Friday, 21 November 2014

The Fusiliers Museum (City of London)

Tower of London  
Wednesday November 19 2014

Entrance to this small museum  is free but only once you have paid the considerable cost of entering the Tower of London; as this was our second visit we felt it only right to go at this point, and it actually proved to be refreshingly approachable after our experience of the White Tower.  
The reason the regiment was formed was that James II, with the Monmouth Rebellion  brewing, was of the view that his guns and ammunition (kept at the Tower) needed  more protection – not sure what the existing sentries would have thought of that. However, as the sparks from a musket might have ignited the gunpowder they were guarding the soldiers were issued with ‘fusils’ (rifle) based on the flintlock rather than more ‘sparky’ matchlock ignition system. Fusil is also the French for gun, but there you go. (After grappling with the 101 different bits of terminology relating to a horse’s armour as seen in the White Tower this was simple! )

So there they were, based at the Tower and recruiting from the surrounding neighbourhoods, so it seemed a shame not to deploy them when a conflict popped up somewhere. Essentially the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (City of London) have participated in every major conflict from 1685 to the present day. The main part of the museum exhibition is arranged on the ground floor of the building (formerly the Staff Quarters of the Officers) just tucked behind the White Tower. There are 1-2 cases devoted to each successive conflict, headed by the testimony of a contemporary participant, and admirably all ranks are represented here  with their perceptive, moving or prescient comments highlighted. The key battles at which they were present are explained, and drawings or photos and artefacts of the engagements form part of each display. Impressively the only real major defeat was at Cowpens.
As some-one who is incredibly vague about military matters I found the attached board very helpful:

A SECTION comprises 8 soldiers under the command of a CORPORAL
A PLATOON comprises 30 soldiers under the command of a LIEUTENANT
A COMPANY comprises 100 soldiers under the command of a MAJOR
A BATTALION comprises 600 soldiers under the command of a LIEUTENANT-COLONEL

The first display, and in many ways the most interesting, was that devoted to Major John André, a Royal Fusilier, who served with the Regiment during the (American) War of Independence as a SPY (presumably before we had different departments for these) or more properly military intelligence officer. Having risen in the ranks (of the 7th Fusiliers) and been captured he seemed to have gained the confidence of some locals and then tried to escape with papers showing locations which could have benefitted the English cause hidden in his sock. However, not having a very convincing cover story when stopped meant he was arrested, tried and eventually put to death.   He was respected by both sides and as George Washington said:
He was more unfortunate than criminal,
An accomplished man and a gallant officer".

This same conflict also saw the Fusiliers’ worst defeat ever – at the unromantically named Battle of Cowpens. Soon after the colony was lost when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

There followed action for the Fusiliers in the Peninsular wars and buoyed on by triumphs there participation in the Crimea – the quotation here refers to the main enemy being ‘Cholera’ but there were Fusilier heroes too.  As ever through history many recruits joined the army to escape poverty and unemployment at home but up till the Cardwell Army Reforms life in the Army was far from comfortable either. These reforms included regular payments and no more flogging. Up until this point the Fusiliers had been in jolly red uniforms with ample frogging but round about the Boer War British Army uniform saw the changeover to Khaki as offering more camouflage.

Handy historians I know were both baffled by the Fusiliers’ participation in the 1914 Great Tibet Campaign, not a part of the world that springs to mind for that memorable date. It turns out to be some skirmish with the Russians over borderlands but fear not – the Fusiliers returned to Europe to take part in the Great War: Mons, Gallipoli and the Somme of course. During this time the 38th to 42nd battalions (see above so circa 3000 men) were known as the Jewish Battalions and fought in Palestine – these included Jacob Epstein the sculptor and David Ben-Gurion – later first Prime Minister of the State of Israel and a so-called founding father.

The Fusiliers’ Second World War exploits were no less distinguished and included service in India followed by an arduous start to the Italian campaign by the ascent of Monte Cassino – a graphic description by a participant reminds you that this was not an easily won assault (or ascent). There was a captured bust of Mussolini though…

Unsurprisingly the more amalgamated (last pulling together was in 1968) Fusiliers also saw service in Korea, Northern Ireland the Gulf and Afghanistan. Dotted amongst the souvenirs of each campaign are other artefacts – a stuffed mallard Duck (presumably a mascot), photos of Graffiti from Northern Ireland illustrating how warmly welcomed they were, posters and so forth. One of the strangest exhibits is an ‘iron boot’ which was used to help sore feet heal – however when a serving soldier was seen to be poking at this healing wound he was deemed to be a malingerer.

The last room is reserved for a display of medals – both those campaign medals for the aforementioned operations and more detailed descriptions of how different Victoria Crosses were awarded to fusiliers. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello from Ben Uri gallery, St John's Wood!
    We would love you to visit us during your tour of London museums.
    Our current exhibition, Refiguring the 50s, runs until 22 February if you have time in your busy schedule.
    The 139 and 189 buses serve us well.
    If you would like to get in touch, please contact Laura by email or by phone 0207 604 3991.
    Happy exploring!