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Suffolk Regiment Museum in 10 Objects

Curator of the Suffolk Regiment Museum Claire Wallace picks her favourite 10 objects at the Suffolk Regiment Museum from the 7-8,000 in the Museum's collection.

1. Queen Victoria’s chocolate box, 1900

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Queen Victoria’s chocolate box, 1900

Most people enjoy a bit of chocolate from time to time, but I’m not sure I would want to try this! In 1899, Queen Victoria decided to send a gift of tin boxes of chocolate to her troops serving in South Africa. It was intended that every soldier and officer should receive a box with the inscription ‘South Africa 1900’ and in the Queen’s handwriting, ‘I wish you a happy New Year’.

The Queen commissioned the country’s three principle chocolate manufacturers, J S Fry & Sons, Cadbury Brothers Limited and Rowntree and Company Limited, to undertake the order for what amounted to 123,000 tins. As Quakers, all three manufacturers refused to accept payment for the order and, not wishing to profit from the War, they offered to donate the chocolate instead.

The manufacture of the tin boxes themselves was funded personally by the Queen. The tins had rounded corners for ease of storage in a soldier’s knapsack and each contained a half-pound of vanilla chocolate.

As they were a gift from the Queen, many soldiers preserved their tins with the chocolate intact, even posting them back home for safe keeping. In exceptional cases, the recipients did not dare to even untie the ribbon around the packaging.

An Army Order issued from Bloemfontein in April 1900 decreed that the tins were to be forwarded to officers and men who had been invalided home before the Queen’s gift arrived, and to next of kin of those who had died during the Boer War.

The tins were so highly valued by their contemporaries that soldiers who were prepared to sell them could ask prices as high as £20. That is the equivalent of just over £3000 today.

2. The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

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The Battle of Neuve Chappelle

The Battle of Neuve Chappelle took place between the 11th and the 13th March 1915. Neuve Chapelle was one of the most strategic and most fought-after areas of France during the First World War and suffered more damage than any other part of France.

In mid-January 1915, the 4th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment moved forward from Allouagne in very cold weather, marching through snow. The trenches were too waterlogged to be manned as a whole, and instead a chain of posts was established.

On March 10th, they marched to Vielle Chappelle in readiness to take part in the battle of Neuve Chapelle, preparations for which had been in progress for some time. On the 11th, due to the stubborn resistance offered by the enemy, little if any progress was made and towards evening it became evident that the attack had failed. The battalion was holding a line of trenches when a message was received ordering it to withdraw from the line.

As the battalion was in a strong position at the time, it was assumed that this message was possibly a ruse de guerre, emanating from the German forces. The adjutant returned to brigade headquarters to make enquiries and found the message to be genuine.

Some shelling occurred when they arrived at the billets they had been sent to and this compelled the battalion to vacate its billets and take to some trenches near Windy Corner. Whilst moving towards the southern end of Neuve Chapelle, a conference of officers was held in a shell-hole by the roadside. This incident is depicted in a painting which is on public display at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.

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Roe's Preliminary Sketch

Here you can see a print of that painting that is on display at the Keep. Within the Suffolk Regiment Museum collection, we also have a preliminary sketch by Fred Roe, the artist.

You can see that he has annotated the sketch, which has been completed in pencil, taking particular care to mark out the positions of the officers in the foreground. One of the most important things about this utterly unique sketch though, is what is on the back.

Here you can see that he has named the officers who were in the shell hole. The second and third officers listed are Major, later Colonel, Turner and Major, later Lieutenant-Colonel, Frank Pretty.

The sketch came to the Museum as a gift from Colonel Turner’s relatives and accompanying the sketch was a letter from the artist.

The letter tells Colonel Turner that the painting of Neuve Chapelle was now complete and with the frame makers. He ends by asking the Colonel to ‘remember me to Miss Turner who gave me such a good tip about your chin.’!

3. The Burberry Trench Coat

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The Burberry Trench Coat

In its lifetime, the classic Burberry trench coat has been adopted by wartime soldiers, Hollywood actors and world-renowned models alike.

The Burberry coat first made its appearance on the battlefields of World War One, taking its title from the trenches of Normandy. Thomas Burberry was tasked with designing the British soldiers’ outerwear to protect them from the elements. Several of the recognizable stylistic details that can still be seen today come from its military roots. The pleat at the back was added to make movement easier for soldiers when riding horses or running and on the shoulders, the epaulettes allowed officers to display their rank.

In these pictures, you can see the iconic Burberry check lining and also the shrapnel holes that bedeck this particular example.

This coat belonged to Harvey Frost. He was in the 9th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment and when the battalion was holding positions to the north-east of Ypres, the Germans launched a gas attack against them. The gas attack lasted for half an hour and was followed by a heavy bombardment on the front-line trenches.

Frost emerged from Company headquarters early that morning, wearing this coat and his gas helmet (which is also in the Museum’s collection) as protection against the cold and the acrid yellow gas. When gifting his collection to the museum, he described the coat as ‘My Burberry overcoat, holed by a whiff of shrapnel on emerging from “C” Company HQ Dugout in the baker’s kiln at St Jean at the commencement of the Gas Attack on December 19th 1915.’

Harvey Frost went on to be attached to No. 5 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, got shot down, became a prisoner of war and was repatriated in 1917. He was instrumental in building the Sugar Beet Factory, was the Chairman of Governors of Bury Technical Institute (later West Suffolk College) and commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Bury St Edmunds Home Guard in the Second World War.

4. Arthur Saunders’s Victoria Cross

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Arthur Saunders’s Victoria Cross

Another item that we are extremely lucky to have in the collection is the Victoria Cross that was awarded to Arthur Saunders in the First World War. Here you can see the medal and also a portrait of Saunders wearing it.

Arthur Saunders was born in Ipswich in 1879. He trained for the Merchant Navy and joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15, serving for 15 years and reaching the rank of Petty Officer (2nd Class). On leaving the Navy he worked for Ransomes, Sims and Jeffries, the well-known engineering firm in the town. On 19th September 1914 he joined the Regular Army as a ’duration only’ soldier, and was posted to the 9th (Service) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment. The Battalion went to France on 30th August 1915 and less than a month later they were involved in the Battle of Loos.

On 26th September 1915, the 9th Suffolks were in support of an advance of the Cameron Highlanders. As the situation deteriorated, and Saunders found he had no officer left. He quickly took over command of the Platoon and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. The citation for the award reads:

‘For most conspicuous bravery. When his officer had been wounded in the attack he took charge of two machine-guns and a few men, and, although severely wounded in the thigh, closely followed the last four charges of another battalion, and rendered every possible support. Later, when the remains of the battalion which he had been supporting had been forced to retire, he stuck to one of his guns, continued to give orders, and by continuous firing did his best to cover the retirement.’

Saunders was recovered by stretcher bearers from the Scots Guards. Common belief states that the wounds to his leg meant that it was amputated when he reached an Advanced Dressing Station. However, this is inaccurate. After medical attention and a period of convalescence, his leg became three inches shorter, and he had to wear a medical boot to aid his walking for the rest of his life.

5. Sir Edward Bear

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Sir Edward Bear

Sadly, most of the surviving Suffolk Regiment veterans are now in their eighties or nineties, but Sir Edward Bear here, our resident diva, celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year.

Sir Edward is a teddy bear that was given by Captain Leslie Bowen, MC, who served in the 7th Battalion, to his son Esmond John in early 1923. Sir Edward’s tunic bears Suffolk Regiment buttons and was probably made by Captain Bowen’s wife, Edna.

Captain Bowen was awarded his Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in action. He led his company with great courage and determination, going about in the open under heavy fire, encouraging his men and helping the wounded, and was himself twice wounded.

Young Esmond Bowen himself went on to serve with the Royal Army Dental Corps in 1947, developing an interest in orthodontics. He reached the rank of Major General and was even appointed as Honorary Dental Surgeon to Queen Elizabeth the Second in 1977.

6. Haig Fund Poppy

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Haig Fund Poppy

The poppy is the enduring symbol of remembrance of the First World War and is strongly linked with Armistice Day. However, the poppy’s origin as a popular symbol of remembrance lies in the landscapes of Northern France.

During the First World War, millions of soldiers saw the poppies on the Western Front. Some even sent pressed poppies home in letters. The flowers flourished in the soil churned up by the fighting and shelling and they provided Canadian doctor John McCrae with inspiration for his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, which he wrote whilst serving in Ypres in 1915. The poem opens with the lines, ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row’. In 1918, in response to McCrae’s poem, American humanitarian Moina Michael wrote ‘And now the Torch and Poppy Red, we wear in honor of our dead…’. She campaigned to make the poppy a symbol of remembrance of those who had died in the war.

Artificial poppies were first sold in Britain in 1921 to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund in support of ex-servicemen and the families of those who had died in the conflict. They were supplied by Anna Guérin, who had been manufacturing the flowers in France to raise money for war orphans. Selling poppies proved so popular that in 1922 the British Legion founded a factory – staffed by disabled ex-servicemen – to produce its own. It continues to do so today. Over 100 years later, the poppy is still a world-recognised symbol of remembrance.

This particular example dates to the 1940s and came to us recently, hidden between the leaves of a sketchbook which had belonged to Private Cyril Smee of the 2nd Battalion who saw service and died in the First World War.

7. Map used on the retreat to Dunkirk

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Map used on the retreat to Dunkirk

This map might look grubby and torn, but it’s actually a really important item within the Suffolk Regiment Museum collection. It is a map that was used by the 1st Battalion whilst retreating to Dunkirk in 1940. The map was used by Colonel W. A. Heal when he was still a young Captain or adjutant with the 1st Battalion during the withdrawal. The handwritten notes were written by him and detail where the battalion was on what date.

Maps like this were used during the various actions, but were often then just thrown away. The retention of this map shows the forethought of Colonel Heal and provides us with a record of exactly where the battalion was and when. We are unable to obtain this level of detail from the regimental histories as they were written some time later.

This map is currently undergoing some conservation work at Norfolk Museums Service so that it survives to help illustrate the story of the Suffolks well into the future.

8. The Roubaix Drum

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The Roubaix Drum

During the Allied retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force were ordered to destroy all non-essential equipment which included the instruments of the Band and Drums.

Rather than destroy their Drums, the 1st Battalion handed them to the people of Roubaix for safekeeping. The French later moved them to a safer place in, as rumour tells us, a hat factory where they were hidden in boxes.

In 1944, the Battalion returned to the area and the Commanding Officer sent a party to Roubaix to enquire about the Drums. The photograph on the right here shows Private Whitman, Captain Breach and Lance Corporals Massam and Hutchinson and the three surviving Drums. Unfortunately, one of the Drums was subsequently destroyed by enemy action, but two were reunited with the Drum platoon.

The surviving Drums were played on the Battalion’s first ceremonial parade after D-Day and after the war the Drums simply passed back into use by the Corps of Drums. They were eventually lost.

However, many years later, a military historian spotted one of the Drums being sold on eBay. It was recognized as one of the missing Drums as the bottom skin had been signed by the adjutant, Captain Robertson. It was purchased by the Museum and has been on display ever since. What happened to the other Drum remains a mystery.

9. Challess Fan

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The Challess Fan

This hand fan was kept by Colour Sergeant Arthur Challess of the 4th Battalion while a Far East Prisoner of War between 1942 and 1945 and is inscribed with notes about significant events during his captivity.

Arthur Challess joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1924 and saw service with the 1st and 2nd Battalions in Malta, Gibraltar and India. He became an instructor at Sandhurst in 1939, returning to the Depot in Bury St Edmunds in 1941. He went to the Far East with the 4th Battalion in 1941, was wounded and captured in Singapore in February 1942 and spent the rest of the war as a Japanese Prisoner of War. He left the Army in 1949 but took up an appointment as an Instructor with the Army Cadet Force.

While he was a Prisoner of War Challess kept a record of his movements, with comments, on the leave of the fan.
Some of these details include:
Left my dear wife and kiddies
Bombay embark for Singapore
Singapore my ship bombed 4 killed
In action Feb 10 hopeless mess
Wounded Feb 13 Friday right leg
Dang-Pong 4 days ‘Hell Train’
Hell ship Singapore Harbour
Borneo rough seas great sickness
Typhoon great danger of sinking
Wrecked Formosa
Rescued [and this was after 3 days] Nippon Navy fine work
[And then on 16th August 1945]
Freedom can it be true? Yes!!!
Red + and visitors Aug 29 first step to my loved ones
1st walk out Sep 4 first taste of freedom
Draft letter Sep 4 to my dear family at home

From these short notes, one can get a real sense of what the FEPOWs went through. However, if this fan had been found by the Japanese Guards, Challess could have been killed. It is, in effect, a diary, something that was forbidden.

We had the fan conserved a couple of years ago and very recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Challess’ Grandson (who had donated the fan to us) and he told me that he never dreamed it would look so good and that he was proud his Grandfather’s story was being told.

10. Markos Drakos Sten Gun

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Markos Drakos Sten Gun

From 1956 until 1959, the 1st Battalion was in Cyprus for what was its final overseas posting. Its role was to combat the terrorist activities of EOKA, whose aim was to end British rule in Cyprus. The battalion were also involved in maintaining public order between the Greek and Turkish communities.

The Battalion’s most successful action was the ambushing and killing of Markos Drakos, EOKA’s 2nd in Command, on 19th January 1957.

‘D’ Company had deployed patrols on the mountain slopes of the Adelphi Forest, aiming to catch guerrilla groups who came down to the villages at night to collect food. A section of eight men under Corporal King established their ambush as night was falling. They found a suitable rest area, leaving four men there while the others went on patrol. The two groups changed places every two hours. It was a bitterly cold night with freezing rain.

At 2300 hours, Private Sidney Woods, a 19-year-old National Serviceman, saw a lone man on the track just in front of him. He fired instantly and the terrorist returned fire. The remainder of the section opened fire and Drakos fell dead to the ground.

Corporal King, Lance Corporal Fowler and Private Woods were all Mentioned in Despatches for their part in the operation.

This sten gun was taken from the body of Markos Drakos and can currently be seen on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum in the centre of town, alongside Private Woods’ General Service Medal and Mention in Despatches certificate.

And finally, a bonus object!

A Stick!

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The Stick

And finally, a bonus object!

Every museum collection has items that have been ‘found in the collection’ or have been found in a storeroom and have done nothing but baffle the collections staff. In my previous job, we had a ‘glass rod’ and found a box lid containing five old lightbulbs. Were the lightbulbs part of the collection or were they just left on a shelf in the storeroom and forgotten about by some maintenance workers?

At the Suffolk Regiment Museum, we have a stick! Yes, we have a piece of a tree!

General Sir Thomas Picton was the most senior Army officer to die at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Picton began his Army career by obtaining an Ensign’s commission in the 12th Regiment of Foot (later the Suffolk Regiment) in 1771. He was stationed with the regiment at Gibraltar before transferring to the 75th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Prince of Wales’s Regiment, in January 1778.

On 18th June 1815, at Waterloo, Picton launched a bayonet charge on the advancing French column. While repulsing the attack with a rapid charge – his last words said to be “Charge! Charge! Hurrah! Hurrah!” – he was shot in the hip by a musket ball and sustained a grievous wound.

This stick is supposed to be a piece of the tree under which Picton’s body was laid after his death, but I’ll let you make up your own minds about that!

Visit Suffolk Regiment Museum

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Visitors can discover the story of the Regiment, across the nearly 300 years in peace and war, through a treasure trove of artefacts including uniforms, medals, weapons and artefacts at the museum which has been redecorated and new lighting installed installing new lighting.

The museum is open to visitors on XXXX

Admission to the museum is free, but donations are welcome.

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