The Great War: Truth and Memory – A Visit to The Imperial War Museum
Welcome to our month-long commemoration of the centenary of World War 1. On Monday 4 August 2014 it will have been 100 years since Britain declared war on Germany. We at Cemetery Club do not have Jeremy Paxman hidden up our sleeves and we recognize that, as people born in the 1980’s, whose own Grandparents were born after the war ended, we have limited knowledge on the subject and are less than qualified to write about it with any sort of authority. We have, however, been learning about The Great War this year and would like to pay tribute to the millions of people, both soldier and civilian, who lost their lives because of it. The nationality isn’t important – it is important that we remember them all.
We’ll be posting two blog posts a week on the World War One theme, and we’ll be keeping it simple. Fancy writing, big words and the demonstration of our knowledge isn’t important here. It’s about learning, trying to understand, and remembrance.
It’s important we remember so that what happened then doesn’t happen again. Although actually, it is happening in various forms, as we speak, in different parts of the world. Let’s remember those that have given their lives for the pursuit of peace, and continue to do so.
‘Nearly 100 years ago , while the First World War was still being fought, many people from across Britain sent their own letters, diaries, photographs and personal momentoes into the newly formed Imperial War Museum, so that future generations would understand and remember their experiences of war.’
– The Imperial War Museum
It begins with learning. And so I rang up my Dad.
‘I want to go to the Imperial War Museum‘.
‘….Okay. When are you free?’
And so, without a hello, it was settled, and off we went. I actually had no idea the museum had been closed for refurbishment and so it was good timing that I decided we should go on the weekend that it reopened.
In the end, we settled for a Monday, because I thought it would be less busy.
It wasn’t less busy. Obviously some of the schools had already broken up for summer because there were lots of families there, and also lots of tourists, and lots of war enthusiasts (I was virtually knocked over at the entrance by an excited trio of men in their 30’s rushing forwards exclaiming ‘Lets go look at stuff that blows things up!’) and then just lots of people like me, who obviously had an interest in the museum and what it held.
We fought our way down the main path, past the giant cannons in the courtyard, nearly tripping over eager Instagrammers who were blocking the way taking photographs with their phones and into the entrance hall, where Spitfires hung from the ceiling and a queue for the World War One Galleries, the very exhibit I had come to see, stretched around the stairwells and back into the gift shop. I found a volunteer in a red shirt. ‘This queue is for ticket holders only’ she informed me apologetically. ‘It’s booked up until 4pm and then we *might* be opening it up to the general public, depending on how full we are.’ I looked at my watch. It was 1.15. My Dad raised his eyebrows. A woman next to us stood by, equally dismayed at the news that we may not get in today. But then she turned to us and said ‘well, it’s good that there’s so much interest!’ and she was right.
I guess I never thought of World War One as being something the general public would be particularly interested in. For various reasons. I mean, it happened a hundred years ago, there’s now no-one left alive who was an adult during it, and it’s quite a complicated war to understand. At school, it was boring. I enjoyed learning about World War 2 but despite being made to write essays on the subject of How Did World War One Start? I could never get my head around it. I think most people (bar historians and my mother, who can tell you exactly what happened without consulting Google) have the same difficulty. Okay, so there was a country that was made up of two countries…(Austria-Hungary) and someone who may or may not have been Serbian shot a guy who had a 21st Century indie band named after him….and then Germany got involved….and then we got involved…but how?? And at that point your head explodes with confusion.
(I wonder how many people understood the many and complex reasons for going to war at the time?)
I guess it’s just doesn’t seem fashionable to learn about history, but looking at this queue, which is made up of the entire population of London…on a Monday…I am obviously wrong. August marks the centenary month of The Great War and it’s on our minds, as a nation. And we want to know more. And so here we are.
Dad and I decide to find other things to do in the museum until 4pm, and it turns out there’s a LOT to do. This is a whole day out, and we should have got here earlier. We climb up to the 4th floor to look at 3 galleries full of World War One art by a selection of official WW1 artists that were commissioned by the Department of Information to go out to the front lines and depict the war in a way that made it look glorious and triumphant. These included Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson and William Orpen. Some did and some worked to their own agenda – there were paintings of extreme grit and violence and others that found beauty in the landscapes that had been ravaged by trenches and shellfire. There was modernism and realism and even renaissance work, and right at the back, a selection of work by a group of women who were commissioned to produce art inspired by what they saw on the home fronts. None of their work was bought and so it got donated to the Imperial War Museum. This is the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years. It is spread over 3 galleries – put aside at least an hour for this.
We took the lift to the very top floor and visited an exhibition of Victoria and George Cross recipients and learned about the criteria for receiving such an award. We saw medals on display and read about dozens of acts of pure heroism.
We visited the restaurant, which was incredibly impressive, and Dad ate a superfood salad that despite being made up pretty much entirely of broccoli and green beans, was stunning to look at and delicious to taste, and I sipped Earl Grey and lamented the fact that there is nobody left alive to talk to about the Great War, no-one who can give us a first hand account, and so the war is confined now to shelves and exhibits and photographs and paintings, and it has become the stuff of true history. And so it is good that these museums exist, so that we can see these exhibits and remember that these things really did happen.
a selection of trench signposts
It was with that on my mind that we did gain entrance to the World War One Galleries at ten past four, after queuing for only 15 minutes or so. And I got to see actual documents from the war – handwritten letters by soldiers to their families, including a postcard that a soldier had sent to his family on Christmas Day 1914, that had a cartoon of a British soldier lassoing a German soldier on it – and I stared at it and thought – ‘I could have drawn that yesterday. But it’s a hundred years old’ and I was amazed.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, I saw a preserved hard biscuit that had been part of the war rations at the front line – a soldier had used it to write a message to his family. There was a letter that a 9 year old boy had written to Lord Kitchener, expressing his desire to fight at the front line despite being much too young.
And so it went on. Document after document, relic after relic. Handwriting and hand drawings and yellowing paper in glass cabinets and a plethora of other things that reminded you that this wasn’t just something that existed in a story – this REALLY HAPPENED. So much information from all the conflicting sides – the British vs the Germans, the government vs the common man, those who volunteered to fight vs those who opposed…
And I tried my best to empathize with all the different factions….our soldiers, the Germans, conscientious objectors, women, children… and pretty soon I was so exhausted from all the learning and the attempts to understand every position and sympathize with them that I felt the need to sit down, and then go home and lie down in a dark room and think about it all for a while. A more comprehensive account of World War One I have never before seen.
And all around me was evidence of every generation finding understanding of war on their own level. Children ran through the vast entrance hall excitedly screeching Bombs! Guns! Planes! and tourists stood around in groups reeling off lists of battlefields and cemeteries they have visited in northern France, and I saw an elderly man in a suit, perhaps a veteran of World War II, standing very quietly and still, studying an account of a soldier from the First World War, and somewhere in the middle of it all was me, just watching and trying to learn and picture it, and trying to understand it all.
There’s a lot to think about.
And a lot to see at the Imperial War Museum. I recommend you go, but that you dedicate a whole day to the experience. You’ll need it and it will be worth it.
The Imperial War Museum is located on Lambeth Road, London SE1 and is open daily between 10am and 6pm, with last admission at 5.30pm. General admission is free.
The First World War Galleries are open daily and admission is free. Arrive early.
Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is open daily, and admission is free. It runs until 8 March 2015.
The Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes showcases the largest collection of Victoria Crosses in the world, as well as several George Crosses. It is open daily and admission is free.
Photographs by Christina Owen 2014
You can find out about activities and events taking place in your area to mark the centenary of the First World War by visiting 1914.org