The Edged Weapons of the First World War…

The up-coming First World War exhibition at Royal Armouries, Leeds will not only look at the firearms used during the War but also the evolution of edged weapons. We spoke to Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons, Henry Yallop to find out more…

Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the research and preparation for the First World War exhibition?
It has been pretty all encompassing for Curator of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson, First World War Researcher, Lisa Traynor and I.  From choosing and acquiring the objects to conducting research, writing and editing all the content for both the physical and online exhibition – it has been non-stop.  We have also been heavily involved in the design of the gallery space and will even be installing it alongside the technicians.  The curatorial team have had a lot of involvement from start to finish.

Henry Yallop, Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons

Henry Yallop, Assistant Curator of European Edged Weapons holding a Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, British, 1915

Can you tell us about some of the edged weapons that were used during the First World War and how they evolved afterwards?
The most common edged weapon of the War, carried by almost every soldier, was the bayonet.  Various types were used and it was still, despite huge advances in firepower, seen as an essential weapon of the infantryman. After the War the bayonet was viewed more as an auxiliary weapon of last resort. Nevertheless, changes in bayonet design did come about following the experiences of the First World War.

Every nation also started the War with sword, and even lance, armed cavalry.  The ‘cavalry spirit’ was still strong in a lot of armies and some still saw closing to contact the true purpose of cavalry. As such, in the years leading up to the War many nations attempted to improve upon their sword and lance designs.  However, the emergence of tanks during the War and their development afterwards effectively spelt the end of edged weapon armed cavalry, and with it any further development of sword and lance.

Perhaps the most unique edged weapons of the First World War are those that developed out of trench warfare.  Here a range of both improvised and purpose designed edged weapons were developed for the specific trench conditions of hand-to-hand combat.  Some of these were new designs, but others harked back to the medieval period.

What have you found most interesting about working on this project?
The opportunity to work alongside the Firearms team has been very rewarding.  I am fascinated by all arms and armour, so expanding my knowledge outside of my main discipline was excellent.  Although we have all had our main area of interest, working with each other enabled us to expand our individual understanding and the relationship between edged weapons, firearms and armour during this period.

What has been your most interesting discovery?
That there were occasions, despite the modern and changing nature of warfare, that cavalry armed with edged weapons could still have a role to play.  In the Middle East mounted regiments of the British Empire were asking to be issued with swords as late as 1918.  They were still considered essential weapons, and on more than one occasion proved to be uniquely so.

Lord Kitchener's sword and scabbard British, 1898 (XVI.16) © Royal Armouries

Lord Kitchener’s sword and scabbard British, 1898 (XVI.16) © Royal Armouries

What edged weapons can people expect to see in the exhibition?
We are displaying the full range of edged weapons used in the First World War; Swords, lances, bayonets, knives, daggers, clubs, knuckledusters, even a pike and a sharpened spade! Some of these have specific regimental and even personal associations. Although not intended to be used as a weapon, we are very lucky to have Field Marshal Kitchener’s sword, who was such an important figure to the whole of the British Empire’s war effort from 1914-16.

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers: the personal arms and armour of the First World War will go on display at Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds In September 2014. For more details about the First World War Centenary programme, visit the website.

The Tower at War – 1914-18

A showcase in the White Tower at the Tower of London will be dedicated to telling the story of the Tower and its people during the First World War, with content updated annually – we caught up with Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries to tell us more about the upcoming display…

Not another exhibition commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War? Surely, you groan, there can’t be any new angles to be examined?

Well, yes there can. Contemplating the best way to commemorate the Tower Armouries’ connections with the First World War posed a number of challenges, not least the fact we have just completed a 4-year long re-display of all the White Tower galleries. An extensive re-exhibition was not an option. However we do have a unique record of this period specific to the site and its staff and deserving of a wider audience.  So it was decided to make a virtue of necessity and let other museums with the space and collections tell the greater story.  We would concentrate on the site itself and the events recorded in the Tower Minute Book (I.189) and Diary (I.188).

The Tower Minute book and Diary continue the tradition of the books of Receipts and Issues kept by Storekeepers from the time of the earliest Tower stores.  On his appointment as Curator in 1913 Charles ffoulkes expanded their content to reflect the wider aspects of the job.  From 1917 he expanded his Tower remit to include the acquisition of current war material by becoming the first Curator of the National War Museum (today’s Imperial War Museum).  Fortunately the terms and conditions of his original Armouries’ role were sufficiently flexible to allow him to continue his oversight of The Tower’s historic military equipment at the same time.

ffoulkes at his desk in the Flamstead Tower 23 September 1916 © Royal Armouries

ffoulkes at his desk in the Flamstead Tower 23 September 1916 © Royal Armouries

Interesting as the archival record is, it is not in itself an ideal display material.  So as well as selected extracts from the Minute book set on a panel, a central case expands one of the stories using objects from the Tower history collection.  Both these displays will change annually.  In 2014 the spotlight falls on William Henry Noble Buckingham – local lad and Foreman of the Armouries.  His story ends with a 22-gun salute above his grave in Ilford cemetery. The focus for 2015 is Fernando Buschmann, violinist and convicted German spy, whose story ends early on the morning of 19 October 1915 with the volley of a firing squad at the Tower.

The display is contextualised by means of an introductory panel outlining the war-time visitor experience and the main characters.

Over the next 4 years we invite you to enter the surreal world of the Tower at war.  While fighting raged on the continent, it was business as usual at the Tower despite the threat of Zeppelin raids, in fact from 1916 the offer expanded with the whole of the White Tower opening as a museum. At the same time as German spies were shot in the early morning, foreign dignitaries were feted and shown round the spoils of earlier European conflict during the day. Most of all welcome to the world of Charles ffoulkes – one of the major shapers of our current perception of the First World War.  If you can’t make it to the Tower, then please follow the Curator goes to War blog.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

For details of the Royal Armouries’ First World War Centenary programme visit the website.

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – Telling the story…

Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson talks to us about the stories behind the armour ahead of the new exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

Why is it important that the Royal Armouries tells the story behind the weapons and armour?
Weapons and armour are pieces of technology and on their own can be impersonal and difficult to make sense of. Mauser rifles and Vickers machine guns aren’t nice to look at, like say, a highly decorated flintlock pistol. They speak of industry and death. But they are hugely significant in terms of military history, social history, and had effects at the time that still impact our lives today. Our aim is to relate these tools of war to the people that actually designed, built, and used them, and we have a unique opportunity to do that.

 Jonathan Ferguson (curator of firearms), test firing a Vickers Mk.II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK, 29th March, 2014  © Royal Armouries


Jonathan Ferguson (Curator of Firearms), test firing a Vickers Mk.II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK, 29th March, 2014 © Royal Armouries

Do you have any favourite objects or stories?
Although I specialise in firearms, my favourite object is probably a simple, hand-stitched cloth badge. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it actually looks like a pirate flag; we tend to associate piracy with fun and adventure, but this is far from that. It’s actually an unofficial design approved by the commander of the 117th Company, Machine Gun Corps. The crossed Vickers guns and royal crown of the Corps have been overlaid by a skull and crossbones design. We think of First World War soldiers as reluctant heroes, but this very personal object is a clear expression of this unit’s determination to do what they had been trained to do; to kill the enemy.

On the technology side, I was blown away by something called the ‘Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger’, which is as wacky as it sounds and totally unique. Some objects like this were way ahead of their time, and it’s fascinating to see the origins of modern weapons in these 100-year-old objects. We have also collected several medals for this exhibition, and one group in particular is there to tell the story of how new weapons changed the job of individual soldiers. But it’s hard not to be touched by the tragic story behind them when you read the letter from the soldier’s father, who had heard of the sinking of a hospital ship only one month from the end of the War, desperately asking if he’s OK. It’s this perfect museum triangle of real object, real history, and real person that I think really engages visitors and curators alike. It’s what we go into the job for, really.

Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger © Royal Armouries

Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier grenade launcher © Royal Armouries

How many objects will be displayed within the exhibition?
We have 153 individual objects on display, from a huge anti-tank rifle to a tiny silk pincushion! It’s a lot for a small space, making for an intense series of encounters between visitor and object, and giving some sense of the scale of mass production and of violence that characterised the First World War more than any other.

Briefly take us through the process of creating an exhibition of this kind.
We didn’t want to simply replace a few faded images and add a lick of paint to our existing display. We looked at what worked, but also at what newly acquired objects and ideas had emerged in the past 15 years, and re-thought the display from the ground up. It was clear that our strength lay in the more personal, individual weapons, helmets and early body armours.

The machine gun became the centrepiece of this story, bringing with it human stories but also being the only truly strategic firearm of the War. The first step was to create a long list of objects. Often exhibitions will start with ideas and then look for the most relevant objects to illustrate them, but with our specialist collection and expertise, we were able to tie the ideas to the objects at this early stage. However, we did have to recognise what gaps we had that we might need to fill with loans or new acquisitions. We were fortunate to acquire a large collection of medals, documents and personal possessions; all the types of objects that we do not routinely collect. Requests were also lodged with private lenders and our colleagues at the Imperial War Museum to round out the final displays.

Based on our initial theme ideas, my team and I began to research around them, to draft text, and with the help of our library, to search for images to illustrate the final stories. An external design company was engaged to develop a 3D design for the space. All of this brings together a visitor experience intended to evoke, but not attempt to recreate, the experience of those who encountered these objects under very different circumstances 100 years ago. Alongside all this, we also generated content for our new online feature, which will be part of our new Collections Management System and will provide another way to experience the objects and stories we’ve been working on.

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers: the personal arms and armour of the First World War will open to the public in September 2014.

For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.

The Secrets of the Tower of London Foreshore…

Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna tells us why you should join her at the Archaeology Weekend to discover the secrets of the Tower of London foreshore.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Last year I wrote a blog discussing the start of a pilot volunteer project to look at a collection of foreshore finds. These finds were the result of an excavation of the Tower of London foreshore in September 1986.

With the help of four volunteers and advice from the Museum of London Archaeology Centre we have successfully repackaged and catalogued over 700 small finds from this dig. These objects included gun furniture, pike tips, and musket balls, demonstrating the development and manufacture of weapons on the site.

These finds are important as they provide physical evidence of the Office of Ordnance’s workshops on the Tower of London wharf, and also helped to prove that the Tower foreshore is an important archaeological site.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986 © Royal Armouries

Our volunteers had experience of working on archaeological collections with the Museum of London, and some had also worked with the Thames Discovery Programme, so were familiar with foreshore archaeology. This proved helpful for handling and repacking the finds. We were able to give the volunteers greater insight into the development of weaponry and the history of the Tower in relation to the Office of Ordnance, an important government department until it was dissolved in 1853.

To celebrate the volunteer project’s success, I will be at the Tower of London Archaeological weekend on 19 and 20 July with a couple of the volunteers. We will have a few of the important objects relating to the Ordnance workshops and a chance for visitors to make their own Ordnance badges. If you’re around please come and say hello, there will be lots of stalls and a chance for a limited number of people to explore the foreshore.

Read Kathleen’s previous blog The Forgotten Dig…

Find out more about the Tower of London Archaeology weekend.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – An introduction…

Last week we announced our plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, with new exhibitions, a series of talks and seminars, online content and events across Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London.

In the run up to and during the centenary programme, we will post a series of blogs covering all aspects of the programme.

Ahead of the opening of the new exhibition in Leeds Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – the personal arms and armour of the First World War – we spoke to Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson…

What themes are included within the exhibition?
We start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; many heads of state in 1914 owned an early form of bullet-proof vest made of silk and other textiles. We’ve had one recreated and tested it, and you can see the results displayed along with the type of pistol used to kill the Archduke and essentially the start of the First World War.

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Moving into the main space, we tell the story of the attempts to design the perfect sword; and the consequences for cavalrymen who faced machine guns and barbed wire on the Western Front. We tell the story of Frank Elms, who started the war as a cavalry trooper, and ended it as a highly trained machine gunner. Other cavalry actually did fight successfully on horseback. We then show the parallel story of the infantry rifle and bayonet; thought to be key to victory by many at the start of the war. In the event, machine guns and artillery became the important weapons, but to the individual soldier of any side, his rifle and bayonet were his best friend. The French even gave their bayonet a girl’s name!

As mobile warfare proved impossible and trench warfare took over, everyone involved began to look for ways to break through and push back the enemy. The machine gun forms the core of the exhibition, as visitors encounter some of the biggest killers of the war as they pass through the space. Personalising this theme is the forgotten story of the men of the Machine Gun Corps, set up as an elite unit to make best use of the famous Vickers gun. We then have a series of cases showing the wealth of responses to the challenge of trench warfare. Medieval style weapons and armour made a comeback, existing weapons were adapted and used in different ways (for example, in the air), and surprisingly modern weapons were invented from scratch.

Finally, we see how faith placed in weapons technology to actually end war forever (the so-called ‘War to End All Wars’) was misplaced, and how it in fact enabled a century of conflict whose effects are still with us today. Not many people realise that the phrase ‘First World War’ was coined during the war itself, when people realised that they now had the means to kill each other more effectively than ever before. The technology of 1880 – 1918, like all technology, is neutral; it doesn’t care how it’s used. It was used to start the war, it caused the hell of trench warfare and took millions of lives, but then went on to end that hell and actually save lives. Finally, it paved the way for the Second World War, the Cold War, and future wars. The objects are intrinsically interesting, but what makes them truly relevant and interesting are the personal stories. You’ll see plenty of both in this exhibition.

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

What are visitors going to learn from the exhibition?
I think people will be surprised at how advanced some of the thinking was, and that both before and during the war, there were constant attempts to innovate and to put the right equipment in to the soldiers’ hands. However, the right tactics to make best use of it could only be learned on the battlefield. That meant that no amount of ingenuity or innovation could prevent a horrific human cost and a legacy that still echoes today.

Why is the exhibition unique?
Our museum is the only one in the country that focuses exclusively on arms and armour; it’s what we do best. Our collection was already world-class in 2005, but in that year we also received the entire Ministry of Defence ‘Pattern Room’ collection of 19th-20th century firearms. This allowed us to do far more than we could back in 1996 when the existing display was installed. So the unique aspect here is that we lead with the personal weapons and armour, and then give them context by linking back to the real people who made them, held them and used them in anger. We do that in ways people will be familiar with; stories, and a wealth of imagery, and oral history recordings but we have also filmed a range of original weapons being fired, including high-speed camera footage of bullets striking forensic ballistic soap. We explore what these objects were capable of and what people’s opinions and feelings about them were. Instead of using them simply as illustrations in a generic narrative of the War, we make the interaction of objects and people with the battlefield the focus of the exhibition.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.

The Curator goes to War – the domestic front – March/April 1914

March 1914 saw ffoulkes on his travels once more, returning militia colours unearthed amongst the White Tower basement stores.  This time it was not so far afield – a day trip to Chatham.  He was back on site in time to conduct Queen Amelia of Portugal around the displays, recording in the Minute book that she lingered “for over an hour and was deeply interested in the Collection”. Modern visitors who have laboured round the White Tower’s four floors might have considered this a relatively quick tour, but in 1914 only the upper two floors were open to the public.

April was back to business as usual – pest control and housekeeping, enlivened with a VIP visit.

The execution block was under woodworm attack.  Traditionally associated with the last public beheading on Tower Hill, that of Simon, Lord Lovat in 1747, the block came into the Armouries’ collection via the Tower Record Office.  Its precise path and dating of its travels are difficult to pinpoint but it had arrived by the Tower Remain of 1857. Heart of oak notwithstanding, the minute Book entry on 18 April records its treatment “with corrosive sublimate …. the lower part was in a very bad condition”. The woodworm proved tenacious, and in 1925 a further two treatments were necessary.

The block and axe on the top floor of the White Tower on open display in 1895 – exposed to prying fingers and hungry woodworm alike. © Royal Armouries

The block and axe on the top floor of the White Tower on open display in 1895 – exposed to prying fingers and hungry woodworm alike. © Royal Armouries

The highlight of the month was undoubtedly the visit of Queen Mary and her four younger children on 28 April.  ffoulkes recorded the children’s names in the Minute book – Princess Mary, Princes  Henry and John – and captured autographs in the Visitor Book, where it turns out Prince George came too.

Only Prince John failed to sign the Armouries’ Visitor Book.  The youngest of the family, aged nine, his epilepsy was becoming an increasing problem, and in 1916 he was withdrawn from public life.  He died in 1919, aged 13. © Royal Armouries

Only Prince John failed to sign the Armouries’ Visitor Book. The youngest of the family, aged nine, his epilepsy was becoming an increasing problem, and in 1916 he was withdrawn from public life. He died in 1919, aged 13. © Royal Armouries

The Fire Brigade call of 30 April at the Tower revealed a considerable oversight – as the Minute Book noted “No arrangements made for the salvage of Armour &c”.

ffoulkes recalled the incident in his autobiography Arms and the Tower (1939).  Enquiring what had been done to salvage “my armour which might be valued at half a million pounds at least” he was told “the Fire Brigade had not been informed and the only solution was to throw the pieces out of the windows and trust to luck and the good craftsmanship of Henry VIII’s armourers.”  Already concerned that the national collection was housed above “some 1000s of service arms …. saturated with oil” stored on wooden stands, ffoulkes despaired that “we had not progressed very far from the days when gunpowder was stored under the national records”. He was not the man to let such matters lie, and the days of the White Tower Gun floor (today the entrance floor) were numbered.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

A Day in the Life of…Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

Assistant Curator, Natasha Bennett talks climbing in cases, eccentric colleagues, being alone with the collection and why she loves her job, as we speak to her about her role as part of #MuseumWeek.

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator - Oriental Collections

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

My primary function as Assistant Curator is to help safeguard, present and develop specialist knowledge about the Royal Armouries’ Oriental Collection. My role is very varied! It involves researching, writing and delivering publications, exhibition content, seminars and talks; answering enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions; supervising visitors who need access to the study collections or help with identifying objects; assisting with filming projects; helping with various collections management duties such as auditing or couriering loan objects, and participating in the acquisitions process which allows the Royal Armouries to bring new pieces into the collection.

When I left school, I did a history degree at the University of Durham, before taking jobs first as a librarian and then as an editorial/publishing assistant. I didn’t feel suited to either of those careers, so I ultimately took the plunge, returned to university and pursued an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds, with the aim of improving my qualifications for the field in which I really wanted to work. Three years ago my dream job of working for the Oriental section of the curatorial department here at the Royal Armouries appeared on the website. I never dreamed that I would be successful with my application, but here I am, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I can genuinely say that I love my job.

There is no normal day for me. The ability to work flexibly is a key part of this job, in more ways than one. I usually start the day at my desk by working through emails and enquiries that have come through, but by home time I can be anywhere; up a stepladder with the elephant armour in the Oriental Gallery or climbing into a case to replace objects that have been temporarily removed for filming or research. One of the weirdest places I ended up was near the lofty ceiling of the loading bay while I was being trained to drive a ‘mobile elevated work platform’ – thankfully that was an abnormal day…

The Royal Armouries houses the national collection of arms and armour, which means that the objects we get to work with every day are literally priceless, and the events, experiences, skills and artistry connected with each piece are legion. Every time I touch one, I feel a frisson of excitement thinking about where it has been over time. Being in stores by yourself can feel quite peculiar, because the heritage that the collection carries with it, is almost a palpable presence. I am also very lucky to work with some fantastic (if slightly eccentric) colleagues – but an interesting collection will always attract interesting people!

For me, the main challenge of my role is packing in enough research about an enormously wide-ranging subject area. Here at the Royal Armouries, the Oriental Collection incorporates all non-European arms and armour, which obviously covers quite a lot of the world! But at the same time that is also the most exciting thing about my work, because there is always something new to learn or discover, and it never gets stale.

One of the main projects I am working on at the moment is a set of conference proceedings. I am currently gathering together all the material from eight papers that were given at our conference East Meets West: Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia at the Tower of London last September. We are hoping to publish these proceedings in the near future.

17th century Mughal dagger  © Royal Armouries

17th century Mughal dagger
© Royal Armouries

I have a great number of favourite items within the collection, and they tend to change or increase in number, depending on what I’m working on at the time. One of my all-time favourites is our 17th century Mughal dagger with a watered-steel blade and a stunning hilt beautifully carved in the shape of a horse’s head. It is the only example that we know of with a hilt that is probably made out of serpentine.

Blogger: Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.