Exploring the military cap badge collection

As a student from the University of Leeds, I’ve been lucky enough to undertake my placement year with Leeds Museums and Galleries. It’s been a fantastic year and it has given me so many amazing opportunities that I would not otherwise have had. This is the first in a series of blog posts detailing the various things I have been involved in.

I’ve been cataloguing the Museum’s collection of cap badges. There are almost 400 of them, ranging from obsolete badges which are no longer in use, to more up to date versions still seen on uniforms today.

Cataloguing includes taking photographs of objects and adding them to the database. Associated people and places must be added, as well as a description and how the object came into Leeds Museum’s collection. This can be anything from a loan to a bequest. Each object is also assigned a category. Cap badges fit into two of the pre-existing categories on the system – costume and military. Some of them also fit into First World War and Second World War. This all means that when someone needs to find an object, they can search by lots of different things, from category to date and description.

Whilst looking at the badges, I was struck by how different each one is. Some have battle honours displayed upon them, a record of the heritage of a regiment and the courage of those who have fought under that name. The battles stretch from Waterloo to the First World War, testament to how long some regiments have continued, despite any upheaval in the armed forces. There are also countless depictions of animals on badges, from dragons and tigers to horses and stags.

Artists Rifles cap badge, taken for Leeds Museums and licenced under Creative Commons BY NC SA
One of my favourite badges is that of the Artists Rifles (now the Special Air Service Regiment). The badge, designed by J.W. Wyon shows Minervra and Mars in profile – two classical figures linked to warfare. There is only one example of this particular badge in the collection. It comes from a regiment first developed as a volunteer movement and created by an art student. Some of the first recruits in the 1860s were actors, painters and even architects, along with others who were involved in creative endeavours.

However, this exclusivity did not last. Once the 1860s were over, the recruitment basis of the regiment broadened to include doctors, lawyers and other professions. Their recruitment remained more open, but they continued to attract those from the public schools and universities. During the First World War, Wilfred Owen was a member of the regiments Officer Training Corps.

Each regiment has its own badge and its own story. Each badge is a small window into a textured history that reveals something new with every subsequent look, be it an extraordinary tale of courage or a story behind the adoption of a motto.

By Laura Varley, First World War Project Placement Student

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