Keith Robinson has just returned from a visit to another splendid military museum on the South Coast.
The entrance to the car park for the Royal Marines Museum in Eastney, Portsmouth, is signalled by the large statue called the Yomper. It was officially unveiled by Margaret Thatcher to commemorate ‘all the Royal Marines and those who served with them in the south Atlantic during the Falklands War of 1982’. The statue was created by sculptor Philip Jackson, and was based on a photograph of Corporal Peter Robinson yomping his way to ‘Sapper Hill’ during the conflict.
The museum is part of the great military township that was Eastney Barracks. It is worth visiting just to look at this huge complex of Victorian military architecture, though much is now in private hands.
Built in the 1860s and fully operational by 1867, the Barracks became HQ for all Royal Marines Hampshire establishments only in 1947. The splendid Officers’ Mess, which graces the centre of the east wing of the complex, is now home to the Royal Marines Museum.
The spacious grounds are often used for events, but there are also a few pieces of larger equipment to be seen. Continuing the Falklands theme of the Yomper, we find LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) F7, one of the four landing craft launched from HMS Fearless for the amphibious assault on San Carlos Bay on 21 May 1982.
A more intriguing piece is the Oto Melara 56 pack howitzer built by the Italians from 1957 onwards, with some 2,000 being produced. This one is dated 1980 and was captured in theFalklandsfrom the Argentines in 1982. It is a light and portable piece of field artillery taking 105mm calibre ammunition and able to fire its 33lb shells up to 6½ miles. It is normally towed by a jeep, but in mountainous terrain it can be broken down into 11 sections to be carried by mules.
Having climbed the grand staircase to the entrance, the museum is then pretty much a traditional regimental museum, telling the story of the Royal Marines from their beginnings in 1664. The airy spaces of the galleries present that story in a variety of ways, from traditional displays of objects, through life-size dioramas, to pictures and text, aided of course by modern media.
The Napoleonic Wars
The first main gallery is entitled ‘Voyages of Discovery’ and deals with those first voyages around the world and the first use of soldiers on ships embarked on long and dangerous journeys. There is a good example of a Brown Bess, the standard firearm of both Army and Navy for over 100 years, from 1730s to the 1830s. It had an effective range of between 80 and 100 yards, but a strike rate of only one in 200 rounds, and in damp weather its misfire rate rose to around 25%.
An interesting early diorama tells the story of Hannah Snell (1723-1792), who disguised herself as a man and served in the Marines under the name of James Gray. This comes complete with the inn sign of her pub ‘The Widow in Masquerade – or the Female Warrior’.
Moving through time, there is a nice cabinet of Napoleonic period objects. This includes several cutlasses, or ‘swords for sea service’ as the Board of Ordnance called them. There is also a flintlock carbine blunderbuss made by Henry Mortimer in the late 18th century. Primarily used for boarding or defending against boarders, it was loaded with shot and was deadly at close range, but accuracy decreased enormously over a few paces.
From Opium War to Beauty Snake
Into the Victorian Age and we have objects of a soldier’s life in barracks and many examples of the Marines’ campaigns abroad. Two major campaigns stand out, with the Marines involvement in the Crimea in 1854-1856, and the ongoing struggle for empire in the Far East, starting with the First Opium War in the 1840s and continuing to the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. A nice ‘memento’ of this sequence of conflicts is a finely wrought and decorated Chinese swivel-gun, brought back after the fighting in 1842.
The first floor galleries end with a detailed look at WWI, and there is a good display of posters from the period. A diorama gives full 3-D effect to the horrors of trench warfare, and many contemporary photographs fill out the detail as the camera gets into its full stride as a recorder of war. There is a full display on the Zeebrugge Raid of April 1918 when the British attempted to block the ports of Bruges-Zeebrugge, which was being used by German U-boats.
One is then faced with a choice, either up to the second floor to continue the story of the Royal Marines through the interwar years up to modern-day conflicts, or down to the ground floor where there is an exhibition on modern day Marine training regimes.
WWII is fully covered, and in particular there is a section on the formation of the Commandos and the exploits of Royal Marine Commandos with their famous green berets. There is also a poignant diorama of the conditions of POWs in Japanese camps.
There is then one of the most comprehensive displays of the conflicts at the end of empire that I have seen, including a live Taiwan Beauty Snake to remind one of the natural perils of the jungle! From Malaya and Burma, through Suez and Aden, the story takes us up to the increasing co-operation with NATO and the UN and to our own period’s ‘small war’ in the Falklands. And the campaigning comes right up to date with material on Iraq and Afghanistan.
It ends with splendid displays of medals, band instruments, and portraits all in fine surroundings. Much to digest.