The Fusilier Museum London opens up its collection and explores its human stories

By Richard Moss | 04 May 2011
a photo of three pieces of World War One German headgear in a display case
World War I German headgear at the Royal Fusiliers Museum© Richard Moss / Culture24
As historic locations go, the Fusilier Museum at the Tower of London must be one of the most iconic and visited in the world.

Nestling behind the famous White Tower, it’s a fitting site for a famous regiment which can trace its beginnings to 1648 as the Tower Guard.

But it’s also one that has proved to be a double-edged sword. Until recently the museum was often by-passed by visitors more inclined towards the Crown Jewels, the Royal Armouries, the Beefeaters, the rooks and the countless other attractions at the Historic Royal Palace.

Now the nominal entry price has been removed, and the museum has become integrated into the offer at the tower. The displays inside have also been reinvigorated by a £800,000 capital redevelopment project compellingly called Fusiliers Advance! which has opened up a fascinating collection.

At first glance the museum offers many things you might expect from a regimental museum. There are oil portraits of former commanders, iconic bullet-holed pocket bibles and cigarette tins which saved lives in the First World War. There's even the stuffed regimental mascot - this time a duck that accompanied Fusiliers during the Second World War.

But there is clarity and an economy to the displays. Gone are the large text panels, the uniformed dummies and the dusty dioramas. To the fore are iconic objects and the human stories they tell.

a photo of an illustrated trench diary in a display case
An illustrated war diary in the First World War display© Richard Moss / Culture24
“Instead of using a lot of historical blurb, which a lot of people don’t read anyway, we concentrated on individual stories,” says Curator Major Colin Bowes Crick, who developed the new exhibits with Development Officer Dale Copley.

“We’re blessed with quite a lot of soldier’s diaries and we have taken little extracts just to give people an idea or a flavour of individual soldier’s experiences.”

The narratives abound. There’s the account of Major John Andre, a Royal Fusilier who joined British Secret Intelligence during the American War of Independence. Captured by the rebels, he was hanged as a spy.

Further in, next to his medals, is the legend of Major Gibson Horrocks, who first saw action fighting the Italians in North Africa in 1942.

After being taken prisoner, he persuaded his Italian captors to flee in the face of a British advance before making off in a commandeered German Ambulance, which he drove straight through the German lines.

Accompanying these stories are a parade of iconic objects ranging from muskets, drums and bugles to uniforms, bayonets and grenades culled from every theatre of war, from the American War of Independence to the current conflict in Afghanistan.

a photo of a golden eagle standard in a display case
The French Regimental Eagle © Richard Moss / Culture24
A highly prized French regimental Eagle, captured during the invasion of Martinique in 1809, accompanies a battle-worn British standard carried by the regiment ten years later at the Battle of Albuhera. Both testify to a busy time during the Napoleonic period.

“The Regiment was very much involved in the Peninsular Wars, and was heavily involved in the Battle of Albuhera on May 16 1811,” says Bowes Crick. 

“The Fusiliers had marched all night, and they arrived when the Battle was almost lost. Unleashed up the hill in a massive hail of fire, they got to the top and every single field officer, majors and above, was killed or wounded.”

By the end only a third of the Brigade were left standing at the top of the hill.

“But they recaptured the East Surrey’s colours which had been lost and the guns, because in the Royal Artillery the guns are the colours.”

Like all regimental museums, the traditions and honour of the regiment are naturally paramount. However, the conservation skills of Historic Royal Palaces have intervened to halt the regimental tradition of hanging the colours and letting them fall apart. It is now preserved behind glass.

“HRP do all of our conservation work now, so it’s really lifted our collection quite significantly,” says Bowes Crick.

Among the immaculately preserved and displayed relics are some intriguing items from Francis Younghusband’s Tibetan campaign in 1904, when Royal Fusiliers helped defeat the Tibetans at Gyangtse Jong in July 1904. They were the only British Regiment to fight in the controversial campaign.

Another famous figure emerges from the Fusilier’s heavy involvement in World War One in the shape of Ben Yurian, the first Prime Minister of Israel - a Lance Corporal in the 38th Battalion.

“During the First World War, of our 74 Battalions we were fairly unique in having four Jewish Battalions,” says Bowes Crick. 

“The Royal Fusiliers had 74 Battalions with 1,000 men in each – we were by far the biggest. The next regiment behind us were the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers of 50 Battalions.”

a photograph of a display case with a camouflaged British helmet and a set of medals
The bullet damaged Brodie helmet from the Italian campaign© Richard Moss / Culture24
Among the headgear, which ranges from Boer War headdress and German trench helmets through to modern Kevlar lids worn by today’s Fusiliers, is a Tommy helmet worn by Lt Colonel J Oliver-Bellasis DSO in Italy during World War Two.

Holed dramatically to the front, this famously old-fashioned protection served the British Army through two world wars. This one saved its wearer from a German bullet.

The Italian front, which saw the 1st and 2nd Battalions fight alongside each other at the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1943, also yielded another trophy – this time a dirty bed sheet, now carefully folded and enclosed in a wooden edged glass case.

German paratroopers used it as a white flag of surrender from the ruins of the shattered abbey at Cassino, bringing to an end one of the most bloody battles of World War Two. 

Moving past busts of Mussolini and Hitler, an old cloakroom has been transformed into an interactive medal gallery with an impressive touch screen exhibit which manages to display the regiment’s 12 VCs while exploring the stories behind them. 

a photo of a video display in a museum featuring a soldier in uniform talking
George Medal winner Fusilier Andy Barlow recounts his experiences © Richard Moss / Culture24
At the back of the gallery a thoughtful and sobering conclusion to these stories from yesteryear comes via a series of films in which serving soldiers talk about their experiences. Among them is the recent recipient of the George Medal, Fusilier Andy Barlow, who lost a leg helping wounded comrades in a minefield in Afghanistan.  

You may find you still have to negotiate the throngs of people queuing to see the crown jewels, but this regimental museum tells the proud history of a British infantry regiment with balance, style and - most importantly - humanity. 

  • Read more about the Napoleonic Eagle Standard - as chosen by Colin Bowes Crick as his Curator's Choice from the Royal Fusilier Museum collection
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