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Artillery Row

Exhibiting military history

Four new exhibitions offer vivid insights into different experiences of war

I am a proud member of the Airfix generation. The desire (less so the ability) to assemble and paint plastic model kits of aircraft, tanks and ships hit me squarely between the eyes on my tenth birthday in 1970. Several aunts and uncles had arrived at the same solution to bring out my inner Spitfire on the same day. Who needed the high of polystyrene cement and Humbrol enamel when you could refight D-Day across your bedroom floor with kits costing as little as 1/6d? Although Airfix was the premium producer of scale kits, other competing brands included Frog, Tamiya, Monogram, Hasegawa and Revell. I wish I knew what I did with them all, but many of the aircraft I recall casting out of upstairs windows, set on fire by match and candle. Looking back, I can see how it sewed the seeds of my becoming a professional military historian decades later. From little acorns, eh?

Two years later, I discovered I was interested in anything historical when my parents packed us into a train (great excitement in itself) for a trip to London. Although long past the days of steam, I can remember my father walking me down to thank the engine driver for getting us safely into Euston and then the true adventure began. The arrival at the British Museum to see the Tutankhamun Exhibition, which ran from March to December 1972. When it ended, besides the young Caddick-Adams, 1.6 million visitors had passed through the exhibition doors, making it the most popular attraction in the museum’s history. My favourite art class activity thereafter altered from drawing Spitfires and Messerschmitts chasing each other across every page to depicting ghostly, golden burial masks. Ever since, I have held an unbelievably soft spot for the old BM, always remembering that due to its vastness, it is best to go there to see something specific, rather than wander hither and thither, lost in its many treasures.

Then in 1977, when studying Ancient History for “A” Level, it was the turn of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly to capture my imagination with its Pompeii AD 79 exhibition. Mosaics, personal possessions, wall paintings and plaster casts of Romans and their animals caught in the moment of death as toxic gases, ashes, molten rock and pulverized pumice froze them forever, like insects in amber, likewise left a profound mark on my understanding of the bigger wheels of history. 

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The other day I was more than happy to be reunited with my old friend, the British Museum, this time hosting another Roman exhibition, which promises to be every bit as impactful as the Tutankhamun and Pompeii antecedents. Just unveiled, Legion: Life in the Roman Army is an inspired portrayal of an institution which numbered around 450,000 at its peak in AD 211 (33 legions and c. 400 auxiliary regiments), although numbers always fluctuated. The first amazing realisation is how little archaeological evidence remains of this vast organisation that endured for many centuries. The second is how well the scanty remnants in this exhibition have been preserved and interpreted. 

Here, the British Museum has assembled the best surviving examples of arms, armour and personal possessions from collections around the world, in over 200 artefacts from 28 lenders. Though we view gleaming bronze helmets, swords long-rusted into scabbards, a pile of near-fossilised chainmail, it is incredible to think that there is only one intact example remaining of all those hundreds of thousands of rectangular and curved legionary shields (called a scutum), still bearing its decoration and crimson dye. This one comes from Syria.

There are some fine funerary carvings of Roman officers from around the empire, then we encounter some of the battlefield detritus including breastplate armour found near Kalkriese, in the Teutoburgerwald of Lower Saxony. This is where a coalition of Germanic tribes led by a rebel chieftain called Arminius ambushed 3 legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus in 9 AD. The story of discovering this battle terrain was as dramatic as the assault itself. It was the result of a meticulous British soldier who combed an area north of his base at Osnabrück with a metal detector in 1987. Major Tony Clunn recorded each discovery of Roman coins and sling shot, making it possible to reconstruct the route taken by Roman legionaries under Varus and determine where they were ambushed and massacred. 

What distinguishes this compelling display is its window on the Roman army through the lives of its ordinary soldiers and their followers. We follow one of Trajan’s men, Claudius Terentianus from Egypt, who first joined the marines in his quest for military glory, thereafter stepping up socially to be accepted as a legionary. His military life story is told through the red wool socks which protected the rub of his hobnailed leather sandals, purses holding a handful of silver coins, dice for gambling, letters home pleading for a new tunic, and an incredible crocodile-skin suit of armour. He had to sign on for 25 years of service to win a pension and obtain Roman citizenship, but stood only a 50 percent chance of lasting that long.

A reminder that these were human beings who often died a violent death arrives with a twisted Roman helmet, whose owner was killed in Boudica’s attack on Colchester of 61 AD, and the skeleton of a legionary who died with his perfectly preserved sword and dagger in the eruption of Vesuvius of 79 AD. Elsewhere are an amazing cache of letters written on wooden tablets, recovered from Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, which bring the lives of the garrison alive and bear comparison with modern soldiers in their barracks today. To make the show appeal to all ages, Terry Deary of Horrible Histories has provided a child-friendly commentary through the character of Rattus, alongside Terentianus, which is engaging. Full of amazing artefacts, this is the first exhibition I’ve encountered that is solely dedicated to the legions and is one of those shows that will leave its mark on you. Legion: Life in the Roman Army is at the British Museum until 23 June 2024, full details via their website.

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Over in Chelsea is the National Army Museum (NAM), which deserves to be far better known than it is. Housed in an uncompromising brutalist concrete building and opened in 1971, it closed for a three-year facelift from 2014-17. A few minutes’ walk from Sloane Square Underground, anyone who recalls the old NAM will be pleasantly surprised by the way the new structure has been altered to create more, larger, better-lit galleries, a decent bookshop and cafe. It not only houses British Army records but the pre-independence history of the East India Company, the British Indian Army and other colonial units. They have a heady responsibility considering 8.7 million of our forebears served in army uniform in 1914-18, plus another 3.5 million during 1939-45. In other words, around 25 percent of today’s UK population, if they did but know it, have a connection with its archives and exhibits. Under the vigorous leadership of its new director, Justin Maciejewski, the NAM is running some excellent displays, including the current “Foe to Friend” gallery. This explores the history of the British Army in Germany since 1945 and has been extended by popular demand until September this year. 

However, it was not Germany that I wanted to explore, but the NAM’s thoughtful and innovative “Shakespeare and War” show, which opened in October 2023 and runs until 31 March. Curated by Amy Lidster, Lecturer at Oxford University, and Sonia Massai, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London, it sheds new light on the relationship between the Bard’s works and war. I greatly enjoyed their examination of how Shakespeare’s plays and poetry were mobilised during times of conflict to motivate troops and influence political opinion. If you think about it, from Henry V and Macbeth to the many soldiers who appear as major and minor characters, Shakespeare’s works are infused with battle and through four-and-a-half centuries, civilians on the home front and soldiers on the battlefield have turned to him for inspiration and meaning.

… our greatest playwright’s words have left … a profound mark on our nation’s military history

The Bard’s words are full of gems that help us make sense of human nature and society, which in turn is never far from warfare. What we see in the NAM is a scattering of documents ranging from the English Civil War to the current conflict in Ukraine illustrating diverse attitudes to Shakespeare and soldiering. For example, during the English Civil War, Shakespeare (1564-1616) was posthumously seen as a Royalist; he suffered under Cromwell, as theatres were closed for being decadent and ungodly. The restoration of 1660 saw theatres reopen, with renewed enthusiasm for his works. His plays were used by both parties in the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and Boer Wars; performances were made during the world wars in factories, hospitals, air raid shelters, prison and internment camps, and most famously as propaganda with Laurence Olivier’s Henry V in 1944. Much smaller in size and scope than the BM’s Legion display, Shakespeare and War is the first time I’ve come across the marrying of these two obvious subjects and is full of insights about how our greatest playwright’s words have left such a profound mark on our nation’s military history. 

Shakespeare and War is at the National Army Museum in Chelsea until the end of March 2024. It’s free to visit and can be found on the first floor. A rewarding read is the related publication, Shakespeare at War: a Material History (Cambridge), a collection of essays edited by Amy Lidster and Sonia Massai, which can be found in the bookshop.

My exhibition-crawl took me next to the National Archives (TNA) in Kew, south-west London. Around the corner from Kew Gardens Underground station, I first visited the site as a fourteen-year-old, transfixed with the excitement of seeing the then newly-unveiled Ultra decrypts from Bletchley Park. Kew used to be known as the Public Record Office (PRO), and was housed in some dingy old 1940s huts. Everything moved in 1977 into a superb new building on the same plot, which was renamed The National Archives in April 2003 on the merger of the old PRO with the Historical Manuscripts Commission. Today it aims to retrieve any document you request in 45 minutes. You can get a bite to eat while you wait, or browse their extraordinary well-stocked bookshop. In recent years, TNA has run some superb exhibitions, based on new analysis of the millions of documents they hold, to bring us fresh insights on many aspects of our past. 

Of interest to me was the “Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives” exhibition, which has just opened. It tells the stories of many individuals, how they coped with captivity in 1939-45 and how some escaped. Included is the actor Peter Butterworth (1915-79), star of several Carry On films, and a prisoner in Stalag Luft III. The camp, near the town of Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), 100 miles south-east of Berlin, witnessed two of World War II’s most famous POW escapes, with Butterworth involved in both. In 1943 he helped in the Wooden Horse escape, daily exercising on a vaulting horse while others built a tunnel underneath it. The escapade later became the subject of a book and film. A year later, Butterworth again assisted in the mass breakout on 24 March 1944, of 76 POWs from Sagan, the “Great Escape”. 

The cartoonist Ronald Searle (1920-2011) was another captive, in his case in Changi POW Camp before moving to the Thai jungle to work on railway building. Despite the terrible conditions, he found solace in secretly drawing, and around 300 of his sketches survived the war. We know him as the merciless caricaturist of politicians and public figures whose work appeared in UK national media until his death. Also on display is an intelligence report of the Great Escape attempt which resulted in the murder of 50 of the escapees by the Gestapo, written by its last survivor, Bertram “Jimmy” James, an RAF officer. You can also see a map of Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, drawn from memory for army intelligence by the future MP Lieutenant Airey Neave, the first to escape the fortress. 

Alongside documents and photographs are a deck of cards concealing a map, a shoe brush hiding a compass, and coded letters for British intelligence secreted on the back of photographs, which illustrate the ability of the captives to exchange information between their camps and London. The exhibition also covers how the detainees found mental escape through joining escape committees, choirs, theatre, art, and taking degree courses, taught by fellow prisoners who had once been academics. The exhibition is interesting in its own right, or as a starting point for any family wanting to research a civilian or military ancestor caught by the Axis powers, as well as Germans, Austrians and Italians interned in the UK.

Free to view, Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives runs until 21 July 2024 at the National Archives. A related book, authored by the exhibition’s curator, Dr William Butler, Captives: Prisoners of War and Internees 1939-1945 (The History Press) is published in March.

Finally, I must tempt you out of the Big Smoke, to Romsey in Hampshire. There lies Mottisfont, a splendid National Trust mansion set in generous grounds and woodland walks, built around a medieval priory. Originally established in 1201, it suffered under Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and was gifted in 1536 to his Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys. I have always enjoyed Mottisfont and the way successive owners repurposed the existing religious structures, rather than tearing down and starting again with a blank canvas. Sandys hosted royal visits by Edward VI in 1552 and Elizabeth in 1569 and 1574, but by the 1730s his Tudor house was looking dated. Its next owner re-modelled Mottisfont, removing outbuildings, adding a pediment and bays, which is basically the house you view today. In the 1930s it was again refurbished and became the centre of a fashionable artistic and political circle, including artist Rex Whistler and future writer Ian Fleming. Whistler left his mark, transforming the original entrance hall into a large saloon, replete with his outrageously splendid trompe l’oeil murals, his last before being killed in Normandy with the Welsh Guards in 1944.

these four military history-related exhibitions illustrate the best of our current museology

Currently at Mottisfont, you’ll find the “Heath Robinson at War” exhibition, which runs until 14 April. William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was a prolific cartoonist and illustrator of wackily-over-engineered machinery devised to achieve absurdly simple results. During both world wars he drew ever-more-unlikely secret weapons supposedly being used by the allies to defeat the Germans. By 1918, his spoof inventions had found fame as “Heath Robinson contraptions,” still a generic term for unlikely adaptions of military and industrial machinery. He embraced the fame they brought him throughout the inter-war period until in 1939-40 he again boosted public morale with a series of new surreal machines designed to confound German troops trying to invade the shores of England. I have always loved the humour he brought to fighting both world wars with his pen, and at Mottisfont you can view the widest selection of his drawings I have seen in ages. His work inspired the equally eccentric Roland Emett (1906-1990), who actually constructed his own whimsical machinery, some of which appeared in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Heath Robinson at War runs at Mottisfont until 14 April. There’s no need to book, but a National Trust property admission applies. Taken together, these four military history-related exhibitions illustrate the best of our current museology. All offer some strikingly original and important examinations of different aspects of our past, have been well curated, and are accompanied by some excellent reading material to dig deeper. For anyone interested in history, these delights will put you in the mood for further museum binging this coming summer, when the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings will be upon us. The four displays here are merely scratching the surface: by my count, some 35 war museums await you in Normandy alone.

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