Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…

One of the most popular symbols of the festive season is the Christmas tree, with its familiar fir-tree shape. Interestingly, the blades of three 16th-century Italian partizans in the Armouries’ collection all have a design in pointillé decoration which distinctly resembles this same recognisable outline of a fir tree. There is no evidence that this is what the design was actually intended to represent, but the similarity is striking. The outline of the staggered branches is depicted in small punched dots around the medial ridges of the blades.

Christmas tree partizan close up

Christmas tree partizan close up

Partizans were amongst a variety of European two-handed staff weapons that developed and experienced widespread usage in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time, foot soldiers became increasingly important on the battlefield, and infantry militias from Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands successfully fought against armies of mounted knights. These three partizans were part of the group of staff weapons that were imported from Italy by King Henry VIII, and formed part of his arsenal. Their long ‘ox-tongue’ type blades have a spear point and projecting, upturned lugs at the base. They are mounted on wooden shafts which are approximately nine feet (nearly three metres) long.

Christmas tree partizan

Christmas tree partizan

By the 17th century, the manufacture of partizans and their practical use as battlefield weapons was declining, but they continued to have a role as ceremonial weapons associated with military rank. For this purpose the blades were often shortened and highly ornamented. In this guise they came to be known as ‘spontons’ or ‘spontoons’.

The decoration on these particular partizans is not especially elaborate though, which may suggest that they were intended to be more functional than ornamental. The design on the blades seems immediately familiar to contemporary audiences as the outline of a fir tree, but why it was used is an intriguing question to which we cannot yet provide an answer. Was it simply a popular decorative motif for this type of weapon, or did it possess a greater symbolic meaning than we realise? It is unlikely to be a reference to a Christmas tree as we would understand it, because when these partizans were made in the 16th century, the custom of the Christmas tree was not well established outside Northern Germany; the rest of Europe only embraced the tradition a few centuries later.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Christmas Box

At Christmas 1914, the teenage Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, wanted to send a ‘gift from the Nation’ to all who were away from home for Christmas, fighting for our freedom. An advertisement in the national press invited contributions for a ‘Sailors & Soldiers Christmas Fund’.  Following a generous response from the public, the money was used to produce an embossed brass box, with various contents for the recipients.

The standard contents were 1oz of tobacco and 20 cigarettes, with a separate pipe and lighter. Non-smokers were alternatively offered a bullet pencil, writing paper and sweets.  Spices and sweets were provided for Indian troops, and chocolate for nurses. Most boxes also contained a Christmas card and a small photograph of Princess Mary.

The fund stayed open until 1920, and over 2.5 million boxes were delivered. Many of these survive, including one on display on the War gallery mezzanine, on loan from ex-senior curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries, Martin Pegler.

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

Martin writes:

In the 1980’s my wife and I were interviewing WW1 veterans. [We were given the tin by] Albert Edward Lee, though he was universally known as ‘Nick.’ He had been in the Machine Gun Corps in 1915, then was transferred to the Tank Corps in 1916. I don’t recall what regiment he served in prior to 1915, but do recall him saying that then he was a non-smoker and teetotal, so he never used the tin, and sent it home as a souvenir. Oddly, he became a confirmed pipe-smoker later in life, and always had a pipe puffing away when we visited him.

Nick Lee

Nick Lee

He won the Military Medal in 1916 with the tanks, was badly gassed in 1917, invalided out of the war, and told he had two years to live. So he became a medical experiment and lived in the open for three years, in his parents back garden in a sort of garden shed with only three walls. His lungs began to heal, and when we met him he was a robust 80-ish, and laughed at having outlived all the doctors who said he’d never survive!

The Christmas boxes for troops were revived in 2004 by the charity ‘uk4u thanks’! http://www.uk4u.org/charity

Trench biscuit

Trench biscuit

Very nearby in the gallery can also be seen a hardtack biscuit also on loan from Martin Pegler, inscribed ‘SOLDIER’S TRENCH biscuit, 1915, FRANCE, European WAR’. Renowned for being tooth-breakingly hard, in almost 100 years no one was desperate enough to eat it!

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Bite the Bullet

In 1857 native soldiers of the Indian Army rose up against the British Empire in what became known as the Indian Mutiny. It’s often said that the cause of this unrest was the paper cartridge issued for use with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. These were greased at one end to lubricate the bullet, which had to be pushed down the barrel from the muzzle end for loading. In order to open the cartridge, soldiers were instructed to tear it with their teeth, resulting in the ingestion of some of the grease. Rumours spread that this grease was derived from pig fat, forbidden to Muslims, or from cows, which would be a serious issue for Hindus. Moreover, the rumours suggested that this was a deliberate practice intended to degrade and even to force conversion to Christianity.

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P'53 rifle, containing a lead 'Minié syle bullet

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P’53 rifle, containing a lead ‘Minié syle bullet

In fact, the causes and background to the mutiny were rather more complicated than this, but historians agree the cartridge rumours were one of the main triggers or tipping points for the mutiny. Some have disputed the claim of pig and/or cow fat, but although it is clear that their use was not intentional, both types of grease were indeed used on the cartridges. Although many officers in India recognised this serious oversight and attempted to address it, the offence and concern had already been caused. The result was widespread violence, bloodily put down by the Imperial authorities, with ringleaders being ‘blown from guns’, or tied to the muzzle of cannon which were then fired.

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic 'V' notch

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic ‘V’ notch

One less obvious result of the mutiny was the introduction of a new pattern of arm. Though it outwardly resembled the Enfield rifle, the rifling lands and grooves themselves were machined away, and a much more basic rear sight fitted. These new Pattern 1858 and 1859 smoothbore muskets effectively put ‘Brown Bess’ back in the hands of Indian troops. This was a deliberate attempt to limit the effectiveness of any future uprising, as they would be much less effective at range, and make the targeting of officers far more difficult.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Going by the book!

The last battle on English soil was fought on 18 December 1745, when dragoons of the Duke of Cumberland’s Government army caught up with the rearguard of the retreating Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. The rebel Jacobites had advanced as far as Derby, but due to lack of support from the people of England decided to retreat back towards Scotland.

Front page of the manuscript

Front page of the manuscript

By 18 December they had reached Penrith in Cumberland, and as the rearguard was passing through the village of Clifton the advance elements of Cumberland’s army – a body of dragoons several hundred strong, caught up. The Scots rearguard was made up of several infantry units. Charles chose not to commit his main force but continued to retreat in the direction of Carlisle, ordering his rearguard to catch up. However, with the Government cavalry in the vicinity it was not possible for them to do so without first offering battle.

In our archive we have a rare survivor from this period, a small 31-page booklet entitled: The new exercise of firelocks and bayonets appointed by his Grace the Duke of Marlborough to be used by all the British forces: with instructions to perform every motion by body, foot and hand. This manual was written by an anonymous ‘Officer in Her Majesties Foot Guards’, and published in 1708. Prior to the Act of Union of 1707, the Government forces in England, Scotland and Ireland had been separate, so this booklet was one of the very first drill manuals used by the British Army. It is not illustrated, but the descriptions of the orders and words of command give us a good feel for small-arms handling at this time.

Pages from the manuscript

Pages from the manuscript

At Clifton, the dragoons dismounted and, lining a series of hedges and ditches opened fire upon the Jacobites. After a brief exchange of fire, the Jacobite regiments charged and dispersed the Government forces, and then resumed their retreat. Reports as to the numbers of casualties vary, but an account written on 29 December 29by Thomas Savage, a local farmer whose house seems to have been at the epicentre of the fighting, put the number of Government troops killed at ten, with 21 wounded. Only five Jacobites were killed according to Savage, and although many were wounded only two were taken prisoner.

On the face of their poor show at Clifton, it might seem that the manual the dragoons followed had been of little use. However they were probably outnumbered by the Jacobites, and as the events of Culloden would show the following year, when troops using manuals like this were commanded by a resolute and skilled general such as Cumberland, they proved to be very effective indeed.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant

Pretty lucky wasn’t it?

This letter from the Royal Armouries archives contains an eyewitness account of the battle of Jutland fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet on 30May – 1 June 1916.

HMS Invincible sinking

HMS Invincible sinking

It was written by George Slade, a seaman aboard HMS Inflexible, to his mother ten days after the battle to reassure her that he was safe. HMS Inflexible came through the action without any casualties and undamaged, although Slade describes one dangerous moment when ‘four torpedoes were fired at us. One passing across our stern, another passed along our port side about 10 yds away + the fourth actually went under us!! Pretty lucky wasn’t it?

Wartime letters were normally censored, and Slade intended to give no more details of the action, but he was then allowed to write a fuller account (presumably as reports of the battle had been published in the press) which he does so in the form of a journal or log.

During the battle Slade was stationed in the foretop and on the bridge, and so he had an excellent view of the action. He records all of the major events, including the dramatic loss of HMS Invincible:

‘6.30 The Invincible was blown up. She went up in a tremendous cloud of yellow cordite smoke. She broke in half + her bows + stern were left floating but I saw no survivors. Apparently a salvo pitched amidships + blew up her P+Q magazine. Huge pieces of steel + iron were falling everywhere but none touched us. We have heard that six were picked up afterwards + I think were all part of the Fore Top’s crew. (52 4 N, 6 6 E)’

George Slade's letter

George Slade’s letter

His account is unusually precise and it is likely that Slade copied the main details from the log kept on the bridge of HMS Inflexible during the action, and then added his own personal observations. The result is a fascinating description of one of the great battles of the First World War.

Blogger: William Longmate, Student Work Placement – Archives Department

Weird and Wonderful

Though it looks like something out of a video game with its twin bayonets, this is a real gun. It is the Sterling S11 sub-machine gun, designed in 1965 as a follow-up to the classic Sterling Mk.4/L2A3 of the 1950s (the latter of which doubled as the Stormtrooper’s blasters in ‘Star Wars’). It was meant to compete with the then-new and now famous Heckler & Koch MP5, and took a few design cues from the equally well-known Israeli Uzi.

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Due to falling sales of sub-machine guns in general and to reliability problems with the gun, only one example was ever made; ‘EXP 001′. This was presented to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room in 1989 and came to the Royal Armouries with the accession of that collection in 2005.

Why two bayonets? One is of the type fitted to the SLR rifle and the other for the previous Sterling SMG. We can’t be sure why the S11 was fitted for both; the trouble Sterling went to suggests that it was intended to give export customers a choice. We can be certain of one thing however; you would never have used both at the same time!

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

The Great Cover Up

Over the next few weeks, as part of the Museum’s preventative conservation programme, work will be carried out in the Royal Armouries stores at our Leeds Museum to cover all the large objects that are not stored on shelves or racking, this includes horse saddles and whole mounted armours.

Individual Tyvek covers, a non-woven fabric consisting of spun-bond olefin fibre which is water-resistant yet breathable, will be made for each object to protect them, particularly from dust, and will help reduce the need for additional conservation work to be carried out on these objects in the future. Images of the objects and their accession numbers will be attached to the outside of each cover making it easier to identify the objects.

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Work has started on making covers for some of the mounted armours. It is quite a challenge to make covers for some of the objects, such as a large German jousting saddle dating from around 1500, as it is such an irregular shape.

For some of the more fragile, or awkwardly shaped objects like the saddle, covers with ties at the front will be made, making them easier to remove when necessary and prevent damage to the objects when uncovering them.

A wide-range of skills is certainly needed to work in the Conservation Department.

Blogger: Emily Ironmonger, Conservation Assistant