'Non-Combat Army'. Art curator's guide to the new exhibition held at the Lefortovo Museum of History

July 8

'Non-Combat Army' exhibition will run until 1 October at the Lefortovo Museum of History, dedicated to the history of Swiss armed forces. Lefortovo district is closely connected with the Swiss army, as it owes its name to a native of Geneva, Franz Lefort, a mercenary soldier who was on the Russian service. In Petrine times, he initiated the construction of the first barracks on the left bank of the Yauza River that started the history of Novaya Soldatskaya Sloboda, popularly nicknamed Lefortovskaya Sloboda.

The exhibition presents more than 500 items, with hats, uniforms, overcoats, shoes, weapons, ammunition and equipment from different eras, historical photographs, postcards and stamps among them. Most of the exhibits are items from Sergei Zorin’s personal collection. He told stories about some of them to mos.ru and Mosgortur Agency.

How the collection started 

There are people who prefer narrow-focused collections: shoulder boards, buttons or bayonets. Some collect vacuum cleaners and everything relating to them. I belong to the second type of collectors. I have items from different eras and different armies — American, French, British, German and Soviet.

I started collecting elements of a military uniform when I was 12. Like many boys, as a child I played  soldiers and in the wake of this hobby I visited the so-called university of public education at the Borodino Panorama, to learn about the history of the Napoleonic Wars, read the memoirs of military leaders, view uniforms, weapons and paintings.

By the end of the 1980-ies, my collection looked like an applied reconstruction. I started with the uniforms of the French and Russian armies, then I plunged into studying World War I and other eras. About six years ago, my son offered me to play World War II airsoft, but not on our army or the Germans’ side, but as a Swiss army soldier. This proposal stirred my interest in the Swiss army's history.

A uniform with Renaissance spirit  

A uniform of  the Vatican guard's corporal is a pride of my collection. When in the early 16th century, the great deeds of Swiss mercenaries reached the See of Rome, the first Alpine guards arrived to serve in the Vatican. It happened in 1506 under Pope Julius II. In his reign, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael created the Vatican Stanze. A uniform design is associated with two Renaissance titans, although it is not confirmed in documents.

But there is no doubt that the Swiss guard of the Vatican is the oldest active military unit in the world. To date, they still recruit only Swiss citizens — single Catholics aged 19 to 30, at least 174 cm tall. They serve in similar cut tricolour uniforms.

10 percent  of my collection is Swiss uniforms, and, naturally, I wanted it to be supplemented by the uniform of the Vatican guards. I even got through to the Pope's former personal security guard, but he told me: "Sergei, this is impossible''. After all, guard uniforms are custom-tailored, at the end of the service guards keep them, and some bequeath to be buried in the uniform.

But thanks to the international fellowship of collectors,  I have managed to find this one, and as far as I know, it is the only uniform of this kind in the CIS. The former owner served in it from 1915 to 1923. This uniform reflects the Renaissance classic: as well as in those times, its fabric had no overstitches on sleeves, it was only cut, and tailors tore it into strips. It was a corporal's outfit, rosettes on trousers speak for it.

Expressive headdress

In 1812, the Swiss army invaded Russia together with Napoleon. Until the end of the campaign, they were among the most combat-ready units of the weakened Grand Army. It is no coincidence that one of the national Swiss songs glorifying soldier's courage is dedicated to the Battle of Berezina, Beresinalied, 'The Song of Berezina'. A special shako headwear is the heritage of those times, it had been a part of the Swiss Army uniform for more than 100 years, until 1922, with some alterations in design.

My collection boasts of about 140 shakos, a few dozen of which are displayed at Lefortovo Museum. I think this is one of the most interesting military headwear in Europe. This word is translated from Hungarian as a 'hussar's hat'. In a sense, it's a prototype of a helmet, as over time shako was replaced with a steel helmet.

The Swiss army originally used French type shakos. But in 1869, a unique Swiss model appeared, a little funny one, with a unified front and rear visor.

You could tell by a shako soldier's belonging to one or another unit. Pompon's colour, in particular, spoke of the kind of troops: the artillery had red pompons, deminers had black ones, medical officer had blue ones, and staff officers had white ones. In the infantry as the most numerous type of troops, the pompon colour denoted a company’s number: green meant the first company, green with white meant the second company, orange meant the third company, orange with white meant the fourth company.

Cockades, in turn, had the colour of cantons and showed the location of the battalion in the country. The units of federal subordination had a cockade shaped as a red circle with a cross inside.

An emblem specifying the type of troops was placed below the cockade.  For example, you may view this rare shako with an emblem shaped as a winged anchor of the aeronautical company of the early 20th century, in which balloons were used for reconnaissance and border observation. It employed only 84 people. The famous Picard brothers were among them.

Later, Jean Picard had graduated from a university, and invented the first hot-air balloons. Having moved to America, he came up with the technology by which rescue capsules for NASA spacecraft are made today. And his brother Auguste was engaged not only in aeronautics, he came up with the world's first bathyscaphe. This family produced a few more scientists engaged in high-altitude climbs and deep diving, and even the character of the extremely popular Star Trek series Jean-Luc Picard was named after these brothers.

Here is an interesting item with the emblem of the searchlight and semaphore detachment. Radio stations were unavailable in some areas in the Alps, sometimes it was easier to transmit a signal by a semaphore. Deminers had emblem with two crossed axes, miners had a shovel and a pick emblem. Medical officers had no emblem, since they could serve in any army.

Cavalry officers had horsehair plumed shakos.  Dragoons had black-plumed shakos, guides that showed the troops where to move on had white-plumed shakos.

Finally, a special tape around the crown, braid or lace, designated officer's title, and the stars on a soldier's shako or their absence spoke for a newcomer or an old-timer. There are a lot of interesting details about shakos or Swiss uniform I tell about during my curatorial tours.

 Swiss army supplies today

The policy of neutrality, which Switzerland had officially adhered to since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, did not mean the abandonment of the armed forces. Moreover, many of the goods produced in the late 19th — early 20th century for military supplies, today have entered the life of many people around the world.

A striking example is the famous Swiss army knives. The exhibition displays several bladed weapons, the first ones produced by present-day manufactures. Models of Soldier and Officer knives are still produced. The last model made in the 19th century had a toothpick and a corkscrew.

In 1883, bouillon cubes were invented, which immediately became part of the dry rations of Swiss soldiers, and later the German Army as well. Now all housewives know them well, but they do not know that it all started with a field kitchen.

William Tell and a shooting community’s plate 

Since the Middle Ages, Switzerland had a legend of William Tell, who shot down an apple from his son's head with an arrow. Shooting festivals are an ancient national pastime. The first official competition of Swiss shooters took place in 1452. They are held now as well, annually in late May, with rifles used instead of cross bows. The exhibition presents a plate of a shooting community of the 13th squadron of the 1900s, which was obviously awarded to the winner of such competitions.

A curious fact: when at the beginning of World War II the country was threatened by German attacks, the Swiss commander-in-chief Henri Guisan said: "If 20,000 German soldiers set foot on our land, we will need only 20,000 bullets." He was that much confident in the accuracy of his fellow citizens.

Soldier's stamps 

The exhibition displays several dozen stamps of different Swiss military units of WWI and WWII, which philatelists would find very interesting. Switzerland started producing stamps for military personnel during World War I. Junior officials received them free of charge to send letters to relatives and friends. This practice was also adopted in other countries, France and Germany, in particular, but it was really large-scale in Switzerland. In Europe, stamps were produced for major units, while in Switzerland, even a small company had its own stamps. These stamps help to study the evolution of uniforms and weapons of the Swiss Army.

Source: mos.ru

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