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Military memories; The Royal Warwickshire Regimental Museum is being transformed. Ross Rey burn reports.

"Iam in the middle of a terrific battle with Rommel. I would like to lecture to the staff of the college about it!! I hope to defeat him in a few days time. So far it has been a complete slogging match, carried on in an enormous mined area."

Amazingly this letter was written to the commandant of the army staff college at Camberley by General Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976) in November 1942, during the crucial Battle of El Alamein in North Africa that proved the first great Allied victoryof W orld War II.

Today the letter is on display at The Royal Warwickshire Regimental Museum in Warwick where a major redesign operation is taking place after a successful appeal that has raised around pounds 250,000 to date.

"The letters he wrote were quite extraordinary," said Major Richard Mills, curator of the museum. "They showed the selonfidence and arrogance of a man.

"He knew exactly what he was doing, he was doing it well, he was not fretting and he had time to think of small details such as giving a lecture on the battle he was fighting."

Appropriately, as the regiment's most famous soldier, Monty features heavily in the museum he formally opened in 1961 at St John's House, an elegant 18th century mansion owned by Warwickshire County Council.

In his display case, there is the story of how at a regimental dinner in 1958 he was presented with the corporal's stripe he had been deprived of at Sandhurst military college in 1907 for "horseplay." There is also a marvellous photograph of Monty alongs ide Britain's great war leader Winston Churchill rather oddly-dressed in a baggy pair of cavalry twills, a white polo neck sweater holding a black umbrella, looking more like Charlie Chaplin than one of history's greatest generals.

The most striking feature of the modernisation is a very realistic waxwork model of Field Marshal Montgomery presenting a bar to Major Harry Illing's Military Cross shortly after the end of the war.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein also features heavily in an impressive touch-screen computer presentation that also pays tribute to the regiment's other famous sons such Field Marshal Viscount William Slim (1891-1970) and World War I's most famous cartoon ist Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959).

Earlier this year Viscount Slim was controversially voted the greatest military commander in history by military experts in a feature in the science museum Focus .

His brilliance leading the so-called 'Forgotten Army' of British and Commonwealth troops to success against the Japanese "in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds" in the Far East during World War II earned the accolade.

Born in Bristol in 1891, Slim was educated at King Edward School, Birmingham, and joined the Royal Warwicks in 1914. Serving with the 9th Battalion, he was wounded both at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia where he was awarded the Military Cross.

But he was no longer a member of the regiment when he achieved greatness for after World War I he joined the Indian Army.

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather grew up in the Warwickshire village of Bishopton and arrived in France as a machine gun officer in the 3rd Battalion (Service Reserve). After being invalided back to England following the Battle of Ypres, he created his famous trench soldier 'Old Bill', who, marooned in a trench with shell fire erupting everywhere, uttered the immortal words: "Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it!".

Due tribute is paid to Bairnsfather in the museum with a striking wall display showing his cartoons and photographs of the officer with a flair for drawing. Birmingham women might find the display of interest for the verses coined by the smart-looking ca ptain included the words: "The cake is so sweet but not half so sweet as the thoughts of an Erdington wench."

The regiment also has a famous woman soldier. Born in Worcester, Hannah Snell (1723-1792) enlisted as 'James Grey' in the 6th of Foot at Coventry in 1745 marching to Carlisle on the way to the Scottish rebellion.

"It is the only anomaly we have," said Major Mills. "What is quite extraordinary is she fell foul of her sergeant, she got 500 lashes. We think because you were lashed front on to a wheel or gate, her sex was protected."

In many ways the most remarkable of all the men who joined the Royal Warwicks was the late Enoch Powell, one of the most controversial British politicians of the 20th century.

As soon as World War II started, he left Sydney University in Australia when he was professor of Greek and enlisted at Budbrooke Barracks just a few miles from Warwick on October 20, 1939. But he never saw combat despite the fact this was his wish.

"The story goes having addressed a visiting senior officer in classical Greek, he was hoicked out of the ranks and spent the rest of the war working in various military headquarters on operational and intelligence work," recalls Major Mills.

"Based on his sheer brainpower he went from private soldier to brigadier in less than four years."

Powell's deep attachment to the regiment never wavered. He had two regimental ties as he wore the tie so often and he was a loyal and regular supporter of regimental functions in both Birmingham and Warwick.

It was also his wish to be buried in the graveyard at the regimental church, St Mary's Church in Warwick.

"In December, 1983, Enoch Powell had written to Colonel 'Tinker' Jackson to inquire whether the regiment would be prepared to help with his funeral arrangements at St Mary's Church," says Major Mills.

"It was discovered a church order prevented further burials in the churchyard. After the first funeral service in Westminster, he came to Warwick to be buried.

"After we held a service in the regimental church, he was buried in Warwick Cemetery."

Originally the museum was established at Budbrooke Barracks in 1928. Its current major revamp marks the first radical change since the 1960s.

The Royal Warwicks became part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in 1968 but the museum is purely devoted to the deeds of the old regiment. On the museum staircase, a new theme titled The Warwickshire Soldier (1674-1968), with some evocative photographs , greets the visitor making his way up to the first floor museum.

Inside the museum, the preserved antelope heads of past regimental mascots can be found on the walls.

"They are all called Bobby," explains Major Mills. "We get it from Whipsnade Zoo and it lives down at the headquarters of our Midlands Territorial Army battalion in Kerseley in Coventry. "We have a special soldier to look after it. Nobody actually knows why we have an antelope as a mascot but the symbol has appeared on memorabilia going back for centuries. There is one story that because the regiment served so long in India they developed this Indian buck."

Four of the regiment's six Victoria Crosses are on display in the museum among its collection of 2,000 medals. But they are not real.

"They are copies purely because of the value," says Major Mills. "The real medals are in a bank vault.

"The Royal Fusiliers bought one the other day from the Crimea War and it went for pounds 62,000."

Students of the unusual can have fun locating the regiment collar badges made by a Royal Warwicks soldier in German prisoner-oar camp during World War II. They look so realistic it is difficult to believe they are made out of tin foil from cigarettepape rs.

The museum has about 27,000 visitors a year and this figure should rise significantly after the museum redesign is completed next summer.

"The appeal was launched two years ago and it is still going on," says Major Mills. "We have a concert in Birmingham in October at Birmingham Cathedral followed by a dinner in the Council House.

"We are using the National Army Museum as our museum designers. It won't be complete for another year."

The new design will also mean a magnificently-preserved 18th century regimental drum with a design including the antelope mascot will no longer be hidden away in the attic above the museum.

"It is our oldest artefact," says Miss Vanessa Harbar, who has been appointed assistant curator for two years to help mastermind the changes.

"It dates back to at least 1745. We believe it was captured by the Scots after the Battle of Prestonpans. It was found in a crofter's cottage.

"We want to put the drum in its own display case with proper lighting."

History of the regiment

The Royal Warwickshire Regiment originated in 1675 when an officer called Luke Lillingston was given command of a regiment of English troops known as the 6th of Foot fighting for the Dutch against the French.

This connection with Holland gave the regiment its nickname "The Dutch Guards" and explains the origin of the blue and orange regimental colours.

The year 1753 found the 6th at Gibraltar where the orders included: "No officer or soldier for duty is to carry an umbrella."

The Warwickshire connection began in 1782 when regiments were affiliated to counties for recruitment purposes.

The Sixth of Foot became known as "The Sixth or First Warwickshire Regiment."

That year The Warwickshire Lads was adapted as the regimental march.

Charles Dibdin composed the music and the great actor David Garrick wrote the words in honour of William Shakespeare with a refrain that included the line "For the lad of all lads was a Warwickshire lad." In 1881, the regiment became the Royal Warwickshi re Regiment.

During World War I, the regiment provided no fewer than 31 battalions (including three Birmingham Pals Battalions raised among the city's professional classes) and lost 560 officers and 10,891 men.

The six VCs won by the Royal Warwicks all came in the Great War. These included the medal won by the remarkable Birmingham soldier Lance Corporal William Amey (1881-1940) on a foggy day on November 4, 1918 in France.

After leading his section into battle capturing some 50 enemy prisoners and several machine guns, he then later staged two successful attacks on enemy posts single-handedly.

During World War II, the Royal Warwicks played a prominent part in the Dunkirk evacuation and the men of the 2nd Battalion were among the early British soldiers ashore on D-Day on June 6, 1944.

On April 23, 1968, the Royal Warwicks ceased to exist after becoming part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
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Author:Reyburn, Ross
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 4, 1998
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