Grief, grit and humour: British Library marks centenary of the First World War

By Richard Moss | 25 June 2014

The British Library's contribution to the Centenary of the First World War explores the personal experience of the conflict

a recruitment poster with a drawing of a soldier blowing a bugle
Fall in - answer now in your country’s hour of need. London, Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Poster no. 12© British Library
Personal letters, a handkerchief bearing lyrics for It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, schoolboy essays reacting to airship raids over London and the last letter written by a young soldier to his mother before he went over the top; these are the unlikely treasures taking centre stage in the British Library’s moving new exhibition for the centenary of the First World War.

Mining their extensive collection of First World War material, Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour explores personal experiences and the many ways those both at home and on the front line tried to cope with the enormity of the conflict.

Recruitment posters, humorous magazines and even a knitting pattern for balaclavas help tell stories of humour, faith and comradeship and explore the ideas of kinship and family that were at the heart of the everyday experience of First World War.

More famous items in the exhibition include a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to his mother describing his worries about his son serving at the front. A letter from Isaac Rosenberg and the manuscripts of well-known war poets, such as Rupert Brooke, are also included.

The emphasis is on the extraordinarily ordinary and the juxtaposition of the famous with the everyday. 

The soldier’s last letter home is displayed alongside manuscripts of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, Vaughan Williams’ A Pastoral Symphony and Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen.

Co-curator Alison Bailey described how the British Library aimed to bring together material with "national significance” alongside less familiar items such as Christmas cards and concert programmes.

“We have both a manuscript of Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier’ and a card sent to him about socks," she added, observing some of the more unexpected exhibits.

"Personal and poignant stories sit alongside public statements and literary manuscripts, giving an enduring voice to some of the men, women and children who lived through the war.”

An atmospheric video and soundscape called Writing Home has also been commissioned for the show, using messages from personal postcards written to and from the front contributed by the public.

Many of the items on display can be explored on, the pan-European collection of First World War source material, and a brand new British Library First World War website which features more than 500 items from across Europe, together with articles by leading experts and teachers’ notes.

  • Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour runs until October 12 2014 in the Folio Society Gallery

Click on the picture to launch the gallery

For more on First World War Centenary visit

Explore the Europeana First World War website at

Visit the British Library’s First World War website at

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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