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Former POWs, Internees and the widows of POWs.

Special guests at June’s conference: former POWs (from bottom right: George Reynolds, Tom Boardman and Bob Hucklesby); FEPOW widow (Merle Hesp); and former internees (from top left: internees Els and Connie Suverkropp, Romee Hindle, and Olga Henderson). Courtesy of LSTM/Brian Roberts.

2015 has been a poignant year. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, veterans and their families came together throughout the summer to reflect, remember and renew their commitment to sharing the stories of wartime.

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In a frame from the film THE TRUE GLORY, a British Army Film and Photographic Unit cameraman and photographer, Sgt Mike Lewis, is caught on camera as he films the burial of the dead following the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. (c) IWM FLM 1232

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, staff at IWM engaged with popular forms of history in order to publicise its collections, exhibitions and research facilities. In particular, the use of film in understanding history was increasingly significant in attracting public audiences, and as a subject for debate in universities.

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‘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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