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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

The National Army Museum in London: Facts & History

What is the National Army Museum?

The National Army Museum is the central museum of the British Army that was established in the mid-20th century and reopened in 2017 following a substantial renovation.

Joyofmuseums, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Renovation & Reopening

In 2017, after a £24 million makeover, the National Army Museum reopened. Its 1960s modernist building has been expanded, while its curation has taken a turn towards contemporary forms of self-awareness. Efforts have been made to include a diversity of perspectives, including those of women and soldiers from across the former British Empire. Many visitors will be surprised to learn that 2.5 million Indian soldiers served in the Second World War, as opposed to 1.5 million British soldiers. The museum’s new direction has attracted criticism from traditional army circles for being too politically correct and anti-military, but others argue that it is simply responding to shifts in our cultural and political landscape.

Interesting Facts & Exhibits

The National Army Museum’s collection includes an old Victoria Cross (one of 39 VCs that the museum currently holds), the highest British and Commonwealth military honour. In 2015, a metal detectorist found it on the banks of the River Thames. The cross is inscribed with the date 5th November 1854. This indicates that it was awarded to a soldier who fought at the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimean War. The cross is in such a state of disrepair that it’s missing its suspender bar, which would have displayed its recipient’s name. The museum consulted its records and discovered that only two crosses awarded after this battle are missing. They belonged to Privates John McDermond and John Byrne.

In the 1850s, Britain, France and Turkey engaged in a conflict with Russia over its pressure on Turkey, which threatened Britain’s commercial and strategic interest in the Middle East and India. On 5th November 1854, the Russian army surprised the British and French forces in the early hours of the morning. The air was thick with fog, stacking the odds against the British and French soldiers, who nevertheless prevailed. It was in these treacherous conditions that Private McDermond saved the life of his Commanding Officer after he had been unhorsed and lay injured on the battlefield. There’s a painting within the museum’s collection by Louis William Desanges that depicts this act of heroism. Private John Byrne also risked his own life to rescue an injured soldier. He ran back into the field to fetch his friend even though he had run out of ammunition.

As is often the case, both men suffered a significant decline in their health and fortunes after they left the army. John McDermond died from typhus whilst John Byrne suffered from mental health issues, perhaps a form of what would now be called PTSD. Neither McDermond nor Byrne died in London, so it is not clear how this Victoria Cross ended up in the Thames. We will possibly never know which man it belonged to, but it can only be a good thing that these two forgotten men are now being remembered for their bravery.

Aside from this 19th-century military award, the museum’s collection consists of over one million items spanning a 600-year period. Rather than chronologically taking visitors through the history of the army, the museum is broken down into thematic galleries, each of which explore the British Army with a different focus.

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