Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog

War generates unique and unexpected experiences in civilians’ ordinary lives. But war can also exist as a surprisingly uneventful setting for everyday working lives. At the European Social Sciences and History Conference three talks encouraged me to consider ways in which war work impacted civilians’ ordinary lives through memories that reclaim, forget and negotiate popular experiences of the Second World War.

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 Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort. Stories of resistance to the war were missing from dominant narratives of remembrance and the conference sought to question what war resistance was, how acts of resistance were undertaken, and the significance of war resistance today. The presence of both academic and community focused research on resistance worked particularly well in addressing the many different facets of resistance; including the theoretical underpinnings of pacifism, international and transnational movements for peace, individual acts of conscious and unconscious resistance as well as national and local networks of resistance.

 

The conference saw a diverse range of papers presented, which covered the themes of gender and resistance, the experience of individual anti-war campaigners and the relationship between the state and war opponents. There were a number of thought-provoking papers which looked to expand our understanding of resistance to war by reinterpreting shell shock, war trauma and malingering as resistance. One of the keynotes, by Benjamin Ziemann, argued that the selfish acts of resistance such as malingering and self-mutilation were central to halting the German military machine. Other keynotes included a paper on Tolstoy’s conceptions of pacifism by Sarah Hudspith and an examination of the wartime experience of Isabella Ford, the Leeds-based feminist, socialist and pacifist, by June Hannam.

 

The second day of the conference was a public-facing event held at Leeds City Museum at which there was a variety of stalls, exhibitions, performances and talks. There was a particular focus on conscientious objection, with Lois Bibbings delivering a presentation on the parallels between representations of suffrage activists and conscientious objectors (COs) and Cyril Pearce talking about his CO database, which is available through the IWM ‘Lives of the Great War’ project, which can be found here: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org, and the mapping of local communities of resistance. There were also a number of films and cultural interpretations of resistance to war, including poetry responding to the experiences of COs and a performance by storyteller Simon Heywood based on the first-hand accounts, letters of diaries of objectors.

Overall the conference shed new light on the multi-faceted nature of resistance to the First World War and raised important questions about what counts as resistance and its significance today. IWM holds a number of collections on these themes, including an extensive collection of the personal papers of COs and recorded interviews with men and women who actively opposed the war. These documents can be searched through the online catalogue which can be found using this link: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections and the recorded interviews can be accessed online.

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Image of British Army Personnel in Sierra Leone

Since 2009 IWM has been running a project to collect the experiences of British military personnel serving in contemporary conflicts. Until last year, the dominant experience was the war in Afghanistan. But as this conflict began to draw down, British forces were deployed to help with other pressing concerns.

 

The latest IWM display, the fourth in the Contemporary Conflicts Programme, focuses on two different, concurrent deployments. Operation Gritrock was the British military’s contribution to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Operation Shader is the British element of the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the Islamic extremist group, in the Middle East.

 

As with the previous displays, Fighting Extremes utilises material gathered directly from personnel who have served on these operations. The IWM team has conducted interviews and gathered film footage, photographs and other artefacts at locations ranging from Cyprus to Belfast. A selection of this material forms the basis of the new display.

 

As a humanitarian crisis, the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 was not something that had obvious military connotations. Yet such was the rapid nature of the outbreak, only the military could help to provide the necessary speedy response. British military personnel were sent to Sierra Leone from September 2014, including engineers to help build medical facilities, medics to help staff them and infantry to provide security.

 

Included in the new display are interview clips with Corporal Anna Cross, an Army reservist nurse who was the third Briton to contract Ebola. A selection of objects, including an improvised device for washing hands and the wellington boots of another healthcare worker who contracted Ebola, show how difficult the disease was to control. Thankfully Sierra Leone was declared free of Ebola in November 2015 and Operation Gritrock was brought to an end.

 

A different form of danger is faced by personnel deployed on the ongoing Operation Shader. As part of a wider coalition against ISIS, British forces have launched air strikes, gathered surveillance and trained local opposition forces in Iraq, with air strikes recently extended to Syria.

 

Material in the display includes the experiences of Royal Air Force air crew flying aircraft ranging from GR4 Tornados to MQ-9 Reapers, the latter unmanned aircraft piloted remotely from the UK. Also on display are interviews and objects associated with infantry stationed in northern Iraq to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are fighting ISIS on the ground.

 

By looking at these contrasting operations, this new display shows how Britain’s armed forces meet a range of challenges. As recently retired General Sir Nick Parker reflects, modern conflict has “shifted from an understanding of warfare as a bi-polar affair with two sides fighting each other out to a massively complicated multi-national, multi-agency security requirement…Defence is only a part of security in this very complex world”.

 

Fighting Extremes is on at IWM London until 13 November 2016.

 

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On the evening of November 20 1983, 100 million Americans settled down to watch Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV film The Day After. The film’s focus was a familiarly normal community in rural Eastern Kansas in the lead up to, and aftermath of, nuclear war. It is shocking and arrestingly bleak viewing; moreover it was, and remained for years afterwards, the most highly rated TV film in US broadcast history. Its importance however, lies less in its status as a landmark media event than in what it demonstrates about the cultural imagination in the 1980s. The deterioration in relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact raised for a new generation the meaningful prospect of nuclear apocalypse. The Day After is only one example of a notable manifestation of a contemporaneous burgeoning – and now largely forgotten – paranoia in the popular culture of the time. It’s my conviction – and the focus for my PhD research – that such fictional responses don’t just reflect the paranoia that was a product of the period, but that that they ultimately made a necessary and significant contribution to the eventual outcome.

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As we look forward to the New Year and begin to plan the various projects which will keep us busy over 2016, it is always useful to take a step back and consider the progress already made.  For over forty years, IWM has preserved one of the most important sound archives of its kind in the world.  Established in 1972, the Department of Sound Records, as it was then called, was an offspring of the museum’s Library which at that point included a handful of gramophone records.  The following decades saw the collection grow in size until, following a major restructuring in 2010, it was merged with the Department of Documents to form the Documents and Sound Section, with myself appointed as the new Section Head.

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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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