Living in Yorkshire the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton is not somewhere I get to go very often, however owing to the need to visit family last weekend I found myself with an hour to spare whilst in Taunton so decided to revisit the museum. The museum has had a major facelift since I last went and I was eager to see the refreshed displays.
I was not disappointed as the museum is one of those rare things- a newly refurbished display that understands that what visitors actually want to see is artefacts! Display cases radiate out from the centre (which has a wonderful captured mountain gun) and they cover the various regiments of Somerset, with a definite emphasis on the Somerset Light Infantry. The other county regiments are there, but the focus is very much the SLI, which is fine with me as it was my grandfather’s regiment!
The displays cover much of what you would expect- uniforms, weapons, medals etc. A few of the more interesting artefacts include a couple of wooden grave markers from WW1, some truly impressive mess silver and a wonderfully engraved trench art waterbottle from the Great War. The display cases are densely packed with objects, but it never feels overwhelming and there is space to tell the stories of those behind the artefacts.
Finally I cannot end without mentioning that at the moment the glorious Lady Elizabeth Butler painting “Remnants of an Army”, depicting the Retreat from Kabul in 1842 is on loan to the museum. This is one of the great pieces of military art and would be worth a trip to see alone without even considering the rest of this fantastic museum.
The Somerset Military Museum is part of the Museum of Somerset in Taunton Castle and is free to enter.
Weighing in at 5lbs the Royal Engineer’s shovel is a robust and efficient digging tool for work in the trenches. Introduced long before World War One it was to have a very long service life, seeing service until well after World War Two. The early shovels have become quite hard to find now so I was very pleased to pick up this example last week for just £5:Unfortunately this example has suffered a bit over the years and the manufacturer’s details are now very hard to read, however the date of 1918 is still clearly visible:At some point I will sand back the rust and repaint the head of this shovel and it’s possible more of the markings will become visible then. The head of the shovel is broad and gently curved to make it easy to scoop up soil and rubble when digging field works:A rib is pressed down the back and centre of the shovel to add some rigidity to it:A five inch wide handle is fitted to the top, just the right size for the palm of the hand when moving the blade of the shovel in a scooping motion:This large shovel is one of a number of tools issued for trench construction, as illustrated in this 1905 diagram from the Manual of Military Engineering:Field works dug by hand were laborious and lengthy jobs as described in this period instruction:
Sequence for Digging Tasks
(a) A trench 3ft. 6ins wide at the top, 2ft. at the bottom, and 3 ft. deep is opened (I in the diagram). All the spoil is thrown forward to make the parapet which even so will not be 5ft. thick.
(b) The second stage (II in the diagram) is widened to 6ft. 6ins. at the top and 5ft. at the bottom and the parapet completed before any earth is used for the parados. It should never be deepened until it has been widened.
(c) Finally the passageway shown as III I the diagram is dug, the earth going on the parados.
(d) As soon as possible the fire step, and the rest of the trench should be reverted, and a drainage channel dug.Much of this digging would have been done with shovels such as this one and it was very nice to find one dated to WW1 for such a cheap price- it will sit very nicely with my WW2 dated example.
This week’s postcard is a delightful colour painting of a trench railway from World War One:The conditions on the ground in France during World War One could be pretty horrendous, with heavy mud and poor roads making it difficult to bring up shells and supplies very quickly. Most rail heads were situated several miles from the front and what was needed was a way of transporting goods right up to the front quickly, safely and reliably. The answer was miniature light railways running on rails of just a two foot gauge. These railways were provided in pre-made track panels of approximately 16 feet and unskilled labour could quickly lay them on roads and smooth surfaces to form a railway network. Their lightweight and modular construction made them easy to repair and replace if hit by enemy shell fire.
These railways used a variety of motive power, but the most common were small petrol driven tractors:Britain pioneered the use of petrol powered, 4-wheel synchromesh mechanical drive locomotives for daylight use within visual range of the front. In 1916 the War Office required “Petrol Trench Tractors” of 600-mm gauge that were capable of drawing 10 to 15 tons at 5 mi (8.0 km) per hour. Early tractors weighed 2 tons. Behind them they hauled a variety of rolling stock including bogie wagons and little side tipping hopper cars such as the ones seen here:Although stylised, it can be seen that these hoppers, when not needed for supplies, were also frequently used as a form of transport for the men to save exhausting them too much going into or out of the trench:The value of these trench railways was recognised at all levels and on 24th July 1916 Winston Churchill wrote:
The foundation of a good trench line is a system of light railways far more extensive and elaborate than anything we have at the present time. It is only by means of light railways that all the enormous varieties and quantities of trench stores necessary for the making of a solid line and keeping them in repair can be conveyed to the Front, such as pumping machinery, steel dugouts, revetting material; and all variety of trench stores can only be brought in sufficient quantities to the front by a very elaborate and extensive network of railways and light railways.
Unusually the back of the card in this case is as interesting as the front:This reveals that the postcard was one of a series produced by A M Davis and Company of London to raise money for National War Savings. There were twelve cards in the set, of which this is the fourth, and they are all emblazoned with slogans encouraging people to buy War Bonds.