Curator's Choice: Rebecca Nash of the Royal Engineers Museum chooses a Napoleonic era sash

Rebecca Nash interviewed by Richard Moss | 05 October 2009
a photo of a woman standing next to a display cabinet

© Richard Moss / Culture24

Curator’s Choice: Rebecca Nash, Head Curator of the Royal Engineers Museum, explains the importance of a Napoleonic-era sash that belonged to Captain Charles Pasley.

"This is the sash of the then Captain Charles Pasley who wore it at the Siege of Flushing in the Netherlands in 1809. The holes in it you can see are where he was wounded - it’s a typical military piece, it’s got the bloodstains, bullet holes and everything like that on it.

It’s my favourite thing in the collection because it does a number of things that you want a museum object to do. It illustrates the uniform of the time in that it’s an officer’s sash, but there’s a bit of medical army history there too because they were often used as stretchers for army officers off the battlefield. The sash is made of silk so it’s quite strong and very long so it could be hooked under the arms of an officer to drag him off the battlefield.

But it is special to me because it was worn in action by one of the key people in the Corps’ history. Charles Pasley had joined the Corps as a fairly young man and went through the usual training at Woolwich.

He found himself with Sir John Moore’s army on the retreat to Corunna - the disastrous campaign with British soldiers freezing out in the open and being chased by the French back to the port. The family story is that this sash was one of the ones used to lower Sir John Moore’s body into his grave when he was killed in the battle.

Pasley was making notes all of this time and writing to his brother officers in the Corps.

In one of his letters that we have in the collection he exclaims about the fact that on the retreat to Corunna they attempted to blow up 26 bridges and only succeeded in doing one and that it cost the lieutenant who lit the fuse his life.

At this time there are a lot of basic military engineering skills which the Corps isn’t used to - because they’re fortification designers or surveyors, they are not used to supporting an army in the field.

From Corunna he goes to another disastrous Napoleonic campaign for the British which is the Walcharen campaign in the Netherlands and when he’s at the Siege of Flushing he again sends lots of complaints back to fellow members.

He talks about how embarrassed he is for his Corps because the officers in command really aren’t up to the job - they are very old school and you really start to get the sense of this body of young officers that are quite dynamic and want to do their job well and see that there is a job to be done but they’re being hamstrung in being able to do it.

a photo of a red silk sash in a display cabinet

© Richard Moss / Culture24

In 1808 he had started to write a treatise on the failings of the British military, in particular the Royal Engineers, not in their enthusiasm or in their bravery or courage, but in their basic training. It gets published and runs to four editions, and is actually read by Jane Austen who exclaims that “this Captain Pasley must be one of the best military figures that she has heard of.”

It lays out his plans for how the army and the engineers should better be dealt with. You also get the sense that he was probably very precocious, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t get on that well with his senior officers.

At Flushing however he leads the main attack on the town and is wounded in the stomach. There’s a great letter that we have got in the collection between two of his friends where it describes “our poor friend Pasley is badly wounded. He struck one French man, disarmed a second and stabbed a third when he fell, what a desperate dog,” it’s a fantastic description.

His wound stops him continuing active service and he’s sent back to Plymouth where he is given command of a company of ‘royal artificers’ or sappers and miners. With that company he starts to introduce his new training regime and they start to learn the basics of how to construct an artillery position etc. There is now an understanding in the military hierarchy that actually, yes their engineers are falling a bit short of the mark.

Pasley’s group of then sappers and miners is posted to Wellington, bringing him to the attention of the general. When the decision is finally made to found the engineering establishment to teach NCOs and officers the tools of the trade of what we would now call combat engineering, Pasley is put in charge if it.

From there he goes on to write the entire curriculum and he is commandant of the school for the next 20 or 30 years. He is highly involved in all of the different experimentations that the Corps starts doing. He devises a means of blowing explosives using electrical fuses underwater, is involved in early diving and dives on the Royal George and on the Mary Rose.

And it all comes back to this sash, which belonged to the man that really went on to found and form the ethos and training of the Corps for the whole Victorian period. It comes back to Pasley’s practical experience of warfare ‘gone wrong’ that the Corps strength during the Victorian period isn’t based on theory; it is based on actual practical understanding and knowledge of how to do it.

That’s what made them such a strong unit throughout the Victorian era and that’s why this is my favourite piece in the collection."

Watch Rebecca Nash talk about the Pasley sash in the movie below

designation logo with photo of a woman looking at displays

The collection of the Royal Engineers Museum is a Designated collection

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