Foe To Friend – The National Army Museum’s BAOR Exhibition

A couple of months ago I visited the UK’s National Army Museum in London. They had an exhibition exploring the history of the British Army in Germany since 1945. Titled Foe to Friend it explores the British Army’s post-war experience in Germany first as an occupier and then as a NATO ally. 

Inside the Foe to Friend exhibit (Matthew Moss)

More than a million British soldiers have lived and served in Germany over the past 75 years. The exhibition tries to capture some of their experiences while relating the history of their operations – no small task.

One of the highlights of the exhibit were the small personal items like photos and uniforms but also vehicles like the Brixmis Opel – a car used by British observers to travel through East Germany. There was also an interactive light up display that let you identify various Cold War Soviet vehicles – just like a Brixmis observer!

Inside the Foe to Friend exhibit (National Army Museum)

The exhibition also shows off some of the uniforms and kit used during the UK’s 75 years in Germany as well as some of their weapons including some instantly recognisable Cold War icons like the L1A1 SLR and the Carl Gustav, as well as the SA80 and my old friend the Sterling SMG. Another essential piece of kit – the Boiling Vessel takes centre stage in a multi-media area with a section on the famous food van owned by Wolfgang Meier – he followed British troops on exercise and sold them bratwurst and fish and chips. 

Inside the Foe to Friend exhibit (Matthew Moss)

The exhibit covered several rooms but was more sparse than I’d hoped and some of the smaller items seem a little lost. I would have liked to have seen more on the large-scale exercises the British Army of the Rhine took part in, like Lionheart 84. The exhibition does, however, conclude with some displays on the operations some of the men station in Germany took part in, including peacekeeping in Bosnia and the first Gulf War.

It would have been great to have had some interactive displays featuring audio or video interviews from service personnel who had been in Germany during the various periods of the Army’s presence. This is something the West Indian Soldier exhibition, which we recently looked at, did well.  

It ends with an excellent graphic depicting how troop numbers in Germany fell dramatically after the Second World War – despite the Cold War, from 780,000 in 1945 to just 135 at the end of the British Army’s deployment in 2020.

The exhibition ran from September 2020 to December 2021.

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Further Reading:

‘Active Edge: The Army, Germany and the Cold War’, National Army Museum, (source)
‘Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945’, National Army Museum, (source)
‘Foe to Friend: Virtual Tour’, National Army Museum, (source)
‘Army Life in Germany: Virtual Tour’, National Army Museum, (source)

West Indian Soldier – National Army Museum Exhibition

In August I had the opportunity to visit the National Army Museum in London and take a look around some of their current exhibitions. One of these was one titled “West Indian Soldier” which ran from 19 May through to 31 October. The museum described it as a special exhibition to explore the role of West Indian Soldiers in the British Army over the past 300 or so years. 

The exhibition was much smaller than I had expected, comprising of just one smallish room but nevertheless efforts had been made to combine items artefacts, art work and videos in an engaging way.

It covered the origins and creation of the various West India Regiments that have historically been a part of the British Army and looks at the West Indies contribution in conflicts ranging from the Napoleonic Wars through to the Great War and the Second World War as well as looking at the continuing service of personnel from the West Indies today with some video interviews with former and serving personnel rounding out the exhibition. The exhibition looked at the experiences of both black and white West Indians who served in both the West India regiments and the wider British army as a whole.

Inside the exhibition (National Army Museum)

The exhibition explains that the West Indian Regiments were formally a part of the British Army and not a colonial unit or militia. It does not side step slavery’s role in the West Indian regiments‘ history with various letters from the 1760s through to the 1800s illustrating how slaves were bought to fill the regiment’s ranks. Some 13,000 newly enslaved men were bought over 50 years up until 1807 and the British abolition of slavery.

The West Indian Regiments took various forms over the years and the exhibition did a good job of explaining this and some of the key parts of their role and history. The exhibition has a number of highlights including a number of Victoria crosses including that of Lt. Frank de Pass. De Pass was of West Indian decent and was posthumously awarded the VC in late 1914. The colours of the 4th West India Regiment are also on display along with uniforms, correspondence and a striking portrait of a private from the 8th West India Regiment, painted in 1803. 

Notably the exhibition also outlines how during both world wars the War Office did not make use of the West Indies regiments as combat troops in several theatres, instead often using them a labourers. Often as on the Western Front where they were tasked with dangerous work in ammunition dumps. 

I would have preferred to have seen an exhibition with a slightly larger scope but despite its small size the exhibition outlined the regiments’ history and the important, interesting and often under-appreciated role the West Indian’s soldiers played in the history of the British Army. Perhaps this is something that can be revisited approaching the West India Regiments’ 230th anniversary in 2025.

Additional Reading:

‘West Indian Soldier Exhibition’, National Army Museum, (source)

West Indian Soldier Exhibition Virtual Tour, National Army Museum, (source)

‘West India regiments: the story of slavery in the Army’, Forces News, (source)

‘The West India Regiments’ , National Army Museum, (source)

‘The West Indian Soldier’, The West India Committee, (source)

‘The Story of the British West Indies Regiment in the First World War, Imperial War Museum, (source)

‘West Indian Soldier: Interactive Timeline’, National Army Museum, (source)

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