The home of the Museum of the Infantry Regiments of Berkshire and Wiltshire is The Wardrobe* – one of the splendid 15th century buildings on The Close that surround Salisbury Cathedral.
For that reason, and because British Army regiments have a habit of amalgamating, merging, emerging and disappearing (!) you’ll find it variously refered to as just “The Wardrobe”, or “The Royal Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments’ Museum” or “The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum”; the Rifles** regiment being the latest iteration.
The museum occupies the ground floor of The Wardrobe and the collection covers the Wiltshire Regiment, The Royal Berkshire Regiment, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, and the Rifles, so a period from 1748 to today.
A walk through the galleries doesn’t start in 1748 though. It starts with a model diorama of the beachfront on Juno Beach at Bernières-sur-Mer where the Royal Berkshires came ashore and directed operations. I love a good model, and this is a good model! On the wall above it; the actual name sign of Bernières Cafe that features in the model. Most military museums feature a fair amount of “liberated” memorabilia and this museum is no different.
The next section features some poignant letters and personal items from soldiers and families caught up in the Great War, and then the journey through the handful of small galleries is chronological order, starting in the 18th century when the soldiers of the Wiltshire regiment were Redcoats, deployed to America carrying muskets but not swords (their bayonets were long enough for that role) and their drummer boys wore mitre caps.
The galleries move on to display uniforms, weapons and historic artefacts from a number of deployments and battles in the 19th century, including the Battle of Ferozeshah in India in 1845 (62nd Wiltshire Regiment), the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan in 1880 (66th Berkshire Regiment), and in 1885 the Battle of Tofrek*** in Sudan (1st BN Berkshire Regiment, after which it became the “Royal Berkshire Regiment”).
There’s a step change in the 20th century as machine guns replace muzzle-loading flintlocks & the single shot Martin-Henry rifle of the Boer War campaigns. The Royal Berkshire & Wiltshire regiments served in the trenches in WW1, in particular at Passchendaele where machine guns took their toll.
Simon Cook, the museum’s Manager and Curator, looks at the Maxim (German) and Vickers (British) machine guns on display and talks about their significance for infantry regiments.
“When the First World War started there were two Vickers machine guns per battalion, that’s per 800 men in round numbers. At the end of the war there were 48.”
In WW2, the Royal Berkshire Regiment raised eleven battalions of which six saw service in France, North West Europe, Italy, Sicily and Burma. Two battalions of the Wiltshire’s six saw action at Normandy, on operation Market-Garden, and in Germany. Many artifacts from those campaigns appear in the last galleries, and from the Cold War when in 1959 the two regiments were amalgamated into the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment. Now, amongst the displays, we see uniforms and equipment designed for an era of chemical, biological and nuclear warfare.
The regiments were merged again in 1994, with the Gloucestershire Regiment to create the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, and then in 2007 they were diluted once again, this time with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, the Royal Green Jackets and The Light Infantry to form a new large regiment, The Rifles, and the displays feature photographs, souvenirs and equipment from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The museum does a good job of highlighting the campaigns of the regiments without trying to concentrate too much on the mergers and changes the regiments went through, which would surely loose even the most dedicated visitor. This approach demonstrates how ‘global’ the regiments have been. Throughout their history the Wiltshire & Berkshire regiments seemed to always be the ones sent to trouble spots in the furthest flung corners of the the British Empire or its areas of interest – America & Canada, the Northwest Frontier (India), Afghanistan (twice!), Sudan, South Africa, Burma, etc.
Their proud record in these remote places, is revealed in the ‘trophy room’, where the medals and trophies of the regiments are displayed, including a cabinet of eight Victoria Crosses.
The room also has the uniform of General Sir Miles Dempsey (Royal Berkshire Regiment) who won the Military Cross in the First World War, and then, in the Second World War, went on to command the 13th Infantry Brigade at Dunkirk, the 13 Corps invasions at Sicily and Italy, and the Second British Army at Normandy and into Germany, before moving to the Far East where he commanded the 14th Army during the re-occupation of Singapore and Malaya. Quite a soldier!
So who is this museum for?
Well, I’m sure it attracts some families and tourists visiting Salisbury. Of course there is a small shop and they have made some effort to keep kids amused with a dressing up area of uniforms & guns, but I think this is really an archive for those with a special interest in military history and time on their hands to closely examine the collection for nuggets. The collection has over 34,000 items of which only around 1,200 are on display, with the rest in reserve storage. However, for those researching history, many of the items in the collection, particularly images and documents, have been digitised for research online.
Declaration: I was visiting on a press trip to the area organised by Visit Wiltshire.
* Curator, Simon Cook, thinks the building was first marked out about 1254 but it first appears in the records in 1424. It was named ‘The Wardrobe’ in 1542, and then remained in the hands of the bishop and clergy till WW2 when it was commandeered for the Army. The Regiment acquired the Wardrobe in 1979 and opened the museum in 1982.
** Rifles is one of the 19 regiments & units that make up the Infantry. They are: Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards, Welsh Guards, London Regiment, Royal Regiment of Scotland, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Royal Anglian Regiment, Yorkshire Regiment, Mercian Regiment, Royal Welsh, Royal Irish Regiment, Parachute Regiment, Royal Gurkha Rifles, Rifles, and Royal Gibraltar Regiment.
*** Interesting. The report on the Battle of Tofrek was the first time dispatches were sent by telegraph. Before that. news of vitory or defeat was sent on paper by ship back to London.
The The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum
The Wardrobe, 58 The Close, Salisbury, SP1 2EX
Getting there couldn’t really be easier. Catch a train or bus or drive to the centre of Salisbury and walk to the Cathedral Close. The Wardrobe is on the NE side of the Close.
Child (5-16yrs): £3.00
Child (under 5yrs): Free
Family Ticket (1-2 Adults, up to 3 children): £15.00
Groups (10+): 1 x FREE per 10 people
Entrance is free for Serving members of UK & Allied Armed Forces, Members of Regimental Associations of former regiments, and the close relatives of those who died serving former regiments or in the Rifles.
There is a large (half acre) garden at the back of the house that runs down to the river and contains some historic items incuding a mulberry tree given by King Charles II in 1660.
Garden Only: £2.00
Garden Season Ticket £5.00
Summer (Feb-Nov): Mondays – Saturdays 10am-5pm (Last Admission 4.15pm)
Winter (Dec & Jan): Closed