Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog

‘It took an army to make this exhibition’, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told her audience and ‘having scholars in charge of each section had been the key to the Museum’s success’.  In May I attended a conference seven months after the opening of the core exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the conclusion of the eight- year project, those involved in the Museum’s creation were keen to open debate on what had worked well and what less so, and to identify the gaps in Polish Jewish history requiring further historical effort.  The core exhibition offered a starting point for that discussion.

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East German construction workers, supervised by border guards, building the Berlin Wall, 1961. © IWM HU 73012.

The official history of the Cold War holds that the military and political divide between Eastern and Western blocs was cemented in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War as allied relationships cooled.

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On 1st August 2009 I visited Warsaw to take part in the 65th anniversary commemorations. The occasion was organised by the ambitiously conceived Museum of the Warsaw Uprising which tells the story of this epic event.  On 1st August 1944 soldiers of the Polish Home Army, supported by citizens of Warsaw, rose up against the German occupiers. After five years of occupation,  “Operation Bagration” had brought the Red Army to the gates of the Polish capital.

A German prisoner being led away by troops of the Kiliński Battalion, Home Army after the capture of the PAST building on Zielna Street, 20 August 1944. © IWM HU 31070.

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Simon Black, ‘The Martyr’, oil on canvas, © The Estate of Simon Black, Art.IWM ART 17558.

Visions of War Above and Below’ curated by Claire Brenard at IWM London explores how artists have used both the aerial perspective and that ‘from below’ to explore how these different, at times dramatic perspectives, can convey both power and vulnerability in the face of modern warfare. 

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 Tipperary scarf

A song sheet in the form of a scarf: “It’s a long way to Tipperary” © IWM (Q 70101)

Alexander MacGregor, a British officer who served with the Indian army, wrote about an interesting musical performance in his diary:

27 January 1915: Some time ago there was a big sing song at Fort Tanskyne, and one of the men brought down the house completely by getting up and singing in a regular shrill native chant “Tipperary” in Hindustani. But I am afraid “Bwa-kutcha Tipperary ko-hai” will not catch on at home as much as one might wish.

A  humorous aside, but the anecdote reveals the cultural encounters brought about by empire’s mobilisation in the war. Why were colonial troops singing the British standard ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’?

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C Eliot Hodgkin, ‘The Haberdashers’ Hall, 8th May 1945’, tempera on panel, © IWM, Art.IWM ART LD 5311.

June is the month when rosebay willow herb comes into flower, growing from derelict buildings, on wasteland and railway embankments across the UK. During the Second World War and in the following years, its spires of magenta flowers were common to see amidst the ruins and cleared bomb sites, hence the name it was given at the time – fireweed.

Yet to flower in this painting of May 1945, the fireweed is depicted at the very forefront of the remains of Haberdashers’ Hall, Staining Lane, which was destroyed during one of the worst night raids of the Blitz on the 28/29 December 1940.

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A cartoon from the First World War period by Frank Holland “An Object Lesson: This Little Pig stayed at Home” depicting a lazy conscientious objector who stayed at home while the rest of his family contributes to the war effort. Holland, an artist, worked as a cartoonist for Lord Harmsworth from the 1890s until the First World War. His work appeared in various magazines and newspapers, including the Daily Mail. © IWM (Q 103334).

Men took the stance of Conscientious Objector (CO) and refused to participate in the First World War for a myriad of reasons. Indeed, the highly personal nature of an individual’s ‘conscience’ meant that there were almost as many reasons for objecting as there were objectors. Many COs belonged to religious groups such as the Quakers who held a traditional commitment to peace whilst others objected on political grounds, primarily on the basis of socialist beliefs. Yet, the distinction between religious and political objectors was not necessarily clear cut as many COs based their objection on a combination of religious and political reasons whilst others objected for reasons that bore little relation to religion or politics, making the study of COs as a homogenous group problematic.

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During the Second World War the German Army established a number of POW facilities in the artillery forts in the old Hanseatic city of Thorn (Toruń ) in northern Poland. The camp bore number Stammlager  (Stalag) XXA and held Allied prisoners of various nationalities.

Bridge linking courtyard and entrance gate to Fort XI of Stalag XXA. © IWM DC 552.

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American airmen with British civilians after VE Day

US official photograph showing American airmen having a drink with Brits outside the Waggon and Horses pub in Great Yeldham, near their base at Ridgewell, Essex, on 17 May 1945. They are gathered around a now defunct local pastime: ‘Bet! V.E. before July’ (FRE 13699)

The American airmen did not simply pack up their bags and board troop ships as the final notes of the VE Day big band faded away. Instead, the Roger Freeman Collection of photographs shows how they spent the time between the end of war and their return home, up in the air and on the ground.

One of the quirks of researching the impact of American airmen on Britain during the Second World War is that very often airfields across East Anglia remained in American hands until the winter of 1945. By November of that year, the bright days of May had faded somewhat and although the August news relieved airmen of possible duty in the Pacific it must have been a homesick bunch of GIs that kicked about East Anglia, as the trees lost their leaves, waiting for orders to go home.

The Roger Freeman Collection gives a good picture of life at war but I’ve taken the chance of the approaching VE Day Anniversary Air Show coming up at IWM Duxford to find out what it reveals about what life was like for Americans in England after the Nazi surrender.

One of the stories told by Bomb Group veterans is that they used the days after VE Day to give lifts to ground crew, who had spent their days making the bombers airworthy and armed, to show them the effect of Allied bombing raids on Nazi industrial sites.

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One of IWM’s recently-acquired garments, displayed for the first time in Fashion on the Ration. This mustard wool Utility coat made by Alexon is an example of wartime design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. © IWM UNI 14387.

IWM London’s headline exhibition for the spring and summer, Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, explores how the war impacted upon an intensely personal aspect of life on the home front during the Second World War.  What did people wear and how did this shape their sense of identity? How was fashion constrained by war? How did men, women and children cope with the demands and deprivations of shortages and austerity?

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