With the Rifles to Waterloo
A large number of high-ranking officers and dignitaries attended the opening of the Battle of Waterloo Bicentenary Exhibition (sub-titled With The Rifles To Waterloo) at the Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum at Winchester on Wednesday 25th March.
The reception was held on the first floor in the new Learning Space, next to the Battle of Waterloo diorama, and guests were served with wine and canapés before the formalities began. Among those in attendance were such members of Lightbobs as General Bob Pascoe, Brigadier David Innes and Fiona, Brigadier Nigel Mogg and Tessa, and Lt Col George Elliott and Liz. Other guests from RGJ and antecedent regiments included Field Marshal Lord Bramall and Lt-Col Jan-Dirk von Merveldt, Asst Secretary of The Rifles London Office. There was also a guard of six members of the 2nd Bn 95th Regiment of Foot, a re-enactment group dressed in authentic Peninsula era uniforms. Two TV news crews were also there to cover the event.
In his witty speech of welcome which drew frequent roars of laughter, Lt General Sir Christopher Wallace, Chairman of the Museum’s Trustees, pointed out that the exhibition had cost £400,000 to mount, and he paid tribute to everyone - patron, vice-patrons, representatives of trusts and individuals - who responded to the Museum’s appeal and contributed so generously to raise a half of that amount. Of the remainder the Heritage Lottery Fund provided a grant of £100,000, and a further £100,000 was found from regimental and museum funds.
As well as the donors General Wallace paid tribute all those who had worked so hard to make sure that the exhibition opened on time. (‘We were still here at 7 last night putting the finishing touches to it’, he said) Among those he mentioned were journalist Kate Adie, who has provided the narration to the diorama - a phrase with which the General had some difficulty – (‘We’re going to get diarrhoea in here!’) and actor Jason Salkey, who played Rifleman Harris in the TV series Sharpe, and who recorded some voice-overs for the museum. They had both made a special effort to be present. General Wallace reserved special praise for Kelvin and Mary Thatcher who spent five months conserving the diorama by painstakingly removing the dust from all of the 30,500 figures. ‘All the volunteers worked extremely long hours meeting the demands of a difficult task-master’, admitted the General. ‘I have praised them, but their reward will come in Heaven!’
General Wallace finished by thanking the Duke of Wellington who had agreed to open the Exhibition.
The Duke said that he was truly delighted and honoured to be there, and as General Wallace had been too modest to say how good the exhibition was, he wanted to be the first to say how marvellous it was. He particularly liked the imaginative display of the Waterloo medals arranged to spell out the name of the battle.
The Duke pointed out that he was being invited to a large number of events this year, including a recent visit to an exhibition in Belgium which compares his ancestor with Napoleon, and one about the 1st Duke at the National Portrait Gallery which he recommended everyone should visit. He hoped that exhibitions such as this one will help to educate people about European history, which is important and which is not being well taught in schools these days. The Duke then declared the exhibition open.
Hanging on the wall beside the speakers was a large, pale blue bedsheet, which General Wallace reported as belonging to the Curator, Christine Pullen. This covered a large painting by artist Jason Askew, which the Museum Trust had commissioned. Introducing Jason, the General caused more amusement by saying, ‘You can see that Jason is dressed as an artist. I told him what to wear, but he has taken no notice!’ The General then also introduced Colonel George Smythe, President of the London branch of the RGJA, whose members had volunteered to raise the money to pay for the painting, and invited him to unveil it. Exhorted by the General to say a few words (‘but for Christ’s sake keep it short, George!’) Colonel Smythe expressed his pleasure at the honour, but said he had been told not to yank the sheet as the painting might come off the wall. Amid more laughter General Wallace retorted that, having spent £400,000 on the exhibition, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that would happen.
Naturally it didn’t, and everyone was able to admire the 6ft x 4ft painting, which depicts the French Imperial Guard being attacked by the 52nd Light Infantry with the 2nd/95th Rifles in support. The Duke of Wellington then took the opportunity, accompanied by General Wallace, to take a second, more detailed look at the battlefield diorama, which had greatly impressed him. In the corridor is a life-size figure of Sergeant Benjamin Harris aiming his rifle. Harris served in the Peninsula with the 95th Rifles and later wrote a memoir, The Recollections of Rifleman Harris. The character in Sharpe was based on the real-life Harris, and Jason Salkey, who has a website http://www.riflemanharris.co.uk/ devoted to his interest in Harris and the series, and who has recorded an audio book of The Recollections, was happy to pose for some photographs inspecting his character’s figure.
The Battle of Waterloo Bicentenary Exhibition is a splendid piece of work and worth every penny of its cost. It is a fitting tribute to the antecedent regiments of the Royal Green Jackets/The Rifles who fought and died in what the Duke of Wellington described in his speech as one of the most important battles in European history.
Article and photographs reproduced by kind permission of
Mr ROY BAILEY
Oxford Branch Newsletter Editor