The contents of the Royal Artillery Museum are currently in storage across three sites in the UK while they wait for a new site to be built near Larkhill in Wiltshire, the HQ of the Royal Artillery. Some of the collection is in storage in Larkhill, which is occasionally opened up to the public.
Heritage Open Days are great opportunities for visiting places and buildings that are generally closed to the public, with the additional advantage of being free - although donations are always welcome. One such is the Royal Artillery Museum or, more accurately, as our guide described it, the Royal Artillery Storeroom. These three hangars on Wood Road, Larkhill, are temporary storage for the smaller items of the collection while it, along with the Library and Archives, search for a new site within a range of 5 kilometres of the Headquarters of Royal Artillery. It’s a fascinating tour as it combines the history of the existing site, the story of the Royal Regiment and the development of some of its smaller hardware through the ages.
From the outside the three hangars seem exceptionally dull – standing somewhat broodingly and unobtrusively among what is now the leafy residential quarters of Larkhill’s army officers. However, you quickly learn that these hangars are themselves hugely significant, now Grade II* listed, as the oldest surviving aircraft hangars in Europe. They have been here since 1910, built for the Larkhill Flying Ground when the War Office – somewhat reluctantly - agreed to use this area of Salisbury Plain to test out the new, and rather dubious, machines designed for aerial observation in warfare.
From 1910 – 1914 this site operated as a military airfield and played a significant part in the birth of military aviation in Britain. After 1914 it was no longer used as an airfield. Instead, military encampments filled the site as Salisbury Plain became part of the training programme for soldiers destined for the trenches of the Great War. In 1916 the School of Artillery moved from Shoeburyness to Larkhill and in 2007 the HQ of the Royal Artillery moved entirely from Woolwich to Larkhill.
The museum began in 1778 when George III decided there should be a repository of military machines for training. The focus of the collection was always education and technical understanding, and it is still the case today. The first hangar contains “small” items – anything up to the 25 pounders - from the 1700s to World War II. It is cleverly designed within in its limited space to show the development of 250 years of artillery.
There were constant challenges as the technology evolved – the need to balance greater firepower with increased battlefield mobility, to improve accuracy while lengthening the range and speeding up the rate of fire. There is a field gun from the late 1700s of the type used in the Napoleonic Wars, much along the lines of old medieval cannon, loaded from the muzzle.
An early 19th century gun introduced the rifle bore and was loaded from the breech thus improving range and accuracy. Further pieces show the change to a metal rather than a wooden carriage and the invention of a pneumatic recoil system which returned the barrel to the original firing position. Rather poignantly, there are three field guns from the Great War in a row – French, German and British. By 1936 the guns were almost entirely mechanised and there are pieces from WWII which our guide noted would still be largely recognisable by the gunners of Wellington’s army.
Also in this area is a 13 pounder – the type now used by King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, on ceremonial occasions. This one is a gun carriage which has been used for the funerals of royalty. There is also a “pack gun” – an artillery piece that can be dismantled and reassembled in the field – the particular piece on display was dropped at Arnhem in 1944.
There are some interesting display cases – our guide stressed that this is a living collection with donations regularly being made from ex-gunners, their families and various institutions. One case dedicated to Viscount Allenbrooke contains keys from Hitler’s bunker in Berlin and part of the map table from the Potsdam Conference of 1945.
In the second hangar there is a somewhat makeshift screen erected among the boxes and packing cases storing some of the many items that can’t yet be displayed. Here you can see very early slides of these hangars and the aircraft that – astonishingly, given their flimsy structure - flew from them.
From here in 1912, sadly, two pilots, Captain Eustace Loraine and Staff-Sergeant Richard Wilson, crashed nearby while flying a Nieuport monoplane. They have the unhappy distinction of being the first members of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps to lose their lives while flying on duty. The Airmen’s Cross memorial to them is now part of the Stonehenge Heritage site.
There are more guns stored here, some of them Indian and Asian guns, some captured guns including a triple bore field gun captured at Malplaquet in 1709. King Thibaw’s Burmese Dragon Gun from the end of the 18th century is particularly impressive – its barrel designed to instil fear in the enemy rather than fire at them. Napoleon III’s present to Queen Victoria is a large artillery piece, demonstrating the high status and power of artillery in the 19th century.
A huge army of volunteers works behind the scenes at this museum – answering historical or regimental inquiries, dismantling, cleaning and reassembling equipment, cataloguing and archiving new material. Several work as guides – all of them enthusiastic, knowledgeable and informative. It may take a further 4 – 5 years before the new Royal Artillery Museum opens its doors – but, in the meantime, these three historic hangars and their staff are doing an excellent job of keeping the story of the British Army’s artillery alive.