Andrew Roberts

National Army Museum

It leaves visitors ashamed of the Army’s supposed legacy of imperialism and slavery, when that constituted only a tiny part of its story

National Army Museum
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I used to love the National Army Museum in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, which was crammed with the memorabilia of four centuries of the British Army. I even visited it on the morning of my wedding. It taught you about the history of the British Army in a completely non-political way, allowing the objects — which were carefully factually annotated — to speak for themselves. It was housed in a hideous 1971 building, but the artefacts inside were superb.

Today’s huge new £24 million refurbished National Army Museum looks imposing inside, but instead of chronologically taking you through the history of the Army it is now broken down thematically into spaces such as ‘Society’, which ‘explores the Army as a cultural and military force that impacts on our customs, technologies and values’, and ‘Army’, which ‘explores the Army’s major role in the political development of the country’. Instead of seeing artefacts in a historical context, as part of a chronological narrative, the visitor is forced to explore themes, and as ever this has provided an opening for guilt, apology and political correctness.

In the old museum they just showed vast collections of uniforms, weaponry, regimental silver, medals and vast paintings of the battle of Omdurman; in today’s you are invited to press buttons to vote on whether ‘The money spent on the Army should be spent elsewhere’, and asked to decide ‘What issue should the Army focus on in the coming decade?’, giving you the choice of ‘Fighting international terrorism’, ‘Training other countries’ armed forces only’, ‘Cyber warfare’ or ‘Peacekeeping’. There is no choice available to vote for the job it has now done for four centuries, that is, ‘Defending Britain by fighting other countries’ armies’.

In its obsession with making us feel post-colonial guilt, it states in large letters on one wall that: ‘Troops from the colonies didn’t always have a say in fighting for the British Army and even slaves have been used to fight on our behalf.’ It fails to state that the vast armies raised in India in both world wars were entirely volunteer — in the latter case the largest wholly volunteer army in the history of mankind — and that colonial armies were generally not press-ganged into fighting. The only slaves that were used were in the (mostly free black) West India Regiment from 1795 to 1807, and in the latter year, under the annual Mutiny Act, every slave in a red coat was declared a free man. The announcement on the wall, through the use of the weasel words ‘didn’t always’ and ‘have been used’, therefore deliberately gives a completely misleading picture of the true situation, which was that the overwhelming majority of colonial troops were volunteers, that Britain was in the forefront of abolishing slavery, and that serving in the Army was a relatively quick way out of slavery. Political correctness in museums is one thing; historical inaccuracy in pursuance of it is quite another.

We are also lectured to that ‘Some of the British Army’s actions are contentious. It has also been used to expand the British empire, and has played a part in suppressing local populations.’ The latter statement probably refers to Ulster Catholics, 306 of whom, we are told, were killed by the British Army, ‘56 per cent of them civilians’. That gives the impression that the other 44 per cent were a legitimate army that the British were fighting, rather than a murderous sectarian gang calling itself a republican ‘army’. All this is fine for a Guardian leader written by Seumas Milne, but not for prominent display on the walls of a museum that ought to be protective of the truer narrative of the essential decency and repeated heroism of the British Army.

Presumably because medals are thought of as old-fashioned and boring by the new right-on Museum, we are not told in very many cases what they are or even who they were awarded to. The wonderful pictures are still there, but in the Art Room there is now a big sign saying ‘Political Statement’ in red letters, which tells us that ‘Art became a means to legitimise territorial expansion’, and ‘Today, few artists are commissioned to celebrate military victories and triumphalism is seen as distasteful.’ For the iconic picture of the relief of Ladysmith we aren’t told the title or the name of the artist or what is happening in it, but just: ‘This was known as the Bovril War picture.’

‘The National Army Museum,’ it boasts, ‘challenges you to think again about what an army museum is.’ Why should it? Why can’t it just be a museum that houses the paraphernalia of the national Army? Why should it be somewhere that leaves visitors ashamed of the Army’s supposed legacy of colonialism, imperialism and slavery, when that constituted only a tiny part of its story, and isn’t accurately portrayed anyhow? On a greater issue, when will the long march of political correctness through our great national institutions be finally checked?

Andrew Roberts is the author of an admiring biography of Napoleon.