Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog

 

© IWM, LBY 83 / 726: The façade of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, in 1943. Photos and quotations are extracts of F. Fesel’s personal account, titled: ‘San Carlo souvenir: Personal Impressions of a Season of Opera at the San Carlo Opera House, Naples – 1943/44’.

“The place seemed to be a theatre. The doors were locked and he wanted to enter. […] The place had been hit, and a bomb had made a big opening there and, before he realized what he was doing, he was climbing up over piles of masonry, and was soon among the ruins of the former lounge.”

On 4 November 1943, just over a month after the first Allied troops entered war-torn Naples, Lt. Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery made his first acquaintance with the ruins of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in the world. The theatre had been closed in 1942 and it was now in a terrible state: bomb damage had blasted the foyer, debris and layers of dust covered the internal surfaces, there was no electricity or water and a German machine gun nest was still installed on its roof. The British requisitioned the building and, under Peter Francis’s authority, on 15 November 1943, with the frontline just 30 miles away, the theatre officially re-opened its doors to soldiers and civilians.

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A woman in a grubby coat sorting items salvaged from her home stops to drink a cup of tea given to her by a member of the Salvation Army. Lytcott Grove / Playfield Crescent, Dulwich, London, 18 January 1943. © IWM HU 136931.

George Orwell calculated that the tea ration – 2oz per week during the Second World War – could be eked out to twenty cups a week. So important was tea considered to be for the welfare of the nation that pensioners were allocated a slightly larger ration. Orwell’s ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, published in 1946, illustrates its importance in British culture. He described the eleven stages required for making the perfect cup of tea, the etiquette surrounding tea-drinking and the varied uses for tea leaves from fortune-telling to cleaning carpets.

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In works on French history, the word ‘Occupation’ (often capitalised) is heavily associated with the Occupation of the Second World War, France’s ‘Dark Years’ of 1940–44. However, whilst this was and remains the defining experience of military occupation for the French, there were other instances of this phenomenon in the country’s modern history. In the case of the First World War, when the war of movement subsided in September – October 1914 around 2.1 million French people found themselves cut off from the rest of the country by the trench networks running from the coast to the Swiss border. The German armies occupied most of Belgium, partially occupied nine French départements (counties), and fully occupied one (the Ardennes). The military authorities installed constant patrols at the Belgian and Dutch borders, and erected barbed-wire and electric fences. As such, inhabitants of the occupied zone were trapped behind the German lines, and forced to live with the national enemy for the next four years – sometimes literally, lodging with soldiers or officers. The occupied French, subjected to numerous rules and regulations imposed upon them by the enemy military authorities (eg. requisitions and curfews), therefore lived a different war to their ‘free’ compatriots. Indeed, when philanthropist and future American president Herbert Hoover – who had established the Commission for Relief in Belgium in April 1915 to help feed the hungry populations of the occupied zone – visited occupied northern France, he described it as ‘like a vast concentration camp.’

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In October of last year, staff and students at IWM heard the sad news that the historian and writer Ben Shephard had died. His contributions ranged over a number of subjects but perhaps the most groundbreaking was his study of soldiers and psychiatrists, A War of Nerves (2000). In this, he tracked the progression of military psychiatry, from the Shellshock of the First World War through to the advent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of America’s involvement in Vietnam and onto the emergence of Gulf War Syndrome. A War of Nerves generated insights into the lessons of military psychiatry which had been learned and forgotten, and, also into the driving social forces that have acted on evolving conceptualisations and interventions in trauma related stress reactions. 

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North Head Quarantine Station © Hannah Mawdsley

North Head Quarantine Station has been a place of quarantine for those wishing to enter Australia since the 1830s. Situated on a headland to the North East of Sydney Harbour, it is ideally sited to monitor maritime and naval traffic. During the deadly ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 it was particularly heavily used, to quarantine both military and civilian vessels and personnel. While held here, many passengers engaged in an activity that had been happening at this site for decades; they marked their time and presence there by inscribing on the sandstone cliffs.

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Recruits file into a recruiting office. Treaty Lodge, Hounslow, the HQ of the 8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, September 1917. © IWM.

In 1917 George Elliott Dodds, a writer and editor at the Department of Information, suggested publishing a series of photographically illustrated booklets showing various war activities on the Home Front. After three years of war, the potential propaganda value of such publications for combating war weariness and maintaining domestic morale was recognised. However, the Department of Information lacked the resources required to deliver such an ambitious project, relying at the time on commercial picture agencies to supply all the photographs it required.

Consequently, in June 1917 Ivor Nicholson, in charge of Pictorial Propaganda, wrote to the Treasury for permission to employ a full time photographer, arguing that in order to deliver Dodds’ scheme there had to be a photographer permanently attached to his department. Nicholson already had someone in mind for the post. He added: ‘For some time since I have been here, I have been in touch with Mr. Horace W. Nicholls, an expert photographer…I am confident that this gentleman is fully qualified to act as our own photographer.’ The Treasury agreed to Nicholson’s request and in early August Horace Nicholls took up his appointment.

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Aldwych, London, 30 June 1944. © IWM, HU 129151.

Much has been published about the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ in London, and how the official representation of how Londoners ‘carried on’ was often at odds with the truth of nightly looting from bombed houses, crimes committed during the blackout, homelessness and the mass burials of bomb victims. Yet myths are still prevalent in the images which are routinely circulated: the dome of St Paul’s rising intact from the smoke from the burning City, the staged photograph of city gents selecting books in the ruined Holland House Library, the milkman continuing with his delivery round across the rubble after a night of heavy bombing. Images once made familiar will tend to be chosen again and again – picture researchers, publishers, museum curators – all have played a role in the perpetuating of certain stock images.

Holland House Library, London, 22 October 1940, © IWM, HU 131632.

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From the Old Comrades Association Gazette​, Vol VI, November 1925. ©IWM.

On 24 June, the National Army Museum held a conference entitled ‘Women and the Army: One Hundred Years of Progress?’ to commemorate the centenary of women’s entry into the armed forces. The conference brought together researchers as well as current servicewomen, with papers discussing women’s experiences in the military from 1917 to the present day.

The first three papers focusing on the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the first voluntary women’s military unit established in 1917. Following this, a particularly fascinating paper was given by Dr. Katrina Kirkwood on the experiences of women doctors during the First World War, inspired by her own grandmother who was one of the first female doctors to be recruited by the army. Many of the papers unsurprisingly concentrated on women’s direct involvement with the military, either as auxiliaries or soldiers. But the paper given by Sarah Paterson from the Imperial War Museum highlighted the important role of Army Schoolmistresses, who despite their non-military status nonetheless played a vital role in army life.

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V for victory soldier

© IWM (K 1254), December 1941

 

This photograph of an Indian soldier on board a troop ship to Singapore in 1941 confronts us with a familiar gesture from the Imperial War Museums archives. The soldier thrusts his head and arm through the ship’s porthole, and appropriates Churchill’s well-recognised ‘V for Victory’ symbol with the fore and middle fingers of his right hand. Incidentally, he isn’t attempting to be rude! Churchill himself didn’t realise that the ‘V for Victory’ symbol made with the palm inwards could be an insult until his aides briefed him.

This physical gesture, frozen in motion by the wartime photographic lens, punctures our Eurocentric memory of the Second World War with a non-white colonial presence. The soldier’s smiling youthful face attests to the two-and-a-half million men from undivided India swept up by military recruitment for the British Empire – widely regarded as the largest volunteer army in the world.

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© Horace Nicholls Estate. Reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate'.

© Horace Nicholls Estate. Reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate.

As the first official photographer on the Home Front, Horace Nicholls documented the impact of total war on the British people during the First World War. After the war, Nicholls photographed the unveiling of the Cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. However, underlying these records of national mourning and collective remembrance there is also a story of personal loss. One hundred years ago, on 9 April, Easter Monday, 1917, Nicholls’ eldest son, George, was killed on the opening day of the Battle of Arras. He was just 22.

In 1914, George had been amongst the first to enlist, joining the Honourable Artillery Company as a private. By early 1917, he was serving as a second lieutenant with the 15th (Warwick) Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery. On 5 April he wrote home:

“Great news! I am going up to the guns tomorrow morning early. I feel so relieved, as life at wagon line is very tedious and uninteresting.”

Three days later, he wrote again:

“I am now with the Battery…I have no news for you except that I am well and very cheerful. My love to everyone. George.”

George was killed the next day.

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