I’m not particularly into military history which was a bit of a problem when I was given a unit of local history to teach. The unit included lessons on the Lancashire Fusiliers which I was expected to plan myself. Fortunately Bury is home to the Lancashire Fusilier Museum so I took myself along one Saturday to do a bit of research and recce it for a potential class trip.
This museum is brill! I really enjoyed it and found most of it fascinating even with my lack of general interest in military history. It probably helped that the man on the reception desk gave me a personal guided tour and told me lots of stories about the exhibits, far more than what was written on the information boards. Once he was called back to the desk I spent about another hour wandering round, taking photos and reading everything I could.
Here are some of my photos along with some of the stories.
This is James Wolfe. Never heard of him? Neither had I, but apparently he’s part of the reason most people in Canada speak English rather than French. His daring leadership won Canada from the French in 1759 and his death in battle turned him into a national hero.
1759? Yep, the Fusiliers have been around that long. The original unit was set up in 1685. Over the years different regiments formed including the Lancashire Fusiliers who formed in 1881.
The battle in which he both died and became a hero was at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. He led his regiment up a steep sided cliff and surprised the entrenched French. This battle ultimately led to the fall of Canada and, even more interestingly (to me at least) led to the new tourist caves in Matlock being given the name ‘The Heights of Abraham‘.
This painting by American artist, Benjamin West, shows the death of James Wolfe. There are several versions, but the main one hangs in Canada’s National Gallery. West later went on to paint Nelson’s death scene and used this earlier work as a template. Apart from the different characters they could be two versions of the same painting.
The story goes that Nelson met West, told him how much he liked the painting of Wolfe and asked him why he hadn’t painted anything similar since then. West said because he hadn’t come across anyone else with similar character and standing. Nelson asked if he could be the subject of West’s next painting like this. (I don’t know if I’m cringing more at Nelson’s huge ego and lack of humility or at the thought of arranging for your own death painting.) Nelson duly died in the Battle of Trafalgar a few years later and West got his brushes out.
My guide had been a medic in the army and pointed out the idealism of these paintings. “Men never look like that when they are dying’, he told me. ‘They’re either unconscious or screaming in pain, there’s none of this ‘Kiss me Hardy.’” I may have shuddered at this point.
After hearing the tales of an heroic man it was time to balance things out with tales of an heroic woman. This is Lady Harriet Acland. Her husband was in the army and fighting in America when she got news that he’d been injured and taken prisoner. Although she was pregnant at the time she took herself across the Atlantic in search of him. She travelled through enemy lines, found him, won over his captors and nursed him back to health (he’d been shot in both legs). She returned to England with him where he got pneumonia and she nursed him back to health again. This should be where the story ends with ‘… and they lived happily ever after’. But it doesn’t. He got shot again, she nurses him back to health, he gets pneumonia again, she nurses him back to health again. Can you see a pattern developing here. Eventually he got himself shot in a dual and died. Whether he died before Harriet had chance to get to him or whether she just decided enough was enough and she wasn’t go to bother anymore, I don’t know. I do know that she outlived him by 37 years and didn’t remarry.
A large part of the museum is dedicated to the First World War and the Gallipoli Campaign. The picture on the wall beside the soldier above shows the images of the six men who earned the Lancashire Fusliers ‘six VCs before breakfast’. More about that later, but first a bit about the young men of Bury and other Lancashire towns who fought in WWI.
Bury was a cotton town. There were many mills weaving the imported cotton and then sending the cloth out around the country and the rest of the world. Because the work in these mills was considered essential the young men weren’t at first targeted for conscription. As the war dragged on longer than the few months that was at first expected the young male mill workers were expected to join up. To encourage them ‘Pals’ Brigades’ were created. These meant men from the same town, workplace, football team and so on could join up together and go to war with their friendship group. The big downside to this of course was that when a unit suffered heavy losses many men from the same town would be killed.
The Lancashire Fusiliers were amongst those in the trenches in the lead up to Christmas 2014. An unofficial truce was declared along many parts of the fontline in the week before Christmas. Soldiers from both sides left the trenches and shook hands, chatted, exchanged gifts, buried their dead and carried out prisoner swaps. They also played football.
One of the iconic (and ironic) images of the war is of the German and British soldiers taking time out from all the death, foot rot and fear to kick a can around and play a game of international footie. (Germany won 3-2, but we’ll not mention that).
But back to Gallipoli and the 6 VCs before breakfast. The VC (Victoria Cross) is the highest award a British soldier can get. The award was created in 1856 by Queen Victoria and the medals are cast from the bronze knobs on two Chinese cannon taken from the Russians at Sebastopol. 1,355 VCs have so far been awarded and it’s estimated that there’s enough bronze left to make about another 85.
On the 25th April, 1915 a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers captured ‘W’ beach close to Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. In the process almost 700 men in the battalion lost their lives or were wounded. The men were ambushed before they could even land and were, in their open boats, sitting ducks for the Turks firing from the land.
All six men who were awarded the VC had carried out their acts of valour and bravery before 10am leading to the moniker ‘six VCs before breakfast’.
Further round in the exhibition is a replica of a trench complete with boxes which if you lift the lids give a chance to experience the smells of the trench such as ‘trench stench’ (like damp combined with bad BO), phosgene gas (deadly, but quite sweet smelling), carbolic soap (this is what my clothes smelled of when I washed them in Africa) and cordite (used to fire bullets).
The museum covers wars and battles ranging from the battles in Canada and the Boer Wars up to more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The uniform in this case belonged to Surgeon-Major Arnott who was assigned as Napoleon’s doctor during his exile on the Atlantic island of St Helena. It was ‘discovered’ in the attic of a house in Lockerbie which was damaged by parts of the Pan Am Flight 103 that was blown up above the town in 1988.
To return to battles in North America, did you know how the White House got its name? The US invaded Canada in 1812 and Britain needed to act fast. One Major-General Ross was given the job of kicking the Americans out of Canada and teaching them a lesson. He not only drove them out of Canada, but managed to capture Washington in the process. He arranged for all the public buildings to be burnt and so few were left standing when the Americans returned. One in particular had survived as rain had put out the flames before they could completely destroy it. As one of the few usable buildings left it was rebuilt inside, the outside was painted white to hide the burn marks and the President moved in. The building became known as the White House and the rest, as they say, is history.
I finished my tour of the museum with a look around the store. A museum store is usually out of bounds, yet contains far more artifacts than are actually displayed. The Fusilier Museum has taken the idea of a Quartermaster’s Store and have all their ‘extra’ artifacts displayed in this room so they can be viewed in cabinets and drawers. I really liked this idea and think more museums should adopt it.
If you ever find yourself in Bury this should be on your must-visit list. And if you find yourself in Manchester it’s worth knowing that Bury is just at the end of the tram line and so is really easy to visit.
Have you been to a military history museum that you’d recommend? Share in the comments below.