‘The Shot Heard around the World’…

Historical rumours claim that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand owned a piece of silk, bullet-proof body armour, which he failed to wear on the day of his assassination.  Originally the brainchild of priest-turned-inventor Casimir Zeglen, this armour was composed of a combination of organic layers, most notably silk, which had bullet stopping capabilities.  By the early 1900s various different patents of these armours were being sold globally, and were marketed to heads of state and royalty.

We spoke to Lisa Traynor, First World War Researcher at Royal Armouries, about the on-going research undertaken by Britain’s oldest public museum to determine whether this vest could have changed the course of history…

What can you tell us about the significance of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, is an event which will forever be associated with the outbreak of the First World War.  In 1914, political relationships in the Balkans were very fragile, most notably due to Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia.  War had been a possibility in this area of the globe for a number of years, due militarism, imperialism, nationalism and the alliance systems. During the late 19th century/early 20th century, many heads of state and public figures had been assassinated, none of which had led to war. The assassination of the Archduke was the final ‘spark’ which ignited these existing European tensions, thus catapulting the world into the age of modern warfare.

FWW Fire Arm Shoot- April 2014_86

Royal Armouries has had various samples of this type of silk armour made, from the specifications laid out in the original patents of the invention © Royal Armouries

Why did Royal Armouries feel it important to carry out this research?
In my previous role as Firearms Documentation Assistant, I stumbled across a Browning Model 1910 pistol (the same type used to assassinate the Archduke). In examining its serial number I realised it was only 516 away from the actual pistol used in the assassination and would probably have been manufactured around the same time. This made me think about the ‘what if?’ scenario surrounding the death of the Archduke. If he hadn’t been killed, would the war have been delayed? I then considered the body armour from the turn of the 20th century and how this might have been achieved.

After months of independent research in international archives and with the assistance of international academics on the subject, I discovered that it was entirely possible that the Archduke may have owned a piece of body armour.  Our First World War team thought it would be interesting to test the theory of silk body armour against the Browning Model 1910, to understand the ballistic capabilities of 19th century body armour against 20th century firepower.

How was the research carried out?
Royal Armouries has had various samples of this type of silk armour made, from the specifications laid out in the original patents of the invention.  We have tested the body armour against pistols of varying calibres, at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds. The process has tried to replicate the assassination as closely as possible.

What is the most interesting thing you found out?
I don’t want to reveal too much before the opening of the exhibition however I can report that silk does have bullet stopping capabilities!

We have tested the body armour against pistols of varying calibres, at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds © Royal Armouries

We have tested the body armour against pistols of varying calibres, at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds © Royal Armouries

What will people see and be able to discover when visiting the exhibition?
The exhibition will explain to the visitor how these bullet proof vests were constructed, it will show footage of our experiments against the Browning pistol, and we will be exhibiting one of our silk vest samples. I am also doing a talk in September, which will go into more depth about Franz Ferdinand’s reasons for possibly purchasing one of these armours, and it will take an in depth look at our experiments in the National Firearms Centre. This research is still on-going, so by September more evidence may have come to light.

What other things in particular have you enjoyed / found most interesting or been surprised at during your research?
This research has both surprised and disappointed me at times. It has been interesting to discover what lurks at the bottom of historical archives around the world! It has also allowed me to connect with other international academics around the world, on the subject of Arms and Armour. Most notably, it has allowed me to give the public insight into the exciting historical research which the curatorial department at Royal Armouries achieves on a frequent basis.

Lisa Traynor (First World War researcher), 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

Lisa Traynor (First World War researcher), test firing a Vickers Mk. II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, 29th March, 2014 © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Lisa Traynor, First World War Researcher, Royal Armouries

Lisa is delivering a talk at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds on September 24, which will shed fresh light on the issue, and reveal the results from the upcoming tests. For tickets, priced £5, and more information, visit the website.

Lisa is also presenting an international paper focused on the research at the International Committee for the History of Technology’s Conference in Romania, which runs from July 29 to August 2.

For more information regarding Royal Armouries’ First World War Centenary programme, visit www.royalarmouries.org/events/first-world-war-centenary

Trench for Three…

Royal Armouries’ Visitor Experience team were tasked with the mission to eat, sleep and live like First World War soldiers and Front Line nurses within a trench, during the three-day Festival of Cycling at Harewood House as part of Le Grand Départ. Visitor Experience Officer, Lisa Power tells us how they got on…

Scot, Mike and Gemma from our Visitor Experience Team.

Scot, Mike and Gemma from our Visitor Experience Team.

With the beginning of the First World War Centenary commemorations just weeks away, Royal Armouries wanted to give the public a greater perspective on what life was like in the trenches, along with Scot, Mike and Gemma from our Visitor Experience Team. Our first task was to establish how our trench would look. There is the misconception by some that British trenches were “cavernous ravines” with plenty of head space for the bullets and grenades to whizz overhead. However, in reality, many trenches were only about five to six foot deep and this came as a result of a number of factors. A major one was the water table in the area. Digging deep could cause the trench to flood, so in many cases trenches were initially dug shallowly and built up with sand-bagging and clay. Another was the mentality of the British commanders; the objective was always to advance the line further. There was no point in creating a safe, comfortable haven for the soldier as it would be difficult to motivate them when the time came to push on.

Scot using the standard issue entrenching tool.

Scot using the standard issue entrenching tool.

Time and manpower dictated that when it came to digging a trench for this experiment we had to cheat by using a mechanical digger – the reality of hand digging with an entrenching tool was a laborious one. According to British Trench guidelines, it would have taken six hours for 450 men to dig 250 metres of trench. With the trench shored up with corrugated sheeting, and the sandbags and duck-boards laid, it was time to move in. Mike Broadley wore the uniform of a Lance Corporal from the Royal Fusiliers and Scot Hurst was a Corporal. Jemma Bulmer wore kit based on a front-line nurse called Elsie Knocker, an extraordinary woman who set up a dressing station for Belgian soldiers 100 yards from the front line at Ypres.

Mike drying off after the rain.

The exhaustion of living in a trench catches up on Mike.

As soon as the team moved into their new home the heavens opened. The trench became filthy and morale diminished. The clothing acted as a poor barrier to any inclement weather, the absorbent wool became heavy and for the rest of the weekend some articles of clothing, such as the great coat, retained their dampness, even when the weather cleared up. Everything was covered in mud and dirt and again many of these items remained in that condition for the rest of our stay. It became very clear that firearms maintenance in these conditions was extremely challenging. Due to difficulties in keeping firearms in working order, it became clear to see why grenades were so widely used.

Obviously in conducting this experiment we did not have to experience some of the more acute hardships of trench life. These included constant noise of artillery fire, the lack of sanitary toilet facilities, the squalid filth, sapped morale, colleagues suffering from post-traumatic stress, and the constant fear of death or injury combined with a sense of utter hopelessness. All these factors combined to create a living hell for an entire generation.

First World War to modern day soldier

First World War to modern day soldier

 

The opportunity to be part of this experience transformed the written accounts of trench life into some kind of tangible reality for us. It helped us to reflect upon why we still commemorate the First World War and why it had such a profound effect upon those who went away to the carnage and those who remained behind.

Blogger: Lisa Power, Visitor Experience Officer

Royal Armouries is running a series of exhibitions, events, talks and seminars for the First World War Centenary across our three sites in Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London, visit the website for more information.

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.

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 Survival of the Biggest…

Keeper of Artillery, Nicholas Hall tells us how the British Army’s biggest gun survived from 1918 until today and why its arrival at Fort Nelson was the highlight of his career.

I heard about the existence of a British railway gun sometime in the late 1980s, whilst development of the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson was underway. Luckily for me, the Ordnance Society arranged a visit to the artillery ranges at Shoeburyness, Essex, in 1989. A highlight was viewing the last British railway gun to survive – the mighty 18-inch Railway Howitzer. Although no longer used for trials, it was maintained in excellent order as an ‘asset’. Little did I know that one day it would come to Fort Nelson.

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

But after my trip to Shoeburyness, I never forgot about it and wondered what would happen to the 180-tonne gun when the New Ranges were rationalised. It was transferred to the Royal Artillery Historical Trust and displayed near the Royal Artillery Museum at the Rotunda, Woolwich. When the Artillery Museum moved into the old Royal Arsenal, the Railway Howitzer was taken to Larkhill, the Royal Artillery’s new HQ. It was safe at Larkhill but it was rather tucked away, even from those on site. Before travelling to Fort Nelson, it had formed the exhibition centrepiece at the Het Spoorwegmuseum (Dutch Railway Museum) in Utrecht.

The First World War ended before any 18-inch Howitzers were ready, but four were completed soon afterwards.

Some were used for testing purposes on artillery ranges and one had a new lease of life in the Second World War – serving on a railway line in Kent, in readiness to blast the beaches if a German invasion force landed. Each 18-inch shell weighed about a ton but the howitzer was never fired in anger as the feared invasion never occurred.

Seeing the gun’s arrival at Fort Nelson has to be one of the most exciting days of my career and I am thrilled that we have it here for the First World War Centenary next year.

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of 65 Works Group 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers [Railway Infrastructure]  [CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of members from the 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Railway Infrastructure) 
[CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Nicholas Hall, Keeper of Artillery, Fort Nelson

For more information about the arrival of the 18-inch Railway Howitzer at Fort Nelson, read the press release.