Visit UK museums with World War One exhibits

By Culture24 Reporters | Updated: 21 July 2014
a photograph of a large brick-built memorial with white tombstones in the foreground

The Thiepval Memorial lists the names of 72,000 British soldiers - the missing of the Somme. Picture © Gavin Greenwood

Despite the death in 2011 of Harry Patch, the last British veteran to experience the fighting in the trenches, the First World War still occupies a central place in the British national psyche. And with the 100th anniversary of the outbreak in 1914 fast approaching museums in the UK are still looking at ways of interpreting what was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’.

Today there are dozens of military museums all over Britain where the sacrifices of a whole generation of young men can be explored. Here is a small selection, as well as some excellent websites on the subject.

a photo of a room full of First World War militaria including signs and a uniformed mannequin
© IWM (Q 2943)

The precursor of the Imperial War Museum, the National War Museum Store at Hesdin, September 1917.

IWM London, is undoubtedly the finest collection of objects, archives and artworks relating to the First World War an it opened its doors  ambitious redevelopment project.

The first phase of the redevelopment comes in time for the beginning of the centenary of the First World War, with a new atrium and brand new First World War Gallery.

Featuring over 1300 objects from the IWM's peerless collection, the gallery also boasts around 60 interactives and films and a newly designed Trench Experience. 

The museum's collections can also be explored via the website where a search of the First World War objects and archives yields pages and pages dealing with different aspects of the First World War and the collections held at the museum.

shows a cenotaph-shaped memorial made out of foliage

This 'floral' temporary cenotaph was erected in Bowling Park, Bradford, shortly after the war. Just one of the images held by the UK Inventory of War Memorials. © UKNIWM.

Also in London the National Army Museum in Chelsea is also currently closed for a major redevelopment - but its collections and curatorial expertise is very much active for the centenary with a programme of exhibitions in partner museums across the UK. 

a black and white photograph of a shatttered battle landscape with tree stumps

The remains of Delville Wood after fierce fighting in July 1916. © NAM

The National Army Museum 's online exhibition First World War in Focuswww.nam.ac.uk/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/western-front-1918 also offers a guide to the outbreak of the First World War and includes films about uniforms, weaponry and equipment of the British soldier in 1914.

You don't have to live in London to see more about the 1914-18 war. Regimental and Corps Museums offer a rich seam of material and displays about the conflict. You can explore them all via www.armymuseums.org.uk but a good example is the Durham Light Infantry Museum & Durham Art Gallery.

During the First World War thousands of volunteers from the mines, shipyards, farms, shops, schools, offices and industries of County Durham joined the DLI.

By 1918, the Durhams had raised 43 battalions - like the Durham Pals. 13,000 of these brave men never returned.

The Durham Light Infantry’s medal collection - Local Heroes - is a superb collection of over 3,000 medals awarded to over 1,000 men who served in the regiment. Many of them were awarded during the First World War and the museum's website features a fully searchable database that allows you to discover some of the stories behind them.

close-up photo of a the inscribed horizontal bar of a wooden cross
Gallant officers are remembered on this cross, usually sited at St Andrew's Church, Bishop Auckland. Courtesy Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery

To mark the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme the museum re-united three crosses erected on the bloody battlefield of the Somme in memory of County Durham soldiers who died there.

Together with archival material seldom seen by the public, the exhibition related personal stories of some of the 130 Durham soldiers who died in the attack the crosses commemorate. Read the Culture24 News Story about the Durham crosses.

Located in Balhousie Castle, Hay Street, Perth, the Black Watch Regimental Museum is part of the Regimental Headquarters of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment.)

The prayer book that saved the life of James Grant of the Black Watch when he was struck in the breast by a German bullet. Picture © Black Watch Museum

A display features a recreated trench scene complete with sound effects, a kilt worn in WWI still covered with Flanders mud and the colours of the 6th Battalion who were awarded the Croix de Guerre as a unit in 1918.

25 Black Watch Battalions served in the First World War, with more than 50,000 men passing through the Regiment. 8,000 of them were killed and over 20,000 wounded.

The display also features a replica headstone and silk banners printed with all the names of those killed. There's also a continuous video narrated by WWI Black Watch veteran Gilbert Cross who died in 2004.

Over on Merseyside, The Museum Of Liverpool has a poignant collection of objects used by soldiers in the First World War on show within a reconstructed trench.

In the Battle Gallery you can read a blood-stained diary; see objects hit by shells and bullets; watch actual footage of the King's Regiment on the Western Front and even hear a soldier describing conditions in the trenches.

The North West and Lancashire in particular is worth explorinig for WWI displays and exhibitions. The Museum of Lancashire's Lancashire Goes to War gallery boasts a long trench complete with fire steps, gas attack alarms, realistic uniformed mannequins and an authentic West Spring Gun - a kind of improvised catapult for lobbing grenades.

a black and white photograph of british soldiers in a trench
In the trenches, from the Battle Gallery, Museum of Liverpool Life.

The Sherwood Foresters Regimental Museum, housed in Nottingham Castle and Derby Museum has displays depicting the history of the Regiment, including the Militia and Territorial Battalions, from the formation of the 45th Regiment in 1741 to the amalgamation with the Worcestershire Regiment in 1970.

Units of the Foresters, including many territorials, were heavily involved in the Battle of the Somme and you can learn more about their experiences on the Sherwood Foresters Museum website.

The World War 1 resource box area includes the letters of Lieutenant Valentine Sidney Wood, DCM, who served with the Sherwood Foresters Regiment 1901 - 1910, the Seaforth Highlanders 1916- 1918 and with the Sherwood Foresters 1918 - 1920.

The section also includes a downloadable map showing the attack on July 1 1916 around Gommecourt on the Somme.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum has five refurbished galleries occupying two towers of Caernarfon Castle - a World Heritage Site.

photo of a pistol
Seigfried Sassoon's Pistol - on display at the Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum

It tells the story of Wales' oldest infantry regiment, raised in 1689 and still recruiting in the Principality today.

You can learn how the Regiment won 14 Victoria Crosses and hear the words of famous writers who served with the Royal Welch during the First World War, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, Frank Richards and Hedd Wyn.

The Rifles - Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum houses the long and illustrious history of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, the Wiltshire Regiment, the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire & Wiltshire Regiment (the latter shared with the Soldiers of Gloucestershire museum).

Situated in Salisbury's Cathedral Close, the public displays are housed on the ground floor of a grade 2 listed building dating from the 13th Century.

shows a brass tin with a woman's head on it and a bullet hole to the left of the tin
Tobacco tin, a Christmas gift to all soldiers from HRH Princess Mary in 1914. This example, damaged by a German bullet, reputedly saved the life of the owner. © The Wardrobe

The museum's excellent website has more than 2,000 images of collection objects and photographs. The website also has unique searchable transcripts of 13 battalion war diaries from the First World War (over 12,000 records).

Click here to visit the museum's website - oddly titled The Wardrobe, after the museum building.

The Lloyd George Museum & Highgate Cottage, Llanystumdwy, has some items of very special and poignant interest. The museum features caskets and scrolls presented to him as freedom honours, mainly for his work as Prime Minister when he led the country during the First World War.

There are also medals, paintings, photographs and documents, such as the Versailles Treaty, which was signed at the end of the First World War.

For many the First World War remains synonymous with the trenches. To get to the heart of this quintessentially Great War image a visit to the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham is essential.

It was the Royal Engineers who designed, developed and in many cases built the trench systems of the Western Front. They were also in charge of accommodation, tunnelling, army camps, new developments in military weapons technology and even oversaw the introduction of the Mills Bomb.

By the end of the war The Corps increased in size from 20,000 to 300,000 men and the museum features a fine collection including a battered pickelhaube, grave markers; sepia photographs; a tunneler’s mask and gas masks as well as a flame thrower, gas shells and a taster of the museum’s large collection of artworks – much of it by Corps members.

a photo of a full face gasmask
A German gasmask fashioned from a Pickelhaube helmet - just one of the many amazing artefacts to be found at the Royal Engineers Museum. Photo © Richard Moss / Culture24

Plans are currently afoot to redevelop their ‘trench experience’ display to give visitors an immersive understanding of the sapper’s life underground, but in the meantime look out for the camouflage detachment display including a rare papier-mâché general’s head used in the trenches as a sniper decoy and some lively caricatures of German soldiers – used for target practice.

The museum also holds several Victoria Crosses awarded to Royal Engineers, among them the VC awarded posthumously to Sapper Hackett, the only tunneler to win a VC in the First World War.

Of all the killing machinery developed during the First World War, the tank is arguably the most dramatic and enduring. The Tank Museum at Bovington, Dorset, has many relics of the trench wars of 1914-18 and holds the biggest collection of First World War tanks to survive anywhere in the world.

The museum's Mark V is one of the last First World War tanks to remain in full operating condition and their Mark II actually fought in the Battle of Arras in 1917. You can even get inside the Mark V** which has a fascinating walk-through facility.

a museum interior with part of first world war tank
Get inside the Mark V** At Bovington. Courtesy Bovington Tank Museum

Also in the museum is a dramatic trench display telling a soldier's story - from being recruited into the army, arriving on a railway platform, walking theroad to the trenches, walking through a British trench, passing through nomans land and then finally entering a German trench as a tank breaks overthe top.

Rural Bedfordshire may seem a long way from the Somme, but the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway was built in 1919 with materials and equipment that were surplus from the light railways which had supplied the trenches during the Great War.

The collection includes an armoured petrol locomotive, on loan from the National Railway Museum, of a type built for WW1 service in France (locally in Bedford), and later used to haul trains at Leighton Buzzard.

Pride of the collection is an American-built Baldwin steam locomotive, built in 1917 for work on the battlefield supply lines, and then used for another 60 years in India. The railway recently launched an appeal for up to £100,000 to put the survivor back into working order.

The railway has established a twinning agreement with the Froissy-Cappy-Dompierre Railway in Picardy. This is the last surviving fragment of the Somme battlefield supply lines, with an excellent museum.

photo shows a group of soldiers marching past the photographer, looking relaxed, some smiling at the camera
Men of the 10th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, returning from the trenches. © Imperial War Museum

The Liverpool Scottish Regimental Museum is open to visitors on a limited basis, normally on a Wednesday afternoon/evening (2 pm to 7 pm and later by arrangement) and other times by arrangement.

The collection includes cases containing tunics and weapons from men who served during the First World War as well as war diaries, photographs and other ephemera.

If you can't arrange a visit, the website is also worth a look www.liverpoolscottish.org.uk/ as it includes an exhibition in progress called 'The Trench' exploring trench life during the Great War.

a photograph of a large ornamental tower set within grounds
Erected on the site of the famous advance of the Ulster Division on the 1st July 1916, the Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval, France commemorates the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 36th (Ulster) Division who laid down their lives in the First World War. Picture © Gavin Greenwood

The Somme Heritage Centre commemorates the involvement of the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions in the Battle of the Somme, the 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli, Salonika and Palestine and provides displays and information on the entire Irish contribution to the First World War.

With a remit to promote cross-community contact, mutual understanding and an appreciation of cultural diversity the centre is the research HQ of the Somme Association of Northern Ireland.

A flagship project, the centre brings together archives, photographs and audio together and presents then with a dramatic recreations of trenches in the form of the Front Line experience.

a photograph of a woodland with trench lines still visible in it
Delville Wood was the scene of fierce fighting between the South Africans and Germans - many of the dead still lie beneath the earth whilst Delville Wood Cemetery contains 5,493 burials. Almost two-thirds of these are unknown. Picture © Gavin Greenwood

Now a brief look at some of the other websites dedicated to the 1914-18 war.

Tom Morgan's Hellfire Corner web pages are extensive, scholarly and regularly updated. Well worth a visit at www.fylde.demon.co.uk/welcome.htm

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at www.cwgc.org/ is the first place to visit for many people seeking to trace lost relations who fought for their country.

An exhaustive list of British military museums can be found at www.armymuseums.org.uk/, the website of the Army Museum's Ogilby Trust.

The Great War Archive contains over 6,500 items contributed by the general public between March and June 2008. A flickr group continues to grow where people can post their own photos relating to the First World War.

www.worldwar1.com/ is another excellent place to study the history of World War One on the web.

a photograph of a stone with Mametz Wood 1916 carved into it and a woodland in the background
Mametz Wood - the 38th (Welsh) Division were cut down attacking the wood in the distance. © Gavin Greenwood

The Western Front Association was formed to further interest in the period 1914-1918. Its principle objective is to perpetuate the memory, courage and comradeship of those, on all sides, who served their country in France and Flanders. It does not seek to glorify war, is entirely non-political and welcomes members of all ages.

Another excellent website covering the period is Chris Baker's effort: www.1914-1918.net is a scholarly and well researched site with particularly good links to other sites.

The Imperial War Museum have an extensive and emotive website called The Fatal Salient - a view of the First World War through the eyes of the artist Harold Sandys Williamson.

For many people the works of the First World War poets mark the introduction to the horrors of the War and the IWM's online exhibition of their 2003 show Anthem for Doomed Youth remains a vital resource for understanding their work.

IWM Collections is an excellent port of call for anyone interested in the First World War and includes an overview of British Service Medals from the war.

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