Magazine article History Today

Durham Light Infantry Museum

Magazine article History Today

Durham Light Infantry Museum

Article excerpt

* North of the spectacular Norman cathedral on its great rock above the River Wear in the heart of Durham, a hideous 1960s building squats in pleasant parkland as home to a story of courage and comradeship. Asked if the building functions well as a museum, the Curator, Stephen Shannon, enigmatically declines to say, but he presides over one of the most evocative regimental museums in the country.

The Durham Light Infantry Museum opened in 1966, coincidentally the same year as the regiment's colours were paraded for the last time and laid up in the cathedral, and its long record on forgotten frontiers and in distant wars passed away at last with the sound of bugles into history. The building doubles as an art gallery with no permanent collection, but a programme of temporary exhibitions, which help to draw up to 40,000 visitors a year to the museum itself.

The museum, Mr Shannon says, has a loyal core of followers. About 600 people have season tickets and there is a regular programme of talks and lectures, which include reminiscences by old soldiers. Special exhibitions, band concerts and military vehicle rallies swell the numbers. Tourists come in the summer and there is a busy traffic in school parties now that the national curriculum includes the two World Wars. The school programme is object-based, involving handling real pieces of the past.

The museum's objects came from the regiment originally and the collection still belongs to the regimental trustees, though the museum depends on the county council financially. It continues to accumulate material, mostly in the form of medals. From the glittering set of drums at the entrance and the massive silver Lahore Trades cup, won in india long ago by a DLI football side, it conducts you through the three centuries since the 68th Regiment of Foot was formed in 1758, raised by General John Lambton of Lambton Castle, County Durham, of a notable

Converted to light infantry in 1808, the 68th saw arduous service in the Peninsular War, winning its earliest battle honours at Salamanca and Victoria. It saw action in the Crimean War at Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, fought fought the Maoris in New Zealand in the 1860s. In 1881 the 68th was joined by the 106th, originally an East India Company unit, to form the Durham Light Infantry which fought in Egypt, the Sudan and South Africa in the Boer War.

The regiment recruited almost entirely in County Durham and its soldiers came mainly from Durham coal-mining stock - short, stocky, muscular, tough-minded young men who disappeared into the ground at a rate of knots when digging trenches in the First World War. Even so, close to 13,000 Durhams were killed on the Western Front, with thousands more wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. In the Second World War battalions of the DLI were everywhere: at Dunkirk, in North Africa, in Sicily and Italy, in Burma and in Europe from D-Day to the end. The regiment later fought in Korea and finally in Borneo.

Some of the museum's oldest relics of this long and honourable career, oddly enough, are hats. The leather Lambton Cap is the oldest surviving item from the original 68th, with the regimental motto 'Faithful' on a brass plate in front. There is a very rare Durham Militia officer's grenadier cap of about 1760, with a painting of the officer who wore it, Crosier Surtees (1739-1803, of another well-known Durham county family, and himself a thoroughly bad hat, by all accounts), and some amazingly furry Staindrop Cavalry hats. …

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