Thursday 27 April 2017
The newly re-opened National Army Museum passed the first test for 50% of us, by having good cycle racks. This enabled me to recover from the tetchiness which beset me when I found that I was not allowed to walk through the Royal Hospital Grounds (Closed for the set-up of the Flower Show)
The new building is spacious and bright, the facilities excellent, the cloakroom for leaving bags convenient, and so we were all set to explore.
We were advised to start on the top floor, and that is where many of the interesting exhibits are. It is called 'Society and the History of War'. The layout is basically chronological, with recurring topics treated within each time-section. And they certainly didn't pull many punches, pointing out that armies have always taken 'souvenirs' or 'loot' from their enemies, whether in the 1640s (where the story begins) or in the present day. Similarly, behaviour which shocks the modern woolly liberal is not avoided. We did not know that expanding bullets date from the 1890s, and that it seemed more acceptable to use them against recalcitrant 'savages' than western enemies. 'Is there such a thing as civilised warfare?' asked the captioning. The Geneva and Hague Conventions of 1864 and 1899 seem to have been rather less applied in colonial wars.
This was the first of several opportunities to use an interactive to 'vote' on what we thought. If I may voice a tiny criticism, the page that gives you how the vote has been going says 'visitor's responses', rather than 'visitors' responses' but no doubt they will sort that out.
We saw arquebuses, as well as the heavy breast plates, or cuirasses, which gave French Heavy Cavalry their name. French regimental flags, as presented by Napoleon were alongside the eagles with which they were replaced as Bonaparte began to think of himself as a Roman Emperor. The skeleton of his horse, Marengo, was also there!
When it came to the first of our several and always disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan, there was a section about Major General Sir William Elphinstone 'the most incompetent soldier who ever became general', according to his contemporary, General Sir William Nott. (They do all seem to be given titles, just the same...)
The Crimean War told us about the beginnings of useful medical care for the wounded, and the establishment of the Royal Army Medical Corps. We have an uncle who was in the RAMC during the Second World War. The medical kit on display reminded us how glad we are to be living now, not then.
The 'load and fire a rifle' interactive was under repair, which we didn't mind too much, but we were pleased to see that weapon of enlightened Imperialism, the Maxim Gun. I had hoped to find you a link to the full text of Belloc's 'The Modern Traveller', but all websites seem to quote just the two well known lines ('whatever happens, we have got The Maxim Gun and they have not') . The disaster at Isandlwana also had a section (another inadequate commander, I am afraid) and the display of uniforms which accompanies all the sections turned from red to khaki.
One of several ongoing themes was the effect of armaments research on technology, and the development of communications for war was one example. There was an interesting section about the onset of total war. Apparently during the First World War the soldiers hated snipers more than any other enemy: the thought that someone was deliberately targeting individuals was less acceptable than indiscriminate industrila killing. We had never considered that before.
Then we came to the Second World War, which focussed on the Normandy Landings. There was some reference to the need for accurate meteorological forecasting, and a brief mention of the fact that many ships brought the troops across, but, as this is the Army's museum, no other mention was made of Operation Neptune and the remarkable achievement of 15,000 naval vessels (but you have heard me banging on about the neglect of naval history before, so I shall desist)
The obligatory 'dressing up' section, which all museums seem to have, was about camouflage, very well done and actually informative: against a choice of backgrounds (desert, jungle, snow) you could put on some kit and see if you blended. I could wish that other museums spent some time thinking about what dressing up is FOR.
There were then sections on Korea, Malaya, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan. We learned that it was during the Malaya conflict that General Templer coined the term 'hearts and minds' in an attempt to persuade populations not to back insurgents. Rules of engagement were discussed here, and we saw some kit for remotely dismantling explosive devices.
The section about war films and other popularising media was very interesting: from the tableaux of 1815 London to much more recent show-biz. The 'hit parade' included The Grand old Duke of York, Kiss me Goodnight Sergeant Major, and the Manic Street Preachers.
'Landscape of Legacy' offered another view of how war shapes the modern world, with pictures of Blenheim Palace and other monuments to and about war.
Recruiting posters, toys and games also featured, as did advertisements for Cadet and TA opportunities. Recruiting posters from all periods were alongside a range of prosthetic limbs and 'Help for Heroes' material.
The 'Wear a Flanders Poppy' poster was dated to the mid 1920s. We had known that the first few Armistice Days after 1918 were opportunities for parties, and it took some years for sober remembrance to replace them. This was where we heard some war poetry from the 1914-18 war. A display about Wootton Bassett, newly 'Royal', again took us back to the price that needs to be paid for war.
They we came to a section of anti-war (and anti-army) posters and photos, again spanning a wide historical scope, which was a good opportunity for interactives about what the army is for and how soldiers should behave.
A section on the reporting of war was also helped by an opportunity to decide whether we would take the press corps with us into action. We also enjoyed a little game about codes, including the kinds that soldiers of the First World War used to tell their families things that the censors might block.
It was interesting to be reminded of the way that war terminology seeps onto the Home Front.
By the time we headed downstairs to the first floor, we felt we had seen and taken in a great deal, so we rather skipped the Art Gallery, and glanced only briefly at regimental badges and more uniforms. There was an opportunity to match insignia badges to ranks, but we were only told our score,(low) not the 'right' answers.
This is where there was a brief section about women in the army, illustrated by two iconic posters, one from each of the World Wars, but we felt that there was more that could be said on this issue.
Finally, we came to a wall of very interesting statistics, though we were not clear whether the money values listed were 'modern equivalent' or actual.
We just about had the energy to admire Anna Redwood's Desert Rat Sculpture before heading off home.
We shall certainly visit again, possibly starting at the bottom to do justice to the areas we rather skimped this time. We thought the Museum had done a good job of bringing itself up to date while remaining thought provoking and challenging.