Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Swords, guns and planes: a tour of the Royal Military Museum in Brussels

Here's another post revolving around Belgian history. All photos are by me unless otherwise stated.

The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History was founded in 1910 at the Abbey of La Cambre in Ixelles. In 1923, the museum was moved to the northern wing of the majestic historic complex in Cinquantenaire Park (Dutch: Jubelpark) in Brussels.

(Click images to embiggen.)

The north wing of the historic complex in Cinquantenaire Park.
(Photo: Wikimedia)

Entrance to the Royal Military Museum.

I began my very first visit with a look in the elegantly-lit medieval section. It contains a large variety of weapons and armour, the latter of which turned out to be mostly of German and Italian origin. I was most impressed by the wide range of unique and elaborate weapons on display.

A flintlock pistol attached to the head of a battle axe.

A pistol with an axe blade attached to the barrel,
and a dagger with a pistol attacked to the blade.

My next stop was a large exhibit of Belgian military history from the Belgian Revolution of 1830 up until the beginning of the 20th century. The amount of weapons, uniforms, documents, battle paintings and portraits was simply staggering.

Central to the exhibit was the Belgian army's time in the Congo. I might have known a little bit more about the Belgians and the Congo than Billy Joel, but this exhibit was a real eye-opener.

Belgium never matched the size or wealth of the British and Spanish Empires, but it was no small fry either (pun intended). I could feel the past coming to life between rows of busts, guns and equestrian portraits. Behind the glass and wood lay the uniforms and weapons of men whose boots trampled the undergrowth of the Central African jungles, whose swords cut the hands off thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Congolese natives.

If you're wondering why there's an old camp bed in the bottom left corner:
it was once the personal property of king Leopold I of Belgium.

A toy ship that once belonged to Leopold II of Belgium.
His 20-year rule of the Congo Free State caused more than 5 million deaths.

Congo was the personal property of King Leopold II from 1884 until 1908,

Another huge collection can be found in the Technische Zaal ("technical hall"), where you can follow the technical development of small arms in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in minute detail.

The Technische zaal ("technical hall"), stacked to the ceiling
with small arms from the past 200 years or so.

One of two 50-barrel volley guns from the 19th century,
designed by Joseph Montigny from Brussels.

Most of the Belgian guns on display at the museum were manufactured in Liège, which has been an important centre for gunsmithing ever since the Middle ages. Today the city is home of FN Herstal, a subsidiary of the Belgian Herstal Group which also owns the U.S. Repeating Arms Company (AKA Winchester Repeating Arms Company) and the Browning Arms Company.

My next stop was the World War I exhibit. It reminded me of my visit to Ypres two months earlier, with one major difference: Ypres has the battlefields, but there are very few actual artifacts from the war to be seen.

In Brussels, it's the other way around.

The exhibit is dominated by a large group of artillery pieces and tanks, but space is also reserved for small arms and creepy-looking gas masks. There is also a small, dark tunnel with loud noises, simulating a walk through a frontline trench during an attack (not recommended if you're easily startled and alone).

German World War I-era headwear.

A French anti-aircraft crew attempts to down a German Fokker Dr.I triplane (replica).
The Dr.I was made famous by Manfred von Richthofen, AKA the Red Baron.

A British Mark IV tank, one of the earliest types of tank.

French Renault FT-17 (1917), by some considered to be "the world's
first modern tank". (Photo: Paul Hermans/Wikimedia)

British Medium Mark A Whippet (1917-18). Only five remain in the world,
and this is the only one on display in Europe. (Photo: Paul Hermans/Wikimedia)

The museum owns approximately 300 tanks, many of which are normally on display in the museum's courtyard. Unfortunately, this area will be closed until 2013 due to remodeling. After discovering this, I wiped my tears on my sleeve and continued on into the the aviation exhibit.

I'd never seen so many interesting aircraft in one place before. Knowing that the museum would close at 11.45, I checked my watch and realized I had to hurry. I raised my point-and-shoot camera and went to work, greedily studying and photographing as much as I could in what little time I had left.

Junkers Ju 52 from the 1930s. This type of plane was a mainstay
of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.

You may have seen a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23BN like this one
on the news recently, as the Libyan Air Force currently has
130 (probably a falling number) of them in service.

North American F-86 Sabre, the most famous American aircraft of the Korean War.

The Sopwith Camel was arguably the best British fighter of
World War I. This is one of only seven authentic ones left in the world.

The Hawker Hurricane accounted for 60%
of the RAF's air victories in the Battle of Britain (1940).

The Supermarine Spitfire is the most famous British fighter of the
Second World War. This one has been re-painted to look like
MJ360/GE-B of the 349th (Belgian) Squadron of the RAF.

That was all I had time for this time, but there is much more to be seen - partly because so many sections are currently closed off for maintenance, and partly because I simply failed to locate them. In the future I hope to get a better look at the naval exhibit, the Napoleonic exhibit, the currently-closed-off part of the aviation section, and the exhibit covering the German occupation of Belgium in World War II.

To sum up, the Royal Military Museum is well worth a visit, especially if you're interested in small arms, historic airplanes, or Belgium's colonial past. Entrance is completely free, and you also get the added bonus of seeing Cinquantenaire Park, one of the most beautiful locations in Brussels. If you go for a stroll in the park, keep an eye out for the rose-ringed parakeets, of which there are approximately 10,000 in the city.

I hope you enjoyed this; I know I did.


  1. This was a great post.
    Makes me want to go there too.

    Strange how people don't know anything about the treasures next door...

  2. That's amazing!
    Can't believe it's actually for free :o

    Maybe we could go together next time? I'd definitely like to see the room with the aircrafts and the one that shows the Belgian army during their time Congo.

  3. Yeah, €0 is a great price ;)

    Sounds like a great idea! They also have a real cockpit you can sit in, to get an impression of what it's like to be a real fighter pilot. Unfortunately, some kid was occupying it when I was there :p

  4. Awww... now we definitely have to go back! ;)

  5. I think you missed the entire WWII section, the most modern (permanent) exhibition in the museum. With - between others - original uniforms of Eisenhower, Dönitz, King Albert I, King Leopold III,... and diorama's of the Atlantikwall, a flak, the inside of a boat... Amazing collection!

  6. @Anonymous: I would have liked to have seen the WWII section, but it seemed to be undergoing remodelling. I saw the boat, but it was covered in scaffolding and plastic sheets. I'll be sure to explore further on my next visit.