Sri Lanka Army Museum
by ASIFF HUSSEIN
The Sri Lanka Army has come a long way since the days of the British Raj when it was a largely ceremonial force known as the Ceylon Light Infantry though it did see some action during the two world wars, not to mention the little known mutiny at Cocos Island in 1942 when some disgruntled Ceylonese soldiers rebelled against their British masters in a failed bid to turn the tide of war in favour of the japanese and win freedom for their country.
Today however, the Sri Lanka Army has evolved into a formidable fighting force having seen considerable action during the 1971 JVP insurrection and the Eelam War of the 1980s and 1990s. The Ceylon Light Infantry has now been constituted as the Sri Lanka Light Infantry and has undergone a significant transformation from the days of the colonial rulers, with new uniforms, new badges and new colours.
However, the historical transformation of this important regiment which could be considered the predecessor of the modern Sri Lankan Army is a story worth telling and it is to perpetuate this that the Regimental Museum was established at Panagoda in January 1974.
The Museum though not a very large one houses a variety of artefacts, associated with the Sri Lanka Light Infantry and its predecessor the Ceylon Light Infantry, some of which go back to the early part of the last century. This includes a good collection of weaponry, insignia and memorabilia.
Among the weaponry on display one would find two fine specimens of a tripod-mounted 303 Vickers Water Cooler machinegun said to have been manufactured sometime in the 1940s when World War II was raging in Europe though Sri Lanka then a British colony known as Ceylon was relatively unaffected save for the Japanese bombings on Easter Sunday of 1942 and the rationing of basic needs.
Other large firearms include a Royal Enfield Rifle presented by Col. J.R.D. Goodfellow and an old Skelton machinegun, besides a collection of rifles captured from the JVP during the 1971 insurgency including an improvised firearm designed as an umbrella handle but with a firing mechanism ingeniously embedded in it. Smaller arms include three antiquated pistols and six revolvers, some of which were captured from the insurgents in 1971.
Heavy weaponry include an improvised mortar turned out of an axle hub of a vehicle which could be muzzle-loaded and fired by detonation through a hole at the base which was used by the insurgents in April 1971 and a rocket launcher of Indian manufacture captured during Operation Janashakthi against LTTE militants in 1990.
Also to be seen are a variety of hand grenades including a particularly old one used during the last Great War and a variety of bullets of various shapes and sizes captured from the insurgents in 1971. One would also find here a collection of white pith helmets characteristic of the colonial days and some old combat helmets including one reminiscent of the First World War. Also displayed are a few helmets used by SLLI soldiers with bullet holes.
Other interesting exhibits include a sword belonging to the Ceylon Mounted Rifle Regiment of 1892 and a knife said to have been used by R.M. Mendis in Cocos Island in 1942. Also noteworthy are the battle axe and two kris knives captured from the insurgents in 1971 by CLI troops while conducting counter-insurgency operations in Kegalle.
We next come to the various insignia worn by the military ranks from early times. Here one would come across a rich collection of army badges including some old cloth badges of the rank of major emblazoned with a crown. Other notable specimens include a shoulder badge with crown and flower worn by a Major General and a collar badge with the German words Ich Dien (I Serve), the motto of the Prince of Wales, used by a CLI Officer.
The origin of the motto could be traced to Edward Albert, Prince of Wales (Later Edward VII) who became the first Honorary Colonel of the Regiment and permitted his motto to adorn the regimental crest.
Besides these, one would find an assortment of badges of the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps, Ceylon Railway Engineer Regiment, Ceylon Mounted Rifles and the Ceylon Defence Force. The badges of the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps which preceded the army are particularly interesting. They bear the words ‘Unitas Sales Nostra’.
The badges of the Ceylon Mounted Rifles display a symbol with three paddy sheafs while those of the Ceylon Defence Force depict an elephant over two crossed swords.
The cap badge of the now disbanded Raja Rata Rifles show the figure of a Bherunda Pakshiya or double-headed eagle. Besides these one would find Marksmen badges, badges worn by Weapons Instructors and badges worn by officers of the rank Colonel and above.
Also displayed are the braided epaulettes worn by Brigadier C.P. Jayawardane when he was appointed Aide de Camp to the Governer of Ceylon Sir Grahme Thomson on 14 May, 1931 and the aiguilettes worn by Major E.C. De Fonseka when he was appointed ADC to the Governer on 26 April 1934.
Besides these one would find a good collection of peak caps worn by senior officers. These include a ceremonial peak cap worn by Major General B.R. Heyn when he was Army Commander 1966-67. The cap in blue is shaped very much like a turban and depicts the Sinhala lion over the crown. Also to be seen are some khaki berets worn by officers and blue berets worn by other ranks.
Besides these one would find a light brown battle dress worn by Major General Heyn, a CLI Officer’s scarlet tunic and interestingly enough, an Air Raid Precaution arm band with the words ARP in black against a white background and red border.
Other miscellaneous items include the Queen’s Colours presented to the First Battalion of the CLI on 21st April 1954 by Queen Elizabeth II, an old field telephone used by the Commanding Officers of the CLI from 1950-62 including Col. A.M. Muttukumaru, Lt. Col. H.W.G. Wijekoon and Lt. Col. B.R. Heyn and a silver hackle with white feathers worn on the foreheads of the regimental mascots Kandula I-IV.