ABSORBING tales of heroism and bravery from Oxfordshire soldiers through the ages will be made public this weekend with the opening of a multi-million pound museum.
The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum will open its £3.2m purpose-built premises by the Oxfordshire Museum, in Woodstock, at 2pm on Sunday to the sound of the Oxford Caledonian Pipe Band.
The occasion will mark the culmination of more than a decade of planning to offer a permanent home for military collections, including those from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI), the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and The Rifles.
Museum director Ursula Corcoran
The museum charts the history of the regiments, including the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot (which later amalgamated with the 43rd to become the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry) at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the 2nd Ox and Bucks at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and the Oxfordshire Yeomanry discovering the horrors of the Holocaust when they liberated the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1945 The museum’s director, 44-year-old Ursula Corcoran, paid tribute to the efforts of the volunteers and staff that helped to bring the project to fruition.
She said: “I think the efforts and work of the volunteers and staff has been absolutely incredible, both from the established staff and new members who haven’t had museum experience.”
Until now, Oxfordshire has been without a military museum which allowed easy access for members of the public.
The OBLI collections were housed in Cowley Barracks, in Oxford, until it closed in 1959. From there they went from Slade Park Territorial Army base, which closed in 2008, to Ministry of Defence premises in Caversfield, just outside Bicester.
They have now finally moved into their new home after the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Trust, which was formed in 2000, was tasked with bringing archive material under one roof.
Funds needed to drive the project forward were raised from private donors from within two of the regiments after a failed Heritage Lottery Fund bid 10 years ago.
Miss Corcoran said: “The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and Oxfordshire Yeomanry realised that together they would be in a strong position to get more support and to make it an accessible museum to cover the stories and conflicts.”
It is hoped the facility will also appeal to schools, educational groups and families who want to explore their ancestors’ military past, as well as to military historians and aficionados.
Miss Corcoran said: “The enthusiasm and desire to bring these collections into a purpose-built museum is something that the trust and the people involved were all really behind.
“They had to no longer be inward looking, but be outward looking. The challenge now is to maintain that outward looking position so we have things which appeal to a wide audience like schools and families.”
The collections include 3,500 objects and 7,500 archive items which date back to the late 18th century.
As well as regimental collections from the two World Wars and Napoleonic conflicts, there are also documents from lesser-known events like the New Zealand War of 1864 and military intervention in Brunei after a revolt in 1962.
These include weapons, clothing, flags, musical instruments, regimental silver, personal memoirs, diaries, letters and photographs.
Harry Staff has been a military historian with the Oxfordshire Yeomanry Trust for 20 years.
He said: “We had a dream which has come to fruition.
“We are here, we have our museum, and we have protected and preserved our artefacts of the county regiments.
“It is a place where children can come to see what their grandads did.”
Themes of conflicts go on display
MANY men of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry would never forget the sight of thousands of corpses littered across Bergen-Belsen concentration camp which they liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945.
Their story is one of eight themed displays at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, which also includes displays on air power, modern warfare, battles, Sir Winston Churchill and the secret war.
The display on Bergen-Belsen features the experiences of George Leonard, a lance corporal in the Yeomanry who was one of those who came face-to-face with the macabre aftermath of Hitler’s final solution.
On the exhibition board he said: “Most of us feel like I do, we just wanted to block it off and shut it out.”
Among the displays is one on Winston Churchill.
Military historian Harry Staff with the Churchill exhibit
The former prime minster commanded the Henley-on-Thames squadron of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, a unit he had links with until his death in 1965.
Military historian for the Oxfordshire Yeomanry Trust, Harry Staff, said: “The Yeomanry really was a set of men who ruled.
“They included MPs and friends of kings. They not only ruled the county but also the country. They were men of empire.”
In a corner, opposite an imposing artillery piece, is a display on significant dates in the regiment’s history.
These include the 52nd Light Infantry’s heroic defence of Hougoumont Farm on June 18, 1815, during the Battle of Waterloo. It was an action which made the television screens in the finale of the TV series Sharpe.
Museum assistant Josephine Neil, 32, said the display entitled Blood War, would appeal to younger generations by focusing on the ‘yucky’ side of war, like trench foot, latrines and lice.
She said: “This is looking at the yucky stuff. I thought it would be something to capture the imagination of children. It gets to grips with the harsh realities of what war is actually like.”
There is also the remarkable story of Bernard ‘Pop’ Green included in the display on prisoners. At the age of 57, the 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Territorial Buckinghamshire Battalion was the oldest of 76 Allied prisoners of war to escape from Stalag Luft III – a breakout made famous in the film The Great Escape.
Exhibition gives unique insight into horrors of great war
A CENTURY on from the carnage of the First World War, the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum will offer a unique insight into the role the county’s heroes played in the conflict.
The museum will host the first part of the Oxfordshire Remembers 1914-1918 exhibition, which includes the wartime experiences of those who served with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI) and Oxfordshire Yeomanry.
It will open to the public on August 4 for a year, and will include details of where the units fought in the first three years of the war. The second part of the exhibition will open in 2017.
The museum’s fundraising assistant Kate Burrows looks at an ejector seat
The museum’s First World War centenary project manager, Stephen Barker, 49, said: “The main thing to say is that it is focused on people’s stories, mostly from the OBLI and the Yeomanry.
“But there is also a nurse and also Oxford men who fought in other regiments.
“I have also tried not to focus too much on the Western Front, where there is always a lot of emphasis.”
The exhibition will include the 1st Battalion of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, which was the first Territorial Army unit to embark for war and the first to see action in 1914 south of the Belgian town of Ypres.
There is the story of the 1st Battalion OBLI which became prisoners of the Ottoman Empire after surrendering at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia in 1916. Of the 400 taken captive, just 71 survived captivity.
It will also include the tale of the 2nd Battalion OBLI which fought vicious hand-to-hand combat with the Prussian Guard at Nonne Bosschen, also known as Nun’s Wood, which prevented a German breakthrough near Ypres on November 11, 1914.