From taking on the Armada to guarding a troubled king: all in a day’s work for Berwick Barracks

Berwick Barracks 01

Berwick-upon-Tweed Barracks and Main Guard is deceptively large and houses no fewer than three museums. As I had limited time, I elected to visit the Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, followed by the ‘By Beat of Drum’ exhibition.

The Museum is compact, fun and aimed at all ages and I spent a happy half hour in there learning about Berwick’s rich history as a border town. I liked its narrow, cobbled alleyways, designed to make you feel as though you are wandering Berwick itself and the quirky ‘Window on Berwick’ display. It was also interesting finding out about this Georgian market town as a seaside resort and its on-going place at the heart of the British salmon fishing industry (hence why debtors were paid to make fishing nets).

As I say, a fun half hour and somewhere you could definitely take children. I spent longer, though, in the ‘By Beat of Drum’ exhibition, which focuses on the changing life of the British infantryman across the centuries. Bear with me: the above may sound dry but it’s presented in an enlightening way – and I learned a lot. I’m going to share a few snippets, in the hope that you’ll feel as inspired as I was – and that you’ll seek out the Barracks for yourselves.

Before the regular army was established, Britain depended upon militia and small permanent garrisons in coastal forts, such as Berwick. It was militia who faced the Armada and militia regiments which occupied Berwick barracks throughout the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. Indeed, from the air, you can still see the clearly-defined 16th century defences of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

It was Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides who formed the New Model Army – England’s first-ever professional army. The NMA consisted of 40,000 well-disciplined, properly-equipped & trained and fairly regularly-paid soldiers, whose power at the end of the Civil Wars enabled Cromwell to rule the country – but who caused a lasting national dread of standing armies and military governments.

The New Model Army was disbanded when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, although he would be the first English monarch to maintain regular regiments in peacetime (something I’d learned during my visit tothe Household Cavalry Museum). The primary purpose of these regiments was to guard the king and maintain internal security, preventing a reoccurrence of civil war; they also acted as police and firemen.

When James II became king, in 1685, he rapidly expanded the army from 8,865 to 38,000 men. I was interested to learn that unlike his predecessor, or indeed any monarch since Mary Tudor, James was a fervent Roman Catholic – and immediately set about purging his Irish army of Protestants. His policies as a whole were unpopular, however, and in 1688 he was deposed by William III.

King James II of England
King James II of England

Moving into the 18th century and army conditions were tough for both officers and soldiers. This surprised me; I’d always assumed that officers had a far easier time of it. But no: most officers hailed from modest families without great wealth of influence. By the 1760s, one third of officers were Scots, a handful of Huguenot descent and others subalterns promoted from within the ranks.

Even more surprisingly, there was only one official military college, based at Woolwich. Cavalry and infantry officers had to learn their professions within their regiments or on campaign. In the meantime, their pay barely covered their living expenses and junior officers invariably found themselves in debt.

As for the soldiers, they were a mixed bunch. Criminals and paupers were often forcibly enlisted, whilst recruiting parties scoured the countryside, looking for suitable candidates from the yokel population. They, poor souls, were dazzled with tales of glory, good pay, rapid promotion and large enlistment bounties (those bounties were, in fact, spent on uniforms, equipment and expenses incurred by the recruiting parties). The reality was that soldiers began their military careers in debt and with no place to call home; they were billeted in taverns and inns and hated by landlords.

A hard life – and harsh punishments were used to obtain total obedience: beatings, imprisonment in the Black Hole, riding the Wooden Horse and, in severe cases, hanging or shooting. Unsurprisingly, drunkenness was rife and soldiers sold their uniforms and even their muskets to buy drink – and desertion was common, despite the threat of execution if caught.

See what I mean about interesting? The above is just a snapshot of the Barracks content; there is much more to learn and the exhibition concludes with a interesting segment on ‘Marlborough’s Wars’: focused on John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough – affectionately known as ‘Old Corporal’ thanks to his unfailing care for the men in his ranks.

When I return, I shall visit ‘The King’s Own Scottish Borderers Museum’, which invites you into the Officers’ Mess to find out about the social, political and economic issues that affected ex-servicemen after World War One.

Berwick Barracks 02

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