Horrible Histories - Frightful First World War At IWM North

By Narelle Doe | 30 May 2008
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The illustrated front cover of a book with a cartoon of a WW1 soldier

First World War soldier illustration © Martin Brown

Exhibition Preview: Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War – The Exhibition at Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, until January 4 2009.

Fierce flies, lovely lice, gruesome gas, sickness and sores were just some of the horrors facing soldiers in the First World War – an appropriate subject for author Terry Deary of black comedy children’s books, Horrible Histories.

“It was the gallows humour of the people that helped them survive the horrors. It’s a lesson in how humanity copes with the worst the world can throw at us. That’s what education should be about – preparing us for life, the horrible as well as the good,” explains Terry.

A black and white photograph of two WW1 soldiers knee deep in a flooded trench

Lancashire Fusiliers in a flooded communication trench. January 1917. © Imperial War Museum Q4662

This free and family-friendly exhibition is specially designed for younger visitors, and commemorates the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Based on Frightful First World War, one of the most popular books in the Horrible Histories series from Scholastic Children’s Books, the exhibition sets author Terry Deary’s powerful words and artist Martin Brown’s acerbic illustrations alongside the Imperial War Museum’s unrivalled collections.

Did you know that peeing into your handkerchief could make a makeshift gas mask? Or did you know about the popular sport of beetle racing? At this exhibition you can see, hear, smell and learn about the Great War through sad songs, frightful facts, and poignant photographs of the men, women, servicemen and civilians, who shaped and endured what was described as the war to end all wars.

Smell the stenches, disguise yourself in a camouflage tree and peer into no man’s land with a periscope in a large-scale trench, specially drawn for the exhibition, by the Horrible Histories artist Martin Brown.

A cartoon of two WW1 soldiers in a flooded trench

There were terrific rain storms when the British attacked the Germans in Flanders. Illustration © Martin Brown

Find out about the horrors and hardships of the war that was meant to last four months but ground on for four grim years, and discover how the enemies in the trenches stopped fighting to play friendly football matches and how the soldiers were forced to eat foul food and drink worse water.

The Great War was perhaps the most horrible of all wars, as Terry explains in Frightful First World War: “It’s a story of what happens when machines go to war and human beings get in the way. But it’s also a story of courage and craziness, brave people and batty people, friendships and fierce hatreds, love... and lice.”

This is a fresh and unique landmark exhibition, combining the populism of the Horrible Histories books with the distinction of the IWM collection, and is especially important as this will be the last major anniversary when there will still be any veterans alive who were there at the time.

A black and white photograph of a line of blinded WW1 soldiers

British troops blinded by tear gas wait outside an Advance Dressing Station. © Imperial War Museum Q11586

See rare objects first hand such as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s greatcoat - especially made for him to accommodate his shorter left arm - on public display for the first time. Other highlights include a half-ton German trench mortar, with traces of original camouflage paint, the helmet which King George V wore to visit the Western Front, a letter from Siegfried Sassoon, written in Craiglockhart War Hospital while being treated for Shell Shock, and a collection of documents relating to the famous Christmas truce.

You can see the pen which signed the prolongation armistice, view unique footage of female munition workers playing football in their leisure time in 1918, and even German toilet paper!

Terry Deary’s favourite part of the exhibition are the photographs which he describes as simply riveting: “You can look at them a hundred times and be drawn in to a world of people who are long dead yet whose lives were frozen forever in the click of a shutter.”

A cartoon of a girl asking her grandfather about the war

Grandpa. Illustration © Martin Brown

Almost every family in Britain, France, Germany and Russia lost someone, and visitors can search for memorials in their area and find out if their family name is on the Commonwealth War Graves register in Your History on the ground floor.

Jim Forrester, Director of Imperial War Museum North, praises the author’s knack of communicating in a way every youngster will respond to: “By putting Terry’s words and Martin Brown’s wonderful illustrations alongside the Imperial War Museum’s collections and photographs, we will be creating a poignant and memorable experience for young and old alike in this 90thanniversary year.”

Museums can sometimes have a reputation of being forbidding but this exhibition has set out to prove that this doesn’t have to be the case. Terry Deary is strongly aware of the importance of humour in telling stories and engaging the audience.

As he says: “People like to laugh. But when the laughter dies you are maybe left with something deeper that remains behind. Knowledge or understanding or both.”

A black and white photograph of a woman working in a WW1 factory

Women at work during WWI in the north east of England. A female war worker adjusts a turning machine in this photo. © Imperial War Museum Q20066

For more information, and forthcoming family events at Imperial War Museum North, visit the museum websiteAmongst many other forthcoming projects, Terry Deary is writing Horrible History plays on WWI and WWII for touring in 2009.

This is an exhibition preview. If you’re been to see the show, why not let us know?

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