Thursday, 5 March 2015


Wednesday 4 March 2015

Firepower:  The Royal Artillery Museum
Woolwich SE18 6ST

It had been suggested (I won't say by whom) that we needed something military and metallic, after several months of arty, schooly, nursy museums, and you don't get much more military than Firepower.

So Linda and I made our way to Woolwich Arsenal, where we met a few minutes later than planned, courtesy of a delayed Overground train.  It is galling to board a train which is 17 minutes late, only to sit opposite a sign that says that 98.5% of the services are less that 5 minutes late.  But I digress.

The riverside at Woolwich is being transformed ready for Crossrail and the amazingly enhanced commuting it will bring (sorry, I seem to be stuck in public transport mode) but even so, Firepower is scarcely on the main trail for museum goers, as the modest number of visitors confirms.

The handsome parade ground outside demonstrates the long history of the place, about which we learned more inside.  The clock face is partnered by a dial which shows the wind direction (as fed by the vane above) to facilitate range finding and aim.  This was the first taste we got of the professionalism and scientific attitude of the Royal Artillery who, with the Royal Engineers, were the only branches of the army where it was not possible to rise by purchase, but only by training and ability.

The link with east London began at the end of the 16th century, when dangerous activities like explosive manufacture were moved from the Tower to 'less important' parts of London.  Then in 1716, a terrible accident at the brass foundry in Moorfields, meant that cannon-making was moved here too.  This was rapidly followed by the establishment of an officer training school, in buildings designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Inside, we visited the facilities, and read about the history of the industry of the area, as well as noting that even the children's ride was dressed in modern army camouflage.  We also saw examples of the guns which provide the metal of making Victoria Crosses, particularly poignant when one has been awarded so recently.

We headed upstairs, to discover the history of artillery, on the mezzanine of the amazing space which is the museum.  The information is clear and light hearted, given the heavy nature of the subject, starting with the fact that warriors have always thrown things at each other (!) and nipping through the ballista/catapulta gadgets that we used to enjoy in Verulamium when the XIII Legion demonstrated them.
But of course, artillery gets serious when gunpowder is added, and the museum has a model of a medieval gum, as well as a photograph of an earlier Asian version.

We learned why the 'tubes' of cannons are called barrels  (because they used to be made of wrought iron staves banded together like a barrel),and the different ways of igniting the explosive to make the projectile leave the gun

The narrative is then one of the wars in which Britain has been engaged, including our Civil War, the 18th century wars against France, and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  Throughout, there are accounts by eye witnesses.  The contradictory needs of the guns, to be near enough to cause damage to the enemy and yet able to be pulled back in case of cavalry attack, led to the development of 'light' artillery, and the racing horse-drawn teams which Linda and I remember from the Royal Tournament.  We also learned about William Congreve's development of the rocket, a weapon which the Duke of Wellington hated for its unreliability, but was forced into using because the Prince Regent found rocket fire very exciting

The expansion of the British Empire around the world is reflected here with mortars and other guns from India, like the chubby tiger gun from Tipu Sultan in Mysore.

Wars in Africa also got a mention;  the ability of the Boers to vanish into the bush, leaving what appeared to be 'an empty battlefield', led to new developments, with hidden guns and advanced spotters.

Once the story reached the First World War, women finally got a mention, since the huge munition factories, including the one at Woolwich, were major employers of women.  It is a sobering thought that young women preferred the dangerous and unpleasant work of munitions to domestic service, which had previously employed so many.

Techniques such as the creeping barrage, intended to clear the way for advancing infantry, were explained, and this section finished with a discussion of Jagger's fine and realistic memorial at Hyde Park Corner, illustrated by one of his maquettes

We found the display about Dunkirk very interesting since, for the Artillery, the 'miracle of deliverance' as Churchill called it, involved the loss of 1000 field guns and 50 heavy guns, hard to replace in time of blockade and labour shortages.  Next door to Dunkirk is D-Day:  'what did they do in between?' asked Linda, before we turned round to see North Africa and the Middle East.  Again, there were first person accounts, drawings and photographs from the participants.

I was delighted to find a section about gunners working in Royal Navy ships and merchant ships, particularly on the Arctic Convoys.  Linda endured my customary rant about how nobody thinks about the Navy, without which the RAF would have been somewhat short of fuel, and the D-Day landings would not have occurred.

Heavy guns of course fired shells full of things other than explosives, and there was a display about 'ration' shells and propaganda shells as well.

Downstairs is a survey of modern artillery warfare, including the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the Gulf.  The skills of firing big guns have changed as computers and rockets take over, and helicopters replace ships and gun carriages, but there is a clear continuity.

This is a museum about one strand of war and weaponry through the ages,  Nevertheless, we did find it interesting.

Oh, and by the way, the motto on the coat of arms at the top, Ubique quo fas et gloria ducunt, may be translated as 'wherever divine law and glory lead'.

1 comment:

  1. and the museum has a model of a medieval gum <---

    Human Spell Check