Glimpse of front line lives

LYING on the table, looking utterly out of place beside the family-sized pack of Fox's biscuits, is a green, steel helmet, worn by soldiers in the First World War.

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The Royal Highland Fusiliers' Glasgow museum features fascinating exhibits and moving stories of courgae and bravery
The Royal Highland Fusiliers' Glasgow museum features fascinating exhibits and moving stories of courgae and bravery

Colonel Bobby Steele, west area secretary for the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the museum's manager, picks it up.

"It's incredibly heavy," he explains, handing it over to demonstrate.

"And uncomfortable... the men would pack it full of all sorts to make it easier to wear.

"Imagine being in the trenches, weighed down by kit and heavy clothes, and having this on your head..."

Tucked away at the Charing Cross end of Sauchiehall Street, the RHF museum is a revelation.

Housed in a complicated arrangement of townhouses (with an extension designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh) it's not like the super-interactive, touchy-feely museums that draw in visitors in 21st century Glasgow. (A move to more user-friendly premises within the next few years is on the cards).

But it's packed to the gunnels with interesting artefacts and fascinating stories, of daredevil soldiers and famous faces, all set against the backdrop of Glasgow and a city at war.

The Highland Light Infantry, considered 'Glasgow's regiment', merged with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, which recruited mainly from Ayrshire, in 1959 to become the The Royal Highland Fusiliers (Princess Margaret's Own Glasgow and Ayrshire Regiment).

In the First World War, they lost around 17,000 men and like many other regiments, played their part in battles which helped to save the day.

At the battle of Gheluvelt, for example, in October 1914, the regiment fought gallantly to prevent the Germans from breaking through to claim Ypres and the Channel ports, despite huge losses and heavy fighting.

"There are many similar examples in the regiment's history, of course, and the same is true of every regiment in Scotland," explains Colonel Steele.

"But RHF soldiers are second to none."

The museum tells the story of the regiment from its beginnings to the present day, but Colonel Steele is expecting an increase in the number of people visiting to learn about the First World War.

"We welcome everyone interested in the regiment, whether it's families interested about relatives or schools looking to learn more about Glasgow's role in the war," he says.

"Our museum is unique in the whole west of Scotland and it's an important resource for Glasgow."

Twenty members of the RHF have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and their stories form part of the exhibition.

Private George Wilson, for example, in the 2nd battalion HLI, went with a rifleman to locate a machine gun which was holding up the battalion's advance.

When the rifleman was killed, Private Wilson continued alone, shot six enemy soldiers, bayoneted the officer and captured the gun.

The VC was also awarded to Lt Colonel William Herbert Anderson, who commanded the 12th battalion.

In March 1918, near Maricourt in France, he and his men captured 12 machine guns and 70 prisoners.

Later that day, he led a second counter-attack but died, aged just 36, in battle. His death meant his parents had lost their fourth son in World War One.

Famous connections to the regiment include Hollywood actor David Niven, who served with the HLI in Malta for two years, and Winston Churchill, who commanded 6th Battalion RSF in 1915.

The Scots apparently warmed to the dour Englishman when he ordered dry socks for sentries who had been standing in the rain.

The regiment also included among its ranks an Olympic medal winner.

Captain Wyndham Halswelle, who won gold in the quarter-mile at the 1908 London Olympics, died in the First World War

Commanding his troops at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle, he was wounded by a sniper.

After receiving treatment he returned to his post only to be shot through the head by the same sniper.

The exhibition offers intriguing insights into what it must have been like for a young soldier on the front line.

Everyday objects like cutlery sets and mugs sit alongside guns and trench periscopes and more unusual items, like sphagnum moss and silkworm gut (used for antiseptic and stitching respectively).

The photographs on the walls, such as a group of men bidding farewell to wives and sweethearts at Bridgeton Station in 1914, and city gents lined up as part of the 'pals battalion' the Commercials, are reminders of how much was lost to Glasgow in the war.

"These men all joined up together and died together," says Colonel Steele. "The photos remind you how young they were."

l RHF Museum, 518 Sauchiehall Street, is open weekdays from 9am until 4pm (3pm on Fridays) and at weekends by appointment. www.rhf.org.uk, 0141 332 0961.

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