Remembering The Great War At Imperial War Museum London

By Richard Moss | 01 October 2008
a photo of a group of men wearing winter uniforms and hats

British and German soldiers at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914. © IWM

Exhibition review - Richard Moss is impressed with the Imperial War Museum's exhibition, In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War, which runs until September 6 2009.

Just outside the entrance to the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition commemorating the end of the First World War sits a pristine glass case containing a shattered old army helmet, a poppy and a rusting piece of barbed wire.

They were discovered only last year in France, near the skeleton of a Canadian soldier. Yet they seem like relics from some Bronze Age tomb, rather than the vestiges of a man whose remains have laid undiscovered for 90-years on a battlefield.

Whatever images they conjure up for visitors to In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War, they highlight how, even though public interest remains strong, the First World War really is about to slip beyond living memory.

Out of the 5,704,416 who served in British forces, only three fragile old men remain. Their photographs and testimonies welcome visitors to this thoughtful exhibition, beneath a quote by Cecil Withers of the 17th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers.

a photo of shell damaged sign with the letters 'do not stand about here.If you are not hit someone else will be'

Photo Richard Moss / Culture 24

“Only those that were there can tell what really happened. Tell of the suffering and the misery.”

It is apt then that the focus here is on human narratives. Over ninety of them are featured, each combined with archives and objects to cast light on the stories of everyone – not just those at the front.

Visitors will learn about all aspects of the war and discover a cast of characters ranging from soldiers, survivors, civilians, conscientious objectors and prisoners of war to assassins, generals, poets, painters and flying aces.

Throughout the exhibition, which is chronological and explores clear themes, a wealth of original artefacts such as trench clubs, ghostly gas masks, shattered trench signs, artwork and other ephemera offer a snapshot of the war - and of the IWM’s vast collection. Visitors are also invited to pull out drawers to examine absorbing original documents from the IWM’s equally vast paper archive.

a photo of a man in uniform

Edward Packe, Courtesy Joanna Edkins, Granddaughter of Edward Packe. Credit: Courtesy Joanna Edkins, Granddaughter of Edward Packe. © IWM

It’s an effective combination that highlights the extraordinary pull that paper archives can have when allied to objects.

Among the first objects you will encounter are a pistol and improvised bomb – the tools of the assassins who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the ‘spark’ that ignited the whole cataclysm that was the Great War. It’s impressive stuff, but venture further and you will find scores of equally fascinating objects and the stories behind them.

A ‘King’s Shilling’ given to Edward Packe, an Oxbridge undergrad who abandoned his studies to join the Somerset Light Infantry in 1914, is accompanied by a field postcard and a watch given to him by his sister 1914.

a photo of an old shilling with a queen's shilling

Edward Packe's enlistment shilling. Courtesy Joanna Edkins, Granddaughter of Edward Packe. Courtesy Joanna Edkins, Granddaughter of Edward Packe. © IWM

The there's the story of Gordon Hassel who took part in the first major tank battle of the war at Cambrai. You can see not only the medieval looking chain mail mask and helmet he wore, but also read a message despatched by pigeon from his tank and a letter written on the day after the battle.

Similarly a primitive trench club, fashioned by Harold Startin for use in hand to hand trench fighting, is accompanied by the story that the first victim of this primitive looking weapon was a German sergeant.

Everywhere objects belonging to the famous – Wilfred Owen’s cap badge, General Haig’s cap, Lord Kitchener’s attaché case, fabric from Manfred von Richthofen’s crashed Fokker triplane - vie for the attention with equally impactful items belonging to less well known people.

a display drawer containing

A letter from Private Robert Digby together with other poignant artefacts. Digby was shot at dawn on May 31 1916. Photo Richard Moss / Culture24

The torn bloodstained tunic of Harold Cope, who was injured on the attack on German trenches at Delville Wood on the Somme, is a real reminder of a terrifying attempt to cross no-man’s-land under withering German machine gun fire. Cope was badly wounded in the right shoulder and immediately lost the use of his arm. You can also read his diary entry on the day of the attack.

It's subtle touches like these that make this exhibition a fascinating adjunct to the museum’s permanent display of uniforms and weaponry downstairs.

For the Imperial War Museum, the First World War and the coming 90th anniversary of the Armistice, mark their genesis - so in many ways this exhibition is amongst the most important it has mounted in recent years.

a photo of a hand written manuscript of a poem

Manuscript of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. © British Library Board. All Rights reserved

It was in 1917 that a Canadian Captain was despatched to the Western Front by the War Office to collect items that would form the basis of a National War Museum. From the outset his mission was to recover items that had personal stories and strong context attached to them.

Not for the museum a random helmet or an anonymous rifle, what they wanted were meaningful items that would echo down the years and be fitting of a conflict that had already touched millions of people in Britain and beyond.

As a result the IWM collected a vast armoury of fascinating objects – each of them with absorbing stories and provenance attached to them. The museum didn’t just require the material of war but also the stories of the people who once wore or used these objects.

It’s a doctrine that has informed the acquisition policy of the IWM ever since and In Memoriam exemplifies this approach perfectly.

a painting of a trench scene with shattered trees, no mans lands and cloud streaked blue sky

Oppy Wood, 1917. Evening, John Nash, 1918 IWM ART 2243. © IWM

Wilfred Owen’s cap badge, cigarette case and Military Cross which his mother wore until her death, sit next to a manuscript of Anthem for Doomed Youth. A letter from Lord Kitchener sits next to his attaché case and army cap badge

Further on a room of beautiful silk postcards, sent home by soldiers at the front, exemplifies the experience of men shielding their loved ones from the horrors of war and allows visitors the chance to eavesdrop on the often painfully tender correspondence between front line and home front.

The IWM has also mined its unparalleled collection of First World War artworks for the exhibition, and included are powerful pieces by Nevinson, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash and John Nash. Again the context in which they were produced is presented together with the stories of the men who produced them.

John Nash became an official war artist in April 1918, having previously fought in the Artist’s Rifles. The IWM shows his work with his paint box and brushes - and another valuable item from the museum’s paper archives – a letter written by Nash applying to be a war artist.

a photo of a paint box

Paint box and brushes carried by John Nash on the Western Front. © IWM

In its paper archives the IWM holds over 16,000 separate lots of personal archives, containing boxes, letters, diaries, memoirs and other paper based ephemera.

“We are archiving new items and resources all the time,” explains Anthony Richards, one of the archivists who works on this vast resource and has contributed to the exhibition. “We average around 500 new collections per year and what they show is how each person’s experience of the war is different – each one offers new insights into the events.”

This willingness to go back to the events and tease out the human stories makes In Memoriam supremely moving and effective and results in a thoughtful exhibition of great subtlety and poignancy that demands an equally thoughtful viewing.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: