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Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum (London)

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Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum is a military museum in Woolwich in south-east London, England, which tells the story of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and of the Royal Arsenal. The museum is located in some of the former buildings of the Royal Arsenal, which was the British Government's principal ordnance manufacturing facility from the early 18th century until the mid 20th century. Since the turn of the millennium the Royal Arsenal site has been undergoing a mixed use redevelopment, and Firepower is one of the anchor features of this project.

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      13.01.2002 00:26
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      Bang bang you're dead! We used to play that at primary school. We all used to walk around the playground at the start of playtime in a long line, all linked arms and pally, singing, "Who wants to play...WAR!" Then we'd pick sides and one lot would be the Germans and the other the Allies. Or the English because that's how it always was. When you're 9 it doesn't matter, does it. You had no concept of arch nationalism or lebensraum or hate even, unless you were being made to suffer some kind perverse religious indoctrination. You didn't like Pete because he smelled of wee but if he had David Sadler or Peter Lawler footy cards he was instantly your mate again. Of course, no-one ever really died when you played war because you counted to ten and you got up again. Oh, would that the world was that simple. Would that conflict was that simple. Two sides ranged up against each other, each representing a whole nation's interest, whether the nation at large really knew what was happening or not, and then they proceeded to beat the crap out of each other with pointy sticks or with whatever was to hand. Loads of blood and disembowelling and whoever was left standing at the end got the lot. Very simple. Could have played cards really, no-one would have got hurt and the result would have been the same. But noooo! No kudos involved in playing cards although I daresay the fortune of many a nation has been wagered on the turn of a card at one time or another. No, indeed. Much better to prove your might as a nation by showing that you could be nasty and aggressive. You get respect like that. Nobody'll diss you 'cos you'll bite back. The bigger and sharper the teeth, the bigger bite you can take as well. Thus the advent of artillery. Light the blue touchpaper and retire five paces. Instant empire. Get something big, hot and heavy to do the donkey work, preferably with as much damage as possible in the p
      rocess and you're onto a winner. It's ok lobbing rocks at the enemy but the potential for damage is rather limited unless you score a direct hit. Hollow out the rock or cast an iron ball with a hollow middle, fill it with a mix of potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal, attach a fuse and then lob it at the enemy and you have death and destruction on a scale early armies could never have foreseen. The moment the Chinese discovered the formula for gunpowder in the 9th century the world was changed irrevocably. There would not be a single aspect of society left unaffected by this invention and its introduction into Europe in the 14th century. Like it or not, warfare and the weapons involved affect us all. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Whether you agree or not with its prosecution, the history of warfare is always a fascinating one. The story of weapons and armaments even more so. The ingenuity and technical excellence involved in the art of mass killing and wholesale destruction is awesome. Sometimes it's even quite breathtaking. Firepower is one of London's newest museums. It's the museum of the Royal Artillery and is housed in two buildings in one of London's least known and formerly most secretive corners, the big white bit on any old map or A to Z between the A206 and the Thames that is known as the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. It's a pretty apt location, the Arsenal being an ex-armaments factory and the original home of the Royal Military Acadamy. It's a vast site, goodness knows how big. Woolwich, with its Tudor naval connections always had ordnance stores and the first building on the site, the Tower House (no longer there) dates back to 1545 and was in an area known as the Warren. The remote (at that time) location was ideal for the manufacture and proofing of guns which started in the 1650s. Proofing involves the testing at over-design pressure and had until then taken place in the city
      of London. In 1671, 31 acres were bought by the Crown as ordnance stores. Soon the Royal Laboratories were built and following an explosion during a demonstration at a foundry in Moorfields, the Royal Brass Foundry was established. the "Royal" status for the arsenal comes from a visit by George III in 1805. There are more Georgian buildings in Woolwich than in Bath. Did you know that? I could spend hours typing out the history of the place. Suffice to say that during WW1 it employed 80 000 people including huge numbers of women. That's more than could sit in Wembley before it shut. Pretty impressive. It closed in 1967 and the site has remained largely unused although I do recall that it was used as storage space for several museums. It is now being rehabilitated as a leisure and housing amenity. The Greenwich Borough Heritage Centre is also being constructed alongside Firepower and this with the rejuvenation of the area will bring much a much needed boost to a district which can at best be described as shabby. The museum itself is still being developed. The main hall is largely finished and contains the main galleries, more of which in a moment. Across the way in a building which was once a bullet factory supplying ammunition for the Boer war, is the other main hall housing the "Monster Bits" collection. As its name suggests, this is the place where the big stuff is. The tanks, armoured guns and other heavy artillery pieces. Sadly, I'm unable to give you much information about this as it's not as yet open. The admission price includes admission to Monster Bits when it is finally opened in the late spring so be sure to retain your ticket. On entering the museum you are told that there will be a short introductory film shown in The Breech Cinema to be followed by another called the Gunner Experience in the Field of Fire. The first is a seven minute introduction to the museum and an explanation of t
      he role of artillery through the ages. The second is more surprising and really sums up the ethos of the museum. It's a quite impressive presentation of actual voiced quotes, nothing else, from real gunners from the second world war up until the recent Balkan conflicts. This is presented backed by film of actual artillery action from these theatres. Four screens are utilised, two at each end of the central standing area each showing the same film. Around you are tableaux incorporating actual hardware and and these are highlighted according to the action portayed on the screens. The ground shakes and the air is rent by huge crashes and smoke surrounds you. All the time the poignant quotations bring home the absolute futility of it all. The pictures, often harrowing, only serve to reinforce the notion that not even soldiers want to go to war. You are warned that you may not wish to let your youngsters see this but I had my 10 and 7 year old with me. I let them; it's important that they don't see warfare as another computer game. People don't get up and walk away when they've been hit by 88mm shells. You leave the presentation and re-enter the main display area called the Gunnery Hall. You may have been walking around this waiting for the film to start. I guarantee you'll come back and view the displays from a different viewpoint. The main elements of the display are purely hardware. Guns, rocket launchers and some interactive displays. There is a danger here of them being seen as computer games but they have been done in such a way as to make them factual, with only enough game element to get the kids' interests. There is a curtained off area where you can fire a real automatic rifle (adapted to fire electronic rounds but the effect is the same) but this costs a couple of quid and I didn't think it was worth it. There is a small cinema showing a film about the modern artillery and every now and again there is a tu
      multuous crash as the sounds of warfare are played at ear splitting volume. This doesn't go on all the time, by the way - only sporadic bursts! Above the main gunnery display is the History Gallery. This is the most fascinating part of the museum in my view. You might be able to influence the future but you can't change the past. Better look at it and learn. Some of the pieces on display are quite beautifully made, especially the Sikh guns and the falconet, a light carriage gun from around the time of the civil war. There are mortars dating back to the 14th century and some early Chinese pieces called t'ungs one of which even bears a date (1409) and a manufacturing number, indicative of early mass production maybe? Who said the industrial revolution began in Ironbridge? There is a lot of history here, far too much to be mentioned in this opinion and it is without exception totally engrossing and you feel strangely guilty in your childlike fascination with this appalling subject. The medal gallery, including impressive displays from the RA's collection of over 7000 decorations with even actual citations for some of the 62 Victoria Crosses awarded to the regiment many of which are on display, is annexed to the History Gallery. The stories of selfless bravery and gallantry on display are often awesome in their simplicity. Heroic acts of bravery sometimes reduced to a mere few lines but to the soldier the last reward he would have expected would not to have been remembered as a hero but as doing his job. In a sense, the medals are for us; another reminder of the nature of conflict. The kids enjoyed, if that is right word, the Real Weapons Gallery. The term "real weapon" refers to the actual painful bit. The missile, ammunition, bullet, shell whatever, not the means of propelling it towards its target. There are many interactive displays covering ranging, trajectory, windage (the effect of the gap between barrel an
      d projectile) and target acquisition. There is a very clever display involving a real 105mm howitzer and a computer screen demonstrating the theory of indirect fire, that is when your target is invisible or hidden. It also demonstrates the necessity of teamwork in these situations - you can control the angle of fire and bearing (translated into the gun really moving) acting on instructions from your team mate. Curiously satisfying when you see the target being blown to pieces on the video screen. There is also The James Clavell (yes, the Shogun author and ex - RA officer) library which is the archive of the RA. It contains many rare items including cadet notebooks, many of which contain watercolour paintings of military scenes. Drawing was taught to cadets as there were no textbooks and they were expected to make their own. As a result, many became good artists. There is a small but expensive cafeteria in the gunnery hall and the whole museum is well designed for wheelchair access although wheelchairs may find the long trundle across cobbled sets from the main entrance to the Arsenal to the museum a bit uncomfortable. The souvenir shop is well stocked and the staff very friendly. Admission prices are steep though. I was shocked at having to pay £15.50 for one adult and two kids (£6.50/£4.50). As I mentioned before, keep your ticket for re-admission into the "MonsterBits" gallery when it's opened. Access is good. Regular trains from Charing Cross serve Woolwich Arsenal station and the DLR and the Jubilee lines go to Greenwich a few miles up the road from there take a 161, 422 or 472 bus - Woolwich is a good local bus hub and the 53 will get you there from central London. Parking is a bit sparse in Woolwich and it has a nightmare town centre road system but the main roads are the A206 and the A205 (the south circular). That's it. I enjoyed it and will probably go back on my own to try and read more of the display
      literature which I found to be informative and thought provoking. The kids will get something out of it too as it is very child friendly, unlike its subject. Visit the website at www.firepower.org.uk. It's one of the best I've seen. Very comprehensive with some excellent educational support material relating to the national curriculum not to mention the chance to read about some of the exhibits undisturbed. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Remember: soldiers, not even the generals, don't make war. They act on our bidding. We allow the monsters who create the conditions for war into our lives by electing or supporting them. This museum, although supported wholeheartedly by one of history's most destructive regiments, is not a celebration of warfare, it's an illustration of man's awesome power and ability to destroy everything he holds dear, even himself. In the next decade, the range of rockets and guns will double. What does that mean for everyone?


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