FEATURE: Suffolk Regiment Museum charts battles, victories and tragedies
There is a spot on the floor as you walk into the Suffolk Regiment Museum that its staff call the wow tile.
The small yellow square is the point where visitors first see the full effect of the spacious room, colourful uniforms, and gleaming glass cases packed with military memorabilia.
Often, says senior volunteer Tim Davies, their reaction is “wow”.
The museum is housed in the imposing Keep of Gibraltar Barracks – once the home of the Suffolk Regiment.
Very little apart from the Keep remains of the Army depot built in 1878 in Bury St Edmunds.
But inside the massive red brick walls the regiment’s proud 274-year history is alive and well.
It will also be celebrated next week on the stage of Bury’s Theatre Royal by Martin Bell, ex-BBC war reporter who did his national service with the regiment.
The museum’s thousands of exhibits chart battles fought, victories won, and tragedies endured as the Suffolks and their predecessors served across the globe from Ireland to Australia to the Far East.
Some reflect the pomp and ceremony that goes with military life.
Others bring home the shocking realities of war, like the striped pyjama leg made into a makeshift mask – once all that stood between its wearer and deadly gas attacks in the First World War.
Close by is a mackintosh ripped by shrapnel while being worn by local hero Harvey Frost, who survived to become a well-known builder and three times Mayor of Bury.
He left the regiment to join the Air Force, which led to another close call.
“Harvey was flying as a gunner when they were attacked,” said Tim.
“He saw the pilot was unconscious, so he climbed over and managed to crash land the plane on the German side, where he was taken prisoner.
“We have a pipe that was given to him by Max Immelmann, the second most famous German flying ace after the Red Baron.
“Immellman also dropped a note over the Britsh lines to say he was wounded but OK.”
Tim joined the Suffolks a year before they were amalgamated in 1959 into the East Anglian Regiment, later the Royal Anglians.
He spent 26 years in the Army, rising to the rank of Sergeant Major, and became a museum volunteer in 2004.
Honorary curator Gwyn Thomas has no military background. He was offered the voluntary position after retiring from Suffolk Record Office where he had catalogued the regiment’s archives.
Both are incredibly proud to help safeguard the Suffolks’ heritage. They are assisted by five other volunteers.
Gwyn has no hesitation naming his favourite exhibit – the brightly-painted Roubaix Drum from the Second World War.
“During the Allied retreat to Dunkirk in 1940 soldiers were ordered to destroy non-essential equipment.
“But drums are very significant to a regiment, like the colours.
“So instead of destroying their drums the 1st Battalion of the Suffolks handed them to the people of Roubaix for safe keeping.
“They hid them in hat boxes in a hat factory, and they were recovered after the war but eventually lost.
“Then, amazingly, one was spotted for sale on eBay. It was sold but our historian found out who had bought it, and we managed to buy it back.”
Also on show is one of the regiment’s recruiting drums – so large it took one man to carry it and two to beat it – which was beaten around the lanes of Suffolk in a bid to summon up recruits.
The corridor leading to the museum is lined with cases filled with row upon row of medals won by members of the regiment.
“Most of our visitors come here looking for grandad,” says Gwyn. “So we put as many medals as possible on display where they can find them easily.
“We don’t like to shut things away in storerooms.”
Other exhibits show a more light-hearted side of life in the regiment.
Two massive wooden spoons each weighing around 10lb bear the names of the worst shots in an annual shooting contest.
“The Sergeants’ Mess spoon had to be carried around all day by its recipient, as well as his rifle,” says Tim.
“At the Corporals’ Mess they filled their spoon with the most revolting cocktail they could think of – usually including Creme de Menthe – and the loser had to drink it.
“You’ll notice no-one’s name appears twice. It was a big incentive to improve.”
The Suffolk Regiment began in 1685 when King James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a force against the Monmouth Rebellion.
In fact, for the next 100 years the 12th Regiment of Foot, as it was also known, was more Norfolk than Suffolk.
And there were several name changes before it became the Suffolk Regiment in 1881.
It saw action at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and in 1743 shared in victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen,
Leading the regiment at Dettingen was Colonel Scipio Duroure, from whose personal arms came its motto Stabilis – meaning steadfastness.
Serving in the ranks was Ensign James Wolfe, aged 16, who went on to become one of the Britsh Army’s greatest generals and victor of the battle for Quebec in 1759.
The Battle of Minden, also in 1759, is recognised as the Suffolks’ finest hour.
They were among the British soldiers who marched through cannon fire and broke six charges of the elite French cavalry to win a decisive victory.
That morning the men had plucked roses from a garden and worn them in their hats.
To this day their successors, including the Royal Anglians, mark the anniversary of the battle by carrying on the custom.
Another landmark was helping to break the Great Siege of Gibraltar by the Spanish and French in the late 18th century.
The regiment served with distinction in both World Wars. Two members were awarded VCs in the 1914-18 conflict.
Corporal Sidney Day was honoured after he seized a stick bomb and hurled it out of a trench seconds before it exploded.
Sgt Arthur Saunders saved the life of an officer despite having suffered severe wounds which later cost him his leg.
The Regiment Museum was founded in 1935 in the Officers’ Mess of the depot, and moved to the Keep 30 years later.
But in 1995 it had to close. “The MOD took away the assistant who used to open up and take care of it, and there was no money to pay anyone else,“ says Gywn.
It reopened in 2004 after a complete revamp, and its survival is mostly down to one man whose surprise bequest of almost half a million pounds ensured its future.
Brian Allen was not a retired general, or even a career soldier. He did two years national service with the regiment in Malaya in the 1950s.
His working life was spent in the composing room of the Bury Free Press where, although he was known to have an eye for canny investments, colleagues had no idea just how successfully he dealt in stocks and shares.
When he died in 2003 his £450,000 legacy came as complete shock to the trustees of the cash-strapped museum.
Now his military records, medals, and details of his service have a place of honour among the exhibits.
The Suffolks’ final tour of duty was in Cyprus – part of a force sent to combat EOKA terrorists.
Among the Cyprus exhibits is a picture of Tim as a young recruit on which was taken to send to the press back home.
The photographer was Martin Bell, distinguished former BBC journalist, and ex-independent MP, who was doing his national service with the regiment’s intelligence section.
Next week he will be back in his home county, joining forces with the Suffolk Concert Band on Friday Sepetmber 25 for an evening of memories and music at the Theatre Royal.
The Suffolk Regiment Museum is open on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays, and the 1st Sunday of each month, and at other times by appointment. Entry is free.
For more information go to www.suffolkregiment.org or call 01284 752394.