Aldershot, Hampshire: Army Medical Services Museum

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Wow. I knew the Army Medical Services Museum was at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot (despite having no idea how to pronounce “Keogh”), but somehow I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary official.  I found out about this place a long time ago, but its opening hours (9:30-3:30 on weekdays, closed weekends) and inaccessibility by public transport kept me from visiting it until now.  I wouldn’t recommend unemployment, but it sure has freed up a lot of time for me and my boyfriend to do stuff like this (too bad most of it has to be free.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?).  Well, the museum is free, but clearly I didn’t read their website thoroughly enough, because I didn’t realise I’d have to go through a full-on ID-flashing security check in order to get in.

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The museum building is actually IN the barracks, as in, it’s part of this big military compound, so you have to go past a checkpoint staffed by a number of armed soldiers to visit it.  And I don’t generally carry a picture ID on me (because I don’t drive and I’m hella old, so there’s usually no need, at least in the UK), so I was frantically riffling through my wallet to find something to give the unsmiling guard.  All I came up with was a bank card, which he fortunately accepted, since we’d driven almost an hour to get there.  A few questions later (dunno why he asked my boyfriend what his job was but not me…sexist much?), we were deemed no danger and granted passes to see the museum.  After all that, I was pleasantly surprised that the museum staff seemed pretty laid-back (and not bothered about us taking pictures).  We were the only visitors, other than some people doing research in the library (open to anyone if you make an appointment first).

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The building didn’t look all that big from the outside, but the galleries wrapped around in such a way that they managed to fit a whole lot in there (and plenty of delightful mannequin-filled dioramas).  It covered the history of army medicine from the English Civil War to the present day, although the largest displays were devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars 1 and 2.  And oh man, did they have some cool stuff in here.

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An English doctor tended to Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena (I have a weird desire to visit St. Helena; something about isolated places appeals to me enormously, though I could not actually live somewhere without a steady supply of Belgian milk chocolate, pecorino cheese, and books), and he brought back a razor used on Ol’ Boney, and a dental kit used to remove a couple of his wisdom teeth.  (Apparently Napoleon insisted on having his teeth pulled whilst he was seated on the floor, which made an already difficult job even tougher.  I’m just glad I got knocked out when I had my wisdom teeth out.  The thought of someone cracking my teeth in half while I was conscious gives me the creeps.)

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If a soldier deserted back in the day (during peacetime, I would assume, since usually they just executed you in wartime), he would be branded with a letter “D,” so everyone would know and thus punish him more harshly for any future infractions.  They also had a “B” and a “C” for bad conduct (which I would probably have ended up with; not sure if they gave you the “B” and the “C” or just one or the other).  Rather than an actual brand, or a proper tattoo though (which wouldn’t have been so bad, the tattoo anyway), they would use this device with a bunch of thick needles in the shape of the needed letter, jam that into your skin all at once, and then rub India ink into the wound.  In addition to the needles they used, they had an actual piece of skin here taken from a (dead) soldier, so you could see what it looked like.  I don’t know how long the soldier lived with that tattoo for, but that ink sure stayed black (being located under the armpit probably helped, since it wouldn’t see much sun).

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Around the time of the Boer Wars, soldiers would swallow half pennies (ha’pennies) to try to get out of active duty (not sure how that would get you out of anything anyway, I would think shooting off a toe would be more effective), so the army doctors devised a hook device to reach down the throat and fish them out.  Having once had a singularly unpleasant nasal scope (and that was with a soft flexible tube that only went down my throat, rather than a metal hook to the stomach), I think I would have rather just taken my chances on the front lines.

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Oh, they had a bunch of Florence Nightingale stuff here too, including sketches of the hospital in Scutari, and the medal the nurses that served with her were given (at her insistence, Victoria was all for awarding only Florence).

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There was a whole separate gallery for the WWI artefacts, which I was pretty keen on after spending so much time researching various soldiers for the Carved in Stone project I volunteer on (not a medic among my bunch, unfortunately, though I do have some pretty interesting guys nonetheless), but there wasn’t a whole lot in here.

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More promising was the WWI section in the main gallery, and the whole wall about facial reconstruction in the last gallery.  There were any number of poignant objects on display, including a violin covered with the signatures of a soldier’s dead comrades, and a soldier doll + letter that were rescued from an incinerator.

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WWII got its own gallery (well, corridor) as well, and it was surprisingly full of teeth, thanks to the Royal Army Dental Corps collection being in here too. (The RADC didn’t form until 1921, although there was obviously a need for it well beforehand, and dental officers began to be commissioned during WWI).  Rudolf Hess was originally held prisoner in a house nearby before being shipped off to Spandau Prison, so they had some of his dentures, as well as a mould taken of his teeth (they were nasty looking specimens too).  Also, in one of the Japanese prison camps, they apparently went along the line of POWs knocking out the front teeth of each soldier with a rifle butt, so the poor men had to fashion dentures from whatever was lying around the camps, and those were in here too (this museum is not for the faint-hearted, in case you haven’t figured that out by now).

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And I musn’t forget about the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, whose collections are also included here.  The museum had a huge case full of medals (lots of Victoria crosses, which I learned are all made from the same lump of metal. They even had the first one, which was given to Queen Victoria herself), which included medals given to army dogs for their valuable service in bomb detection.  And there was a pretty cool shoe intended for a camel (not sure how well putting it on him would have gone down.  Camels are feisty).

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The galleries finished with some cases about army medicine in modern conflicts (the Falklands, Afghanistan, etc), and a cool display about tropical diseases which included a giant tsetse fly.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the offerings here.  I wasn’t expecting much, going by their website, but they had legitimately fascinating and important historical objects in here, and lots of them at that!  Their opening hours and the whole entry procedure is kind of a pain, but it’s worth the effort (the guard when we were leaving was much friendlier (perhaps because we were no longer seen as a potential threat), and pointed out the rough location of the Rudolf Hess house out to us).  I love medical history, and though I usually prefer medical museums with jarred specimens, there’s just something about army medicine that captures my interest (probably the sheer severity of the injuries, which is why I have a particular fascination with the pioneering reconstructive surgeries done during WWI), and this place does a great job of showing the evolution of the AMS from the 1600s to the present day.  4/5.

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2 comments

  1. Amazing stuff! Those are probably the best mannequins I’ve seen – miles better than the usual stiff-armed/dead-gaze lot. And I loved that “D” tattoo. I feel very sorry for the guy who owned it, but it’s really quite a nice font.

    They should’ve let you keep that hat – it’s very fetching 🙂

    1. Yes, I particularly liked the fierce Civil War soldier who greeted us when we walked in. Thanks for the compliment, it’s so hard to find hats that suit me (outside of museums, of course. I do pretty well if there’s a decent dress-up bin)! I suspect it was child-sized though; it was rather tight.

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