This major exhibition at the National Army Museum (NAM) recounts the British Army’s changing relationship with Germany from 1945 to 2019. I visited with an excited curiosity, interested both on a personal level, being of dual German/British heritage, but also having heard great things about the NAM on a professional level through my participation on an MA in Public History at Royal Holloway. And I wasn’t disappointed!
The exhibition space on the first floor is bookended by a 2D art installation designed to reflect the journey that Foe to Friend offers. As you walk in, the journey begins with the British Army depicted as conqueror and Foe, in tanks, in armoured vehicles and in charge. As you leave, the transformation to ally and Friend is signified by a German town full of civilians. This installation and the exhibitions’ title are a clever play on the notions of allies and enemies, but also have a military resonance – Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) being a radar-based communication system used by UK armed forces. In this way Peter Johnston, Head of Collections Research and Academic Access at NAM and the exhibition’s curator, has set the tone on multiple levels and this intelligent signposting continues throughout, pitching enough ‘military’ details alongside ‘civilian’ details to satisfy both constituencies. The use of the iconic German ‘one-way’ road signs to provide a socially distanced route through the space is a particularly nice touch.
Overall, Foe to Friend presents its story as one of success, and this seems appropriate, with the NAM stationed adjacent to Chelsea Hospital, home to the beloved Chelsea Pensioners. There is little that deviates from this narrative, indeed in an accompanying talk for the Chelsea History Festival, a speaker described how some Germans actually wept when the British Army finally left in 2019. We don’t hear a great deal from the Germans themselves throughout the exhibition, although we do hear plenty about them, but their own voices are faint.
Despite that, the exhibition posits a ‘complex relationship’ between the protagonists, and the story is by no means one-dimensional. At the start of the Oral History trail which weaves throughout, on the one hand an ex-serviceman makes it clear that he left his posting still hating the Germans as much as he had done at the beginning, but on the other we hear British voices sympathetic to the citizens of the conquered nation. And the thousands of cases of venereal disease recorded amongst British soldiers, despite Montgomery’s repeated orders for non-fraternisation, tell us that the situation on the ground was nuanced.
Nevertheless, it is to the exhibition’s credit that there is no sense of any ‘gloating’ that Germans living in the British zone of occupation in 1945 fared considerably better than in other zones, especially the Soviet eastern zone, where retribution, often in the form of mass rape and murder, was widespread amongst the defeated population.
Rather, the message of the initial ‘war to peace’ section focusses on the brisk business of re-building Germany. Johnston showcases a remarkable short film, A Defeated People, produced by the Crown Film Unit. First released in London in 1946, the film begins with vox pops from the British public voicing different opinions about how to treat the defeated Germans – some say they should just be left to rot, in revenge for starting the war, others express pity for the civilians who have nothing (although interestingly the RAF bombing campaign which caused much of the devastation is not mentioned). This propaganda piece was designed to persuade British audiences that helping Germany to recover from the war is, to quote from the film itself ‘purely selfish. We cannot live next to a disease-ridden neighbour.’. Images of ruins accompanied by dramatic classical music signal that if Britain fails to engage positively with Germany, the next generation will revert to Nazism or fall prey to the equally abhorrent Communism.
The second, red themed, section covers the Cold War era, with a piece of the Berlin Wall on display, and the visitor gets a sense of the ongoing tensions, especially at flashpoints along the border.
Military hardware and operations tend to dominate this section, which also absorbs much of the physical exhibition space. A display case labelled ‘Tools of the Trade’ is full of guns. An expensive looking installation allows visitors to press buttons to illuminate model tanks on a landscape. In the centre stands a large olive-green Audi carrying diplomatic plates, part of the BRIXMIS operation, which officially facilitated direct liaison work with the Soviets, but also provided cover for the British Army to gather military intelligence behind the Iron Curtain.
As a civilian, and a woman, I didn’t entirely ‘get it’, and would have moved fairly swiftly through to the next section on the ‘lived experience’, had it not been for a green-shirted NAM explainer who talked us through BRIXMIS, which clearly played a major part in keeping communication channels open with the Soviets. He also pointed out that the biggest risk to the British Army in Germany was in fact not the Warsaw Pact countries but the IRA and their car bombs, which were a constant source of menace to military families in Germany in the 1970’s/80’s. And he told us with pride that NAM visitors who have been in the Army absolutely love this section of the exhibition. Our explainer’s knowledge, interest and enthusiasm were palpable, and I am much the wiser, so thank you Bradley!
It is almost inevitable that an exhibition focussing on the British Army in the mid-late 20th Century will be a male dominated affair – this is not driven by any ideology, simply the nature of the material available to a curator and a predicament which tells its own story – and the absence of both women, personnel of colour who served in the British Army and other marginalised groups is glaringly obvious. Johnston has done his best to include women in the story. For example, there is a large display case with the wedding dress of a German bride alongside her husband’s British Army dress uniform. For the front cover of his beautifully produced book ‘British Forces in Germany: The Lived Experience’ which features everything on display and more besides, he chose an image of a military family, not a tank. And throughout the NAM generally, sincere attempts have been made to recognise the role of women and personnel of colour.
Across the institution it is clear that the NAM has thought hard about how to attract and appeal to a wider audience and has put its money where its mouth is. When I visited, I was surprised to see several prams at the entrance and discovered that a Play Base for under 8’s was installed during the recent refurbishment. And hats off to the NAM for spacious toilets on every floor (complete with saluting figurines on the doors) and an excellent cafeteria space – these are not always a given! Mention must also be made of the NAM’s extensive outreach programme, including talks, patrons and members events and its hosting of the fledgling Chelsea History Festival.
In its final section, Foe to Friend gives us a taste of the day-to-day experience of army families in Germany, with the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) selling British foods and other ‘home comforts’ and British schools providing a British education. We also see the Army’s ‘soft power’ in action through BFBS Radio, much loved by young Germans growing up in the British zone. During the 1960’s/70’s a new younger generation of recruits had begun to reach out to the local population through shared sports and cultural events, but perhaps the extent of British integration into Germany through the period is best understood by the staggering 50% drop in sales in 2019 of Herforder Pils, the British Army’s favourite beer.
A colour coded display at the end of the exhibition brilliantly illustrates the 75-year journey of Foe to Friend – in 1945 there were 780,000 British soldiers, 50,000 British civil servants and 0 family members. In 1985 the numbers were 77,000, 2,500 and 90,000 respectively, alongside 35,000 local employees. By 2019, a mere handful were left.
I visited Foe to Friend in 2020, during the Covid pandemic, and, like the British Army in Germany, the emphasis of the NAM seems to have been to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ (OK reader, different war, but you get the drift!). Their doors opened as soon as possible after lockdown ended and an impressive range of talks have continued online. Current and former soldiers can take pride that their stories have been told with empathy and honesty and that Army life is at the heart of what the NAM offers. It seems to me that ‘Foe to Friend’ could be adopted as a permanent motto for the NAM, as this very same journey is clearly what the museum intends for its visitors, both Army and civilian!