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

Becoming Florence

One of the most popular workshops with younger visitors to our education centre at Fort Nelson is the session about Florence Nightingale during which pupils investigate the life and times of the pioneering nurse. Our wrap-around service provides teachers with pre- and post-visit resources to enhance the time the children spend exploring our authentic Victorian fort.

In order to really bring history to life our Education Manager Eileen Clegg is regularly transformed into Florence Nightingale.

In order to really bring history to life our Education Manager Eileen Clegg regularly transforms into Florence Nightingale.

As part of their visit to Fort Nelson children get their hands on history through our special handling collection, they can explore the Victorian hospital ward and listen to the story of the ‘The lady with the lamp’ in the Fort’s atmospheric tunnels.

Blogger: Nicole Heard, Education 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

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

Illustrating Armour

The Royal Armouries, Leeds has teamed up with local artist Sean Casey to showcase some of his latest works inspired by the Museum’s collection.

Sean hard at work in the Tournament Gallery

Sean hard at work in the Tournament Gallery

The drawings Sean has produced at the Royal Armouries relate to a lifelong interest in armour, from playing with toy Timpo Knights, because he couldn’t get Greek warriors, but which were beautifully made all the same, to an admiration for the awe-inspiring skills of the people who produced the armour itself. For him war games, at the top of the landing steps, evoked childhood notions of a fairytale world of romantic heroism and honour, that gave way to the academic investigation into the true horrors of warfare, coupled with his feelings of pride in our armed forces.

Sean hopes that all those who see his artwork will gain an aesthetic pleasure through the medium in which the subject matter is presented – detailed and often intricate drawings that pay homage to the craftsmanship of the armourers themselves. An exhibition of Sean’s work is currently on display in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

Blogger: Projects Team

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

Reporting From the Front

On 5 November 1854, one of the bloodiest battles of the Crimean War was fought. A large Russian army of over 40,000 troops counter attacked the Anglo-French forces besieging the Crimean town of Sevastopol, in an attempt to drive them away. After several hours of savage fighting the Russians withdrew, leaving over 12,000 dead on the field.

With the British troops at Inkerman was an artist, William Simpson. He was born in Glasgow in 1823 and became an apprentice lithographer. In 1851 he got a job as a lithographer with the firm Day & Son in London, and in 1854 was commissioned by the Fine Art company P&D Colnaghi to produce a series of illustrations depicting events during the Crimean War, which they intended to publish in a commemorative book.

Frontispiece

Frontispiece

Due to the lack of source material for the illustrations in England, Colnaghi’s took the unusual (for the time) decision to send Simpson out to the Crimea. He thus became one of the first war artists, depicting at first hand what was really going on. In 1856 his illustrations were published as The Seat of War in the East. This work comprised 81 colour lithographs with text in two series; the library at the Royal Armouries has copies of both, bound together into a single volume.

Second charge of the Guards at Inkerman

Second charge of the Guards at Inkerman

Several illustrations depict events during the Battle of Inkerman, and the whole volume is a magnificent testament to Simpson’s skills both as artist and reporter. After the Crimea Simpson went on to cover other British campaigns – including the Indian Mutiny – and worked all round the world covering military and civilian topics. His works appeared in numerous other publications and also newspapers such as the Illustrated London News. Simpson died in 1899, a successful and famous artist. He had even achieved Royal patronage from Queen Victoria herself.

The Field of Inkerman

The Field of Inkerman

Although the Russians were defeated at Inkerman, their attack did succeed in diverting the Allied efforts away from Sevastopol, ensuring the siege dragged on for many weeks longer, through the savage Crimean winter. The hardships the British soldiers endured during this time are well known, thanks to the efforts of William Simpson and the other early war reporters.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant