entry is free…



STOP PRESS The museum is closed for redevelopment until 2016.  Visit the National Army Museum's website for more information.  Currently, you’ll find the museum in a hideous building on Royal Hospital Road, next to the western end of the Royal Hospital.  There's a 25-pounder field gun outside, so it's hard to miss and it's just a short walk from Sloane Square tube station on District (green) and Circle (yellow) lines.

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