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We Will Remember Them (Won’t We?): The UK’s Military Museums

With the future of the UK's military museums becoming increasingly uncertain, the country must do more to preserve its military heritage.

‘Save the Argylls!’ Older readers may recall the campaign. In 1968 the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, just back from a bruising tour of duty in Aden, were facing amalgamation. They were spared after a nationwide petition. The public liked the idea of their local regiment, especially if it bore the county or clan name, or was something enigmatic like ‘The Green Howards’ or ‘The Buffs’.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its forebears liked the local regiment too, for it was good at recruiting. As early as 1829, Lord Palmerston, former Secretary at War, opposed plans for enlistment for general service with the argument that men ‘like to know that they are to be in a certain regiment, connected, perhaps, with their own county, and their own friends, and with officers who have established a connection with that district’. Recruiting areas had been allocated to the infantry in 1782, and the area incorporated in the regimental name. Thus, for example, the 34th Regiment of Foot became the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot.

Subsequently, in 1871 Edward Cardwell, Secretary for War, introduced his ‘localisation’ scheme, linking kindred battalions (strictly, regiments, for a quarter of the Line – some 25 regiments – still had two battalions) and giving them a shared recruiting district and depot, with the idea that the home-stationed battalion would feed recruits to the overseas-stationed battalion. So, the 34th (Cumberland) were paired with the 55th (Westmoreland), with a depot at Carlisle. 10 years later, Hugh Childers, Cardwell’s Liberal successor at the War Office, took the linking to its logical conclusion and amalgamated the regiments to form double-battalion units with a name rather than a number. Thus, the 34th and the 55th became the First and Second battalions of the Border Regiment, respectively.

The Cardwell-Childers regiments fought the late-Victorian wars of empire, the two World Wars, the Korean War, the Cold War and the brushfire wars of decolonisation. In the late 1960s and 70s, when the UK had largely extricated itself from Africa and east of Suez, the ‘War Office’ decided it was time for many of the regiments to depart. Amalgamations and the odd disbandment followed, in the cavalry as well as the infantry. The novelty of the ‘large regiment’ gained popularity too, with its flexible inter-battalion posting system. Most impressive of these regimental consolidations was that of the Royal Anglians, who managed to incorporate no fewer than seven former regiments recruiting in East Anglia or thereabouts. But battalions with numbers are easier to axe than regiments with names. The Anglians lost their fourth battalion in 1975, and then in 2006 their third. Those whom the chiefs wish to destroy, they first make large?

When regiments amalgamate, however, the new regiment necessarily looks to the future. Or it should do. The more successful amalgamations have always been those in which one side doesn’t try to gain the ascendancy, erring instead on the side of ‘Out with the old, and in with the new’. Except of course that the new regiment rightly wants to capitalise on its operational heritage – the achievements of its antecedent regiments. And something a little more tangible is needed than words, which is why museums are so important to military heritage.

The Army Museums (Ogilby) Trust was founded by a far-sighted officer, Colonel Robert Ogilby DSO. Originally a cavalryman, he commanded a battalion of the London Scottish in the First World War. Ogilby's experience convinced him that the fighting spirit of the British soldier was best rooted in the regimental system, which promoted the esprit de corps that held men together in tight corners. He believed that regimental and corps museums were fundamental to promoting the traditions that enriched the system, and in 1954 gave £100,000 to endow a trust for the encouragement, equipment and maintenance of existing regimental and army museums. With the approval of the Army Council, it was named the Army Museums Ogilby Trust. In the words of his valedictory, Ogilby ‘steered the trust through its early days of official, if benign, War Office scepticism’, and it came to play a significant part in the establishment and development of some 136 regimental and corps museums in the UK.

For the past 10 years I have been a member, and then chairman, of the trust’s grants committee, and I have seen too many museums close. And not just the ‘minnows’: the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich shut its doors five years ago. Many more are now under threat. While there are various reasons for this, since the circumstances of each museum are different, there are two major and linked factors.

The first is the effect of compound amalgamations. Take, for example, the museum of The King’s Own Royal Regiment in Lancaster – not that it’s at risk particularly, but it illustrates the point, and just happens to be the oldest regimental museum in the country. The King’s Own, as the 4th of Foot, had a longer history than most of the rest of the Line, and with two battalions escaped amalgamation in the Cardwell-Childers reforms. In 1959 the regiment amalgamated with the contiguous Border Regiment to form The King’s Own Royal Border Regiment (KORBR). The regimental headquarters eventually transferred from Lancaster to Carlisle, and here the museum of the new regiment was established, incorporating the collection of the Border Regiment. Then, in 2006, the KORBR was absorbed into the new two-battalion Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Not surprisingly, the new regiment quickly set about establishing a museum in Preston to consolidate the amalgamation: the Lancashire Infantry Museum, incorporating the collections of several other antecedent regiments ‘from earliest foundation in 1689 to the achievements of the “Lancashire Lads” of the 21st Century’, according to its website.

With the focus on the new, where does this leave legacy museums in the long run? Who will be responsible for the governance when all those connected with the legacy regiment – those who once wore its cap badge, for example – depart the scene? For the new regiments hardly have the capacity to manage multiple sites, even if they have the will. The Royal Regiment of Scotland, for example, has seven such sites (including that of the Argylls, who are now represented by a single company in the multi-battalion, multi-tartan regiment).

Not surprisingly, many museum curators are feeling unloved – even abandoned – in the wake of successive amalgamations. And the coronavirus pandemic has not only struck at finances, but also increased the sense of isolation.

Do successor regiments really have any obligation to them, however? It’s tricky. Many museums run wholly independently of regimental authority and money, with a separate museum trust fund. Some of them indeed feel little affinity for the new regiment, especially when the amalgamation was perceived to be a shotgun marriage. But if a regiment draws on the legacy of its antecedent regiments, as of course it does and must, then self-evidently it must concern itself with its preservation. There is no central solution to this; only that colonels of regiments must have within their terms of reference – if only implicitly – the sound management of museums bearing the name and displaying the collections of their forebear regiments, and the staff to achieve this.

The second and connected factor is, of course, money. The MoD had long been generous, supporting more than half the museums by funding a civil service curatorial post, or making a grant in lieu. It did so because, in the words of its seminal study in 2008, museums:

a. […] enhance the Army’s connections with society… especially in those areas outside the representational footprint of the regular Army or TA.

b. […] present the country’s military heritage and provide an academic research resource to promote military scholarship.

c. […] contribute to the education of children and adults… [to] make new generations aware of the Army and its achievements.

d. […] make a substantive contribution, directly and indirectly, to Army recruiting.

e. […] educate, train and inspire the current generation of [soldiers], particularly during initial training and development

f. […] underpin the Army’s Values and Standards in attracting, retaining and sustaining soldiers.

g. […] provide a crucial contribution to the role of the Regimental/Corps Home… and [provide] a focal point for [both serving and retired members] and their successors.

But in line with government austerity at the time, the same study concluded that from 2017 the MoD should withdraw the major part of its funding. Thereafter, the civil service posts would be disestablished and replaced by a grant in lieu significantly below the full capitation cost of the post. Furthermore, grants in lieu would be limited to one museum per capbadge, the choice being entirely that of the regiment. The principle was that, under austerity, no area of the MoD budget could be ring-fenced. While superficially admirable, this took no account of the long-term impact: what underfunded activities or projects would consequently not survive austerity? The financial cuts were insignificant in MoD budgetary terms, but crucial to the operation of many legacy museums, and indeed several of them quickly closed. And as there was no central coordination, the national museum footprint became further distorted. Winchester, for example, now boasts no fewer than five regimental or corps museums, while in other cases whole counties have none.

Unsurprisingly, while the MoD continues to recognise the value of museums to recruiting and ethos, it has lost considerable authority and influence in the museum community. However, the country as a whole needs to take a harder look at its military heritage. The First World War commemorations showed what depth of popular feeling there is for the contribution of previous generations. The history of a county regiment is indeed a history of the people of that county. Some local authorities take this very seriously. When the Cameronians disbanded, for example, Lanarkshire Council took on responsibility for the regimental collection, as did Rotherham Council for the York and Lancasters.

But the MoD is ultimately the government department to which museums naturally look. There is, indeed, a minister with specific responsibility for museums and heritage – currently Baroness Goldie. It is time for the MoD to review its objectives and policy with a view to restoring long-term funding. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the Army and Society is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Preservation of the nation’s military heritage is fundamental to that partnership. The Army and ‘Society’ – and principally the MoD – must do more. It is probably too late to ‘Save the Argylls’, but not their heritage.

(Brigadier) Allan Mallinson is the author of The Making of the British Army (Penguin).

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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