Friday, March 22, 2013

The Royal Treatment

My first London stop.
Europe: Round One

I have been back from Europe for nearly a week now.  An adventure indeed!  As with all journeys of this magnitude, my travels had its ups and downs.  Regardless, I can't say it wasn't a memorable time.  Over the coming weeks, we'll be taking a look at the many sites, museums, battlefields, and people I came across along with students and faculty from Shepherd University.  Following a lengthy flight out of Dulles seated between two larger gentlemen who snored, I at least reached London!  We were greeted by our guides Bill and Darren from Anglia Tours at Heathrow and off we went.  After some eight hours on a plane, words cannot properly express the relief of getting out and about in London.  My first few hours in country were almost surreal.  Beyond the point that our bus was driving on the wrong side of the road, I was still attempting to accept the fact that I was finally embarking on this memorable trip.  It's been a long time coming.

One of the first sites we walked by was the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the famous Chelsea Pensioners.  This landmark is something to the equivalent of a prestigious Veterans Administration home here in the States.  The residents are comprised of bachelor, retired non-commissioned officers in the British Army who revoke their pensions by accepting free board, accommodations, and care at this location.  The photo of me at top is with a statue of a pensioner in is his full redcoat uniform and tricorn hat which sits at one of the main gates to the large complex.  This establishment has been in operation since 1682!  Decades from now, many of the current British veterans stationed in Afghanistan will call this place home.  I came across several of the pensioners during my brief walk around the grounds.  Most greeted me with a raspy "Good morning" and a tip of the hat.

Royal Hospital Chelsea, however, was not our main destination that morning.  Rather, it was the site next door: The National Army Museum.  Inside, the exhibits relate the saga of the British Army in the context of global events, domination through imperial power, and more contemporary issues and engagements.  I was pleased when reading over their mission statement to discover the core principle of their museum: relevancy!  And shouldn't all museums and history be treated in such a manner?

Both literally and figuratively riding off the success of the recent Steven Spielberg film War Horse, the National Army Museum had in place a new temporary exhibit entitled War Horse: Fact and Fiction.  Like all good programs and exhibits, the displays were broken down into themes.  They examined traits of army life such as training, fortitude, the notion of the "charge," and the war horse in popular memory--especially the famous Tony Award-winning stage play that inspired Spielberg's motion picture.  The exhibit continued only through March 31, so I am glad I had the opportunity to view it when I did.

Naturally, the close bonds of camaraderie between man and horse in wartime are intimately explored.  Some artifacts of note that helped illustrate this relationship included horse hoof ashtrays.  Much like General George Meade's "Old Baldy," British cavalry officers kept these seemingly grim mementos of their old steeds for the rest of their lives.  While such souvenirs may seem grotesque in a modern context, such was a way for horsemen to have sentimental reminders of their equine comrades, as the video above explains.

Rare historical uniforms, artifacts, and weapons of the cavalry accompanied the broader story of the horse in battle.  This coatee was worn by Sergeant Frederick Peake of the 13th Dragoons during the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.  Peake's arm was shredded by a chunk of canister from a Russian artillery piece during the battle.  The overalls shown belonged to Private William Sewell, another member of the Dragoons wounded in the fight.  Receiving a ghastly injury to the head, Sewell lived the rest of his life with a metal plate affixed to his skull.  That said, he retired a sergeant and became a coachman, surviving until 1910.  Such uniforms are stark visual reminders of drastic nature of warfare.

The final theme of the temporary exhibit was called "Legacy," looking at the image of the war horse in popular memory.  As you may have surmised, the stage play and movie have a major role in this element.  Here we can view some costumes and props from the movie War Horse.  The blue dress uniform on the far left is a replica major's tunic of the North Somerset Yeomanry.  This was worn by actor Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Sherlock Holmes and Khan).  To the right are costumes worn by the characters Captain Nicolls and Albert Narracott.

Captain Nicolls sketchbook as seen in the film.  Check out the interesting true story for this artwork used in the motion picture.  Even a contest was held in which people could submit their own war horse artwork.

And by the way, if you haven't watched War Horse, you really should.  It features one of the best cinematic cavalry charges in the history of film.

Upon entry into the permanent exhibits of the museum, you are greeted by this rascally-looking gentleman standing at the entrance: a Musketeer of the New Model Army, circa June 1645.  Super realistic mannequins like this dot the numerous galleries of the facility.  They are all dirty, gruff, and fatigued-looking, as they should be.  Surprisingly enough, there is little to no mention of the of the American Revolution or War of 1812 in these hallowed halls.  Hmm.

Where context of the British Army in North America was largely non-existent, displays on the Battle of Waterloo were plentiful.  Included was a massive 1838 model of the battlefield completed by a British officer.  As the exhibit description noted, "The Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 was the last great battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and marked the end of France’s attempt to dominate Europe. This model of the battlefield was made by Captain William Siborne (1797-1849) and shows the crisis point of a battle the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) called ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’. It is based on the accounts of around 700 British officers who took part in the battle. When finished, the model made it look, quite rightly, as if the Prussians had helped win the day.

"The furious Wellington, who claimed sole responsibility for the triumph, insisted Siborne depict the position of the armies at the start of battle instead. Siborne was leant on by the powers that be and he reluctantly removed thousands of hand-painted Prussian soldiers. Wellington saved face and Siborne died a broken man. By standing up for historical accuracy he stood accused of subverting a central element of national mythology: the conviction that Britain alone - and the genius of the Iron Duke in particular - had saved Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon."  This shows us how easily history can be rewritten to suit the needs of central historical figures (a la Daniel Sickles in 1863 and beyond).  Overall, this model reminded me of the old Electric Map at Gettysburg.

Perhaps most interesting of the Napoleonic era displays was the skeleton of Napopleon's favorite horse, Marengo (named after the battle).  An Arab stallion fourteen hands high, Marengo was ridden by Napoleon at Waterloo, where the horse was captured.  The steed was put to pasture in Britain by his captors, dying there in 1832.  Marengo's skeleton was put on display at the Royal United Services Museum, his hooves made into snuff boxes, and his hide lost by a careless taxidermist.  Horse feathers.

Naturally, there were a lot of hands-on-history activities for kids throughout the museum as well.  For nearly every time period, there were hats, uniforms, and accoutrements that young visitors could try on.  When kids picked up a prop whip in a display on army punishment, a harsh crackling sound suddenly echoed from a speaker above them, giving them a humorous fright.  Youngsters could also play old army games from the 19th century and crawl around in a "Kids' Zone" in the lower level.  But as the question I raised when examining the National Museum of the Marine Corps, at what point are the serious realities of war lost amidst the attractive features of modern museum technology?  Above, Mike and Kevin from my tour group get in touch with their inner kid by trying on Pith Helmets.

In another new exhibit, we at last found a hint of the "American War of Independence."  The exhibition was called "Britain's Greatest Battles."  It was a list of twenty major confrontations accompanied by artwork and artifacts.  Among them were the Battles of Lexington and Concord--the opening shots of the American Revolution.  Other fights included Culloden, Waterloo, Rorke's Drift, the Somme, and D-Day.  Visitors could then engage in this participatory history by stepping over to a nearby touch screen and vote on which battle they though was the most significant.  (If I remember correctly, Waterloo, D-Day, and Rorke's Drift were in the top three at that moment.)  The exhibit was a unique way to have visitors contemplate the important events of their national history.

Finally, the Art Gallery consisted of hundreds of pieces of fantastic creations ranging from the 1600s to the present.  (There were a lot of red jackets.)  Some portraits included many British officers who didn't have so much luck here in the old colonies.  One could have spent several hours in this wing alone.  This Pennsylvania boy felt all classy and sophisticated just walking through.

After touring the museum and ordering some delicious beef pastry in the museum's cafe, some of us ventured outside.  I was taken by the endless brick row houses and extravagant architecture throughout the city.  From here, our adventure was just beginning.

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