Keith Robson, Military Times’ roving museum buff, reports on the collections of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, Shrewsbury.
Shrewsbury Castle, now home to the Shropshire Regimental Museum, is built in a warm, local red sandstone. Today, it doesn’t look as forbidding or as threatening as other stone castles, but an important stronghold it once was.
Its fine defensive site became clear as I walked up the hill to the Castle from the River Severn. This was emphasised soon after when I became soaked in a heavy downpour and watched the water stream away from the castle walls down the surrounding streets.
The castle has undergone many changes over the centuries. Originally the site of an Anglo-Saxon timber fortification guarding the only dry approach to the settlement, Roger Montgomery then built his stone castle here around 1070. This was heavily remodelled by Edward I, 1299.
As Shrewsbury’s strategic importance declined, so the fortunes of the Castle also waned. Its most important military role in later years was its token resistance to Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. Musket balls can still be seen embedded in the Castle gates.
After the Restoration it was granted into private hands, the Great Hall being refashioned by Thomas Telford between 1790 and 1830. It remained a private residence until it was acquired by the Corporation of Shrewsbury in 1924.
The Shropshire Regimental Museum came to the Castle in 1985, but that was not the end of the building’s woes. Due to its military collections, it became an IRA target, and on 25 August 1992 was subject to firebomb attack.
It took three years to put right, re-opening in 1995. No lives were lost, but the damage was considerable, and some 60% of the collections’ earliest material was destroyed. However, like the motto of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, Aucto Splendore Resurgo (‘I rise again in greater splendour’), the Museum thoroughly remodelled and improved its displays.
The main focus of the Museum is on the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, which was formed as the county regiment for Shropshire and Herefordshire under the Childers Reforms of the Army in 1881. The name amalgamates the titles and traditions of its two constituent regiments. The oldest of these was the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment of Foot, raised in 1755 (originally as the 55th, becoming the 53rd two years later), and the second, the 85th (King’s Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot, raised in 1793.
Besides the KSLI collections, the Museum houses material of the Shropshire Yeomanry and the Shropshire Royal Horse Artillery, as well as material from the various militias, rifle volunteers, and territorials associated with the county. It thus offers a rich and varied slice of military life through some two centuries. Its remit ends in 1968, when the KSLI became part of a new ‘large regiment’, The Light Infantry.
There is, though, a small display of contemporary material, as the Museum endeavours to place its historical collections in a continuing tradition of military development. This modern material is on a balcony overlooking the main hall of the Castle which affords a great view of the exhibitions below, covering the period from regimental beginnings until 1914.
The IRA attack allowed the Museum to create a cohesive and easily followed chronological tale of the Regiment’s development, engagements, and history. The large glass cases create a rather traditional feel. Cases can be full of objects and images, though never cluttered, whilst some of the full uniforms are given more space to breathe. I was particularly taken with the two American colours taken by the Regiment during the American War of Independence.
These are the standard of the 1st Harford Light Dragoons and the colour of the James City Light Infantry. One of the smaller displays has a collection of pistols dating from a Paget Flintlock of around 1800 up to a WWII Browning automatic. This is made more interesting by tying them in to a map of the world indicating where they would have been used on active service. A short flight of stairs leads us to the lower floor, which concentrates mainly on material from the two World Wars. There is, though, material from the Korean War, which was the KSLI’s first operation as part of a UN force.
The real jewel of the collections is the baton of Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz. Made of platinum, gold, and silver laid on velvet over an aluminium core, it is in fact a jewel. Dönitz’s name is always linked with submarines; having served in them during WWI, he was, by January 1939, Hitler’s Commander of Submarines. He formed the famous ‘wolfpacks’ in late 1942, the large groups of submarines which harried convoys in the Atlantic. By early 1943 he was head of the German Navy and was personally presented with his Grand-Admiral’s baton by Hitler. He retained Hitler’s trust to the end and was named his successor as Head of State. It was in this capacity that Dönitz surrendered his nation – and his baton – to the Allies, the KSLI in attendance.
Open 10.30am to 4.00pm, except Thursdays and Sundays, until 18 December 2010. For further information, including future opening times, go to www.shrewsburymuseums.com or phone 01743 281205.