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 – 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.

Collections Up Close – Remembrance Special

The Royal Armouries Archives contain a collection of letters between Jack and Gert Adam, written during the First World War. The letters poignantly show their loving and often humorous relationship, including letters from their three young children. However, in August 1918 Gert’s letters to Jack, posted overseas to France, began to be returned unopened and the remainder of the letters reveal Gert’s endeavours to find out exactly what happened her husband, who never returned. Official records of the war, photographs and War Office correspondence surrounding the events reveal the true impact of war on his wife and family back in Doncaster, an experience undoubtedly shared by thousands of families at this time.

Jack and Gert Adams

Jack and Gert Adams

The letters have their own remarkable story, after being purchased form a house sale by the Museum in 2006 they were written into a play performed at the Royal Armouries. One day an audience member recognised the names and it transpired the family were living in the area. Once in touch the family were relieved the letters had been found as they had been accidentally lost during a house move. Later, in 2009, the family found a further collection of letters between Jack and Gert and kindly donated them to the Museum to be kept with the rest of the collection.

A short film about these archives can be found here on YouTube, the film was previously shown by the BBC for Remembrance in Trafalgar Square.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Battle of Mons, 1914 – a Personal Account

The First World War erupted in August 1914, as German troops drove across Belgium meeting the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) based around Mons on the 23rd. The battle raged for several days as British and French forces were initially driven back until they held the Germans in early September and regained some lost territory.

The cover of the diary; ‘In case of accidents please forward to: - Mrs. E. Stone, 4 Lansdowne Place, Blackheath, London’.

The cover of the diary; ‘In case of accidents please forward to: - Mrs. E. Stone, 4 Lansdowne Place, Blackheath, London’.

Housed in the Royal Armouries archive’s collection in Leeds is the diary of Captain Edward Stone. Captain Stone began the war as second-in-command of B Company 2nd Dragoon Guards one of the cavalry regiments that were part of the BEF, but soon rose to commanding officer. His diary covers the period of 14 August – 28 October 1914 and vividly portrays the fast-paced action of the early weeks of the war.

A page from the diary of Captain Edward Stone

A page from the diary of Captain Edward Stone

The German army drove French troops to the right of the BEF into retreat and the British were forced to withdraw to ensure they were not outflanked as the Germans advanced. Stone coveys the confusion of the withdrawal as the BEF pulled back from the enemy:

‘On arriving at Le Cateau the place was swarming with infantry and artillery and cavalry, and there was absolute chaos. Finally we pulled off the road and camped in another wet turnip field; the horses and men were just about done in and wet through…’

Stone goes on to describe the British counter-attack at Le Cateau, and following actions at Nery, Aisnes and Messines as the German advance was gradually halted and the battle front stabilised into the lines of trenches that remained in place until 1918; the Western Front was born.

Officers of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, Captain Stone is on the front row, third from the left. This picture was taken in August 1914, only a few days before the Regiment went into action.

Officers of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, Captain Stone is on the front row, third from the left. This picture was taken in August 1914, only a few days before the Regiment went into action.

Edward Stone survived the horrors of the First World War. He was promoted to Major in 1917 and after a long career retired in 1926.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant

A Quite Interesting Outing

As the National Museum of Arms and Armour we regularly get asked to share our expert knowledge on all kinds of items in our vast collection. The BBC’s QI boffins recently contacted us to find out if during WWI soldiers had been known to urinate on their hot machine guns to keep them cool – rather unpleasant business!

qi-logoWe were able to confirm that soldiers did indeed collect urine to refill the water jacket of their guns in emergencies: “…Often, in a pinch, when water was short we were forced to fill the barrel jacket with urine – it helped make the war a bit personal…” Cpl John Young, 12th Machinegun Company, 4th British Division, First World War. It’s often said that soldiers used their machine-guns to boil water for tea when fresh water was scarce. This was first suggested by war poet Robert Graves in his memoirs and is now thought to be untrue, though one soldier did report using cooled ‘greasy’ water for his tea! In any case, you would want to give the water jacket a very thorough wash before considering a bit of a brew… To ‘demonstrate’ this quite interesting fact we took a Vickers machine gun to meet Stephen Fry and the QI gang, making sure that no one put history into practice!

 

 

Vickers Machine Gun on the QI set with Curators Angela Smith, Jonathan Ferguson and Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters

Vickers Machine Gun on the QI set with Curators Angela Smith, Jonathan Ferguson and Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters

 The Vickers machine gun was the British First World War version of the Maxim gun, which was named after its designer, Hiram Maxim. The Vickers gun wasn’t declared obsolete until April 1968, seeing over five decades of military action.  The Maxim was the first practical design for a machine gun and fired at a rate of 600 rounds per minute. However, belts contained only 250 rounds, and machine guns were generally fired in short bursts to conserve ammunition and prevent overheating. The popular idea of machine guns mowing down enemy soldiers point blank was the exception, and in fact they were used mainly at long range, like miniature artillery pieces. Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms