The Afghan War exhibition at the National Army Museum
1 Sep 2006 - 23 Mar 2007
a visit by Garen Ewing
Back in February 2007 I had a meeting in London, and decided to take the rest of the day off and visit the National Army Museum to see their Afghan Wars exhibition, which started on 1 Sep 2006 and ended on 23 March 2007. It is supported by an 'online exhibition', which you can see at:
Edit May 2008: the exhibition has been added online as a slideshow here.
I took the Underground to Sloane Square, walked through the up-market houses of Sloane Gardens, and past the huge front of the Royal Chelsea Hospital on Royal Hospital Road before reaching the NAM. Despite being half-term for many schools, the museum was very quiet, though at 3.30 pm, I'd probably missed the busiest part of the day. The main demographic of visitor seemed to be young mums with babies in push-chairs... not the kind of person I'd generally expect to find in numbers at the National Army Museum!
After a wrong-turn through the P.O.W exhibit, I found the main galleries and walked up to the very top where the Afghan exhibit was. This consisted entirely of a gallery of John Burke photographs, juxtaposed with modern photos of the British in Afghanistan on a similar theme. Despite there not really being a lot to it, I found it very absorbing, especially as the Burke photos were enlarged to several feet and you could really study the detail.
Nearly all of the photos I've seen before, some being widely printed, some rarely. There were a couple I had never seen before, including an excellent photo of the 92nd Highlanders on church parade in full dress, at Kabul I think. There was another nice one of the 72nd Highlanders displaying various pieces of signalling and telegraphic equipment (different from the one pictured below, see caption), which I'd seen part of before, but the detail was just marvellous.
Men from a variety of regiments helped to make up field telegraph units, headed by civilian specialists.
I forgot to count how many Burke photos were displayed, but at a guess from memory I'd say about 20, perhaps a few more. It is thought John Burke may have taken 'thousands of photographs during the two year conflict' (Khan p.101) and nearly 400 were actually published in two major catalogues. About forty of his photographs were published in the form of wood engravings in The Graphic.
Just before you turn the corner at the top of the slope into the Afghan War exhibition, you are confronted with the enormous painting of 'The Attack on the Peiwar Kotal' by Vereker Monteith Hamilton (brother, I believe, of Ian Standish Hamilton, 92nd Highlanders). I didn't realise it was such an enormous work. It really is stunning, and it puts you right into the scene. Unfortunately the accompanying plaque had some wrong information, saying that the 5th Gurkhas and 72nd Highlanders "brought about the defeat of some 18,000 Afghans who were blocking their way through the Khyber Pass." Actually, Roberts was trying to get through the Peiwar Pass at the end of the Kuram Valley, while it was Sam Browne getting through the Khyber away to the north-east. The Kuram Valley route was an alternative to the Khyber route towards Kabul. Interestingly on the plaque, it said it was courtesy the Trustees of the Estate of Countess Roberts, so I guess it was owned by Lord Roberts at some point, probably after it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891.
I also had a good look round the 19th Century gallery ('Changing the World 1784-1904') which was very good. Of Afghan War interest there were a few medals on display, namely those of Colonel G. H. W. O'Sullivan (RE), Colonel H. M. Buller (Central India Horse), Havildar Biaz (Guides), Major Arthur Battye (2nd Gurkhas), Lt.-Col. Frederick Drummond Battye (Guides), an officer of the 1st Sind Horse whose details I forgot to write down (also a journalist for The Graphic I think... could it have been G. D. Giles who was in the 19th BNI in the Afghan War? He did work for The Graphic...), and next to a full six-clasped specimen of the Afghan War medal, the Kandahar Star of Private J. McGlone, 72nd Highlanders.
The most impressive item relating to the Afghan War (and perhaps in the entire gallery) was the statue of Lt. Walter Hamilton standing over a fallen Afghan, by Charles Bell Birch (1880), depicting his final stand at the Kabul Embassy on 3 September 1879. It really is a dramatic piece, and now off its plinth (it was originally at the Museum of Science and Art in Dublin) you can almost come face to face with it.
On the way out I had a quick nose round the bookshop, and was disappointed not to see a single title relating to the Second Afghan war - quite normal usually, but with a special exhibition I thought they might at least have got in a few copies of Brian Robson's 'Road to Kabul'. There were, of course, two shelves of books relating to the Zulu War! Is it purely the film 'Zulu' that is responsible for this, or are there other factors involved?
The NAM is a pleasant and open museum, and I'd definitely recommend a visit if you haven't been.
National Army Museum: www.national-army-museum.ac.uk
Afghan Wars online exhibit: www.national-army-museum.ac.uk/exhibitions/afghanistan
Helmand Operations online exhibit: www.national-army-museum.ac.uk/exhibitions/helmand