The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Ethiopian Study Visit - Saturday 19th March 2011
Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding) Museum
Given by - organised by Gill Davies
Reviewed by - Gill Davies and Anne Parsons
In mid March the Anglo-Ethiopian Society was lucky enough to visit the Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding) Museum in Halifax. It was a fascinating experience and although the number of people attending was small it attracted both members and non-members.
The Wellington museum is housed within Calderdale Council's Bankfield Museum, the building once being the superb home of Colonel Edward Akroyd, a local textile magnate. It contains the historical collections of the 33rd West Yorkshire Regiment and includes those associated with the Abyssinian Campaign and the Battle of Magdala (1868). Mr John Spencer is the Military Curator and was kind enough to spend the afternoon talking to us and showing us the relevant items.
The 33rd regiment was formed by amalgamating several other regiments with a semiprivate army in 1740 under the leadership of General Cornwallis; leadership did not pass to the Duke of Wellington until 1786. The regiment took part in the India Campaign 1796-1810, the Battle of Waterloo 1815, the Crimean wars 1854-6, the Abyssinian Campaign 1867-8, and subsequently the South Africa Campaign and other theatres of war including both World Wars and Korea. The regiment remained based in Halifax until 1960.
There are showcases with descriptions and memorabilia from these wars, including campaign, long service and good conduct medals. Of note is the award of the Victoria Cross to Private James Bergin and Drummer Michael Magner of the 33rd for their part in being the first to enter the closed walled city of Magdala by climbing the Kafir Bir gate. The museum owns the VC of Private Bergin although we were told that several of the medals on display were replicas, the originals being held in the museum strong boxes!
Amongst the items in a showcase devoted to the Abyssinian Campaign were an elaborate embroidered velvet throne cloth (the stones had been removed) acquired by a Captain in the 33rd, and given to the museum in 1949; an open reed network shirt, said to belong to Theodore as well as his ammunition belt with three pouches for bamboo containers; a letter from Theodore; and photographs of drums. Unrelated to Magdala we enjoyed looking at the Duke of Wellington's hat, boots, carrying box, lamps, and his bed in a campaign tent.
Following this introduction we went to the education room. Society members John and Jean Broadbent had brought several books and maps from their private collection for us to see. John and Jean have a particular interest in Magdala as John's great grandfather, Colour Sergeant John McGrath, fought in the campaign and they have lectured on this to the Society (News File Spring 2003). Also on display from the Museum's collection was the three-volume record of the expedition by Holland (Bombay Staff Corps) and Hozier (Third Dragoon Guard), compiled by the Secretary of State for War and published in 1870; the third volume is most interesting being photographs. We were able to inspect the report carefully, and to be amazed at the detailed planning that was done in preparation for the campaign down to the weight of chillies needed for the Sikh soldiers!! John Spencer then talked to us about the military aspects of the campaign with special reference to the chaos of the Crimea and how modifications were made which influenced the tactics, uniforms and weaponry used in Abyssinia.
A selection of uniform items from various dates were displayed including shell jackets made of serge or dyed cotton (scarlet red for officers and brick red for others with special metal facings depending on rank); heavy grey shirt and dark blue trousers (not suitable for the tropics); Indian Army heavy greatcoat; hobnailed boots; and waist belts with ammunition cartridge, plus pouch on the back. John specifically pointed out one part of the kit used in the Crimea - a knapsack consisting of a inner wooden box with outer leather cover - and encouraged us to load it onto our backs. It was extremely heavy, even empty, and by the time the troops were marching through Abyssinia modifications had been made so that personal supplies were tied up on the back in a greatcoat which was then worn at night for warmth - much more efficient. We were delighted when John talked about and dressed up in all this gear.
The infantry were accompanied by cavalry and artillery; officers in addition had a sword, carbine (easier to use on horseback) and pistol; double-barrelled shotguns were used by the lower ranks. One of the great advances since the Crimea war was the repeating Snider-Enfield rifles and these were used by the British Army for the first time in Abyssinia. Muzzle loaded rifles were converted to breach loaders with a percussion cap such that 10 to 15 shots could be fired per minute with a range up to 1000 yards. Bayonets were used as defensive weapons. These weapons were displayed for us together with demonstrations as to how they were managed, loaded with ammunition and fired. The weaponry used by the 33rd was much better than that the Abyssinians possessed which was mainly Sudanese style sword and shield and middle-loading muskets and flintlock weapons. In particular the Snider-Enfield rifles were a great advantage on the Aroje plateau and while breaching the parapet at the gate to Magdala. Rocket batteries from the Royal Navy and howitzers were carried on mules and elephants and played an important part in the success of the campaign. Richard Snailham and John Blashford-Snell have described well the details of the battle in their Guide to Magdala.
All present had a most interesting, informative and enjoyable afternoon. We are very grateful to John and Jean Broadbent for bringing a lot of background material for us to look at and especially to John Spencer from the Museum for his infectious and enthusiastic approach to museum studies.