Thursday 29 September 2016
After Linda's remarks last time concerning our diligent coverage of military museums, we thought we should do one more. So we met at the gates of the Guards Museum. I arrived somewhat early, anxious about where I might leave my bike in paranoid Westminster; but I need not have been concerned, as the charming person who unlocked the gates at 10.00 showed me a secluded corner. I should have enjoyed my wait a little more had it not been pouring with rain, but I had the pleasure of watching 'carriage training' going on around the circuit of Birdcage Walk, the Mall and Horseguards Road.
Linda arrived, bone dry, and we then discovered that there are no toilets in this Museum, so we headed off to the far side of St James' Park. Having had our 20p's worth, we were anxious about a school party about to do the same and fumbling for change.
Back at the Museum, we paid the very modest entry fee, and were told that no photography was allowed. The explanation was that someone had photographed one of the Queen's uniforms and put it up for sale on the Internet....
We were able to take a picture of the entrance, however, with a model of a Guardsman doing the kind of boot polish that must be a regular part of ceremonial life.
The Museum visit begins with a very clear explanatory video about the history of the Guards: the five Regiments are all distinguishable by their buttons, collars and plumes. The oldest regiment is the Grenadiers, founded in exile in Bruges in 1656 to protect the exiled pretender to the vacant throne, the future Charles II. In fact, the Coldstream Guards are older by a few years, but they were on the Republican side when formed, so had to take second place after the Restoration. Then came the even older Scots Guards. In 1900, Queen Victoria wanted some acknowledgement of the work done by Irish regiments in the Boer War, and so inaugurated the Irish Guards. This is the regiment into which Rudyard Kipling managed to get his son Jack, who had failed the eye test for every other fighting force. Jack was of course killed at Loos in 1915. 1915 was also the year that the King (and former Prince of Wales) established the Welsh Guards. So there you have the 5. The motto 'septem juncta in uno' refers to the fact that there are also two regiments of Horse Guards. The seniority of the Regiments is noted by the way their buttons are arranged: in 5s for the Welsh Guards, 4 for the Irish, you get the picture. They also have national symbols on their collars, at least the Scots, Welsh and Irish do, and Welsh Guards get given a little miniature leek every year. I was a little worried about what birds are slaughtered to provide the plumes, so was reassured to be told that they are 'just any feathers' from slaughter houses, which are then dyed and formed into plumes.
The Museum is arranged mostly chronologically and, since the Guards have been involved in every conflict you can think of since the 17th century, it's pretty well a history of Britain's wars.
Near the start there is a display about the Victoria Cross: the Guards Regiments feature prominently among recipients of this highest award for gallantry. Originally they could not be awarded posthumously. Victoria, in her inauguration of the medal, referred to it as 'taking precedence over all other Orders' and of course you can't be made a member of an order once you are dead. Edward VII sorted out this anomaly on his accession and, given the extreme kind of heroism for which VCs are awarded, many since then have been posthumous.
In the early days, the Grenadiers used to serve on board ship as Marines, which is why they play 'Rule Britannia' as well as the National Anthem on ceremonial occasions.
So, explained by uniforms, weapons, prints and portraits, we walked through Britain's military history. Illustrated instructions on how to use a grenade (17th century type) and a pike were followed by a picture of the Battle of Dettingen, 1743 being the last time a British sovereign commanded troops in battle, as all pub-quizzers probably know. Meanwhile the Duke of Marlborough had fought his battles and been given Blenheim Palace. One of the objects in display is the 1984 version of the banner which is the annual quit-rent for the house. The Guards were involved in trying to prevent the American Colonists from breaking free.
And then we come to the wars again Revolutionary France and Bonaparte. It seems to be from those wars that battle honours are listen on colours, the first being Lincelles, which was part of the Flanders campaign of 1793. The Coldstreams held the farm at Hougoumont during the battle of Waterloo, and the lock of the courtyard gate is in the Museum. There is also a little diorama of the engagement, somewhat different from the Playmobil version we saw in France in July 2015.
40 years of peace followed the defeat of Bonaparte, so we moved on to the Crimea, including a gruesome medical kit with saws for removing limbs, and also a detailed account of stupid Lord Raglan and his needless sacrifice of brave men.
During the campaigns in the Sudan, the Guards established a Camel Regiment, horses clearly being of no use against the Mahdi. And then there were the wars to keep the Boers of South Africa calm. The move away from nice bright red uniforms came around now. But during the First World War, it became clear that German snipers were targeting the gold badges on officers' caps, so they were removed.
The Second World War saw the grenadiers getting a new Colonel, in the shape of the 16 year of Princess Elizabeth, and we saw her charming 'thank you' letter for the honour.
Since then, the Guards have been involved in other conflicts, including Northern ireland, the Falklands and the Middle East; all these are referenced in the Museum.
We then headed out, past the statue of Field Marshal Alexander, to look at the chapel. It's not very lovely from outside, having been rebuilt after a V1 on 18 June 1944, but the inside is magnificent. There are pillars of different marbles, stained glass, mosaics and a fine font. The upper part of the nave is filled with regimental colours of varying periods.
The shop was of rather less interest to us, since we are unexcited by model soldiers: their speciality.
But we had enjoyed the museum and its clear account of these ancient regiments.
And at least it was not raining when we came out.