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First World War

To mark the publication of IWM’s guide to Researching the British Empire in the First World War, Anna Maguire reflects on the challenges of remembering war and empire. 

On 12 June 2014, I attended a workshop on war, citizenship and public memory. Convened by Vron Ware and hosted by Autograph, the arts organisation based in Rivington Place, Hoxton, a number of historians, curators, campaigners and educators took part in discussions about the process of remembering war, public memory and commemoration. The discussions centred around the contribution of soldiers from empires in both world wars, and during other twentieth and twenty first century conflicts.

The session began with everyone sharing an image to represent their area of interest. These were fantastically stimulating, ranging from Ministry of Information photographs of colonial troops during the First World War, to book covers such as that researched by Stephen Bourne for his new book Black Poppies to images of current recruits from the Commonwealth in the British Army chosen by Les Back. These were then displayed on the wall as a visible reminder of our own individual perspectives and stories, but also of the collective desire to learn and teach and share more about colonial and postcolonial experiences.

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IWM London - Side View New Atrium © Foster+Partners

Side view of the atrium at IWM London © Foster+Partners

‘The description ‘permanent exhibitions’ is perhaps misleading for our main displays, since it is not the exhibitions which we regard as permanent but rather their themes and content’

Initial Brief for Redevelopment of Main Building of Imperial War Museum, November 1980 (IWM EN4/41/CF/1/1/4/8)

Making an exhibition about the First World War at IWM (Imperial War Museums) is no mean feat. Although IWM has been doing this for 97 years (and 78 years at the museum’s Lambeth Road site) as part of its remit, various factors during this period have influenced what is said, and how and even why it is said. My Collaborative Doctoral Award research focuses on these factors, through examining some of the permanent and temporary IWM First World War exhibitions between 1964 and 2014.

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The British team in Italy

The British team at a football match between British and Italian Armies. © IWM (Q 26569)

During this World Cup year, it is worth reflecting on the role of football and sport in general during the First World War. Local football teams volunteered as pals’ battalions, most famously the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, also known as the Football Battalion. Walter Tull was both the first black professional footballer and the first black officer in the British Army.

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Tank ascending a slops

Tank F4 ascending a slope at the Tank Driving School during the special training for the Battle of Cambrai at Wailly, 21 October 1917. Tanks were one of the major engineering developments of the First World War and a key achievement of the ‘boffins’ © Imperial War Museums (Q 6299)

Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer. His latest book, Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War will be published by Little, Brown on 1 May 2014.

Taylor will give the Churchill Lecture at the Churchill War Rooms on Tuesday 29 April 2014 at 7pm on the topic ‘Churchill and the “Boffins” of the First World War’. For details and how to book click here.

So much writing on the First World War concentrates on the trenches and the fighting on the Western Front. That is understandable. The terrible stories of suffering and loss, in which so many died for so little gain, reach out to everyone who has an interest in war. But there is another side to the war that hardly ever gets a look in. This is the subject of my new book, Secret Warriors. It is the story of the scientists who made a little known contribution to many aspects of the fighting. In the next war these men were given the affectionate nickname of ‘boffins’. Although that word was never used in the First World War, the ‘boffins’ in that conflict played an important role, too.

Firstly, consider aviation. In 1914 aviation was only just beyond its infancy and flying was still a seat-of-the-pants type activity. Engines generated little more than 100 horsepower and most aircraft could only stay airborne for 40 or 50 minutes. The dramatic progress in the science of aeronautics during the war meant that by 1918 some aircraft could draw on 1500 horsepower engines, could carry a heavy bomb load and stay airborne for up to 17 hours. The armed services possessed 272 aircraft in 1914. By 1918, the RAF had over 22,000 machines. The First World War created the modern aviation industry and Britain would become a major player for the next hundred years.

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Herrenhausen Gardens venue for 'The World During the First World War'

Herrenhausen Gardens, Hannover. The venue for the conference ‘The World During the First World War’. Image courtesy of Anna Maguire.

One of IWM’s new Collaborative Doctoral Award Students, Anna Maguire, describes an inspiring recent conference on the global impact of the First World War.

At the end of October, Hannover played host to the symposium ‘The World During the First World War’. This was my first academic conference as one of the IWM’s new Collaborative Doctoral Award students of 2013. My PhD is one of three which have started this autumn under the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership which IWM has with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) whereby students are embedded in national museums, libraries and archives while at the same time belonging to a university.   My focus is ‘Cultural Encounters and Cultures of the First World War’ and my study will seek to address the experience of colonial troops, on which IWM has very rich archival sources.   It complements a major new project London funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), led by Kings College, in which IWM is an Associate Partner, and also builds on work carried out by IWM’s AHRC-funded project Whose Remembrance?, led last year by my IWM co-supervisor, Suzanne Bardgett. 

Held at the beautiful Herrenhausen Gardens and hosted by the Volkswagen Foundation, the conference provided auspicious surroundings in which to begin thinking and talking about my research. It was organised by the Foundation, the University of Hanover, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin (the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies) and the German Historical Institute, London. With views from Latin America to the Middle East, via Africa and South Asia, papers were diverse and truly international. Talks from Babacar Fall about forced labour in French West Africa, from Joan Beaumont on Gallipoli, national consciousness and memory in Australia and from Samiksha Sehrawat addressing Indian voluntary aid all provoked lively questioning and debate. There were introductions to new resources for historians, including 1914-1918 Online

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Leanne Green, James Wallis and Alys Cundy at the Memory, Conflict and Space Conference at Liverpool Hope University. Photograph courtesy of The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

Sunny Liverpool played host to the Memory, Conflict and Space conference that gave three of the Collaborative Doctoral Award students at IWM the chance to present together as part of a panel on aspects of representation and memory in the museum’s  collections.The conference addressed the real, virtual, imaginary and lived spaces in which conflict unfolds and the role memorialisation has played in interpreting conflict. Papers were diverse, with subjects that ranged from Lee Miller’s haunting photographs of concentration camp inmates in Dachau, to sites of memory in post-conflict Belfast, to the varied ways in which football fans remember disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough.

On the IWM panel, Alys Cundy was up first with a paper on the memorial spaces that existed in the museum between 1920 and 1960. From bays laden with symbolism at Crystal Palace, to a ‘Hall of Honour’ at South Kensington, to enclaves of remembrance at Lambeth Road, in three different London buildings the IWM created commemorative spaces.  In these spaces the display of exhibits such as the top section of the original Cenotaph and wild flowers picked from the battlefields of the First World War meant that as well as collecting the historical records of conflict the museum also represented the urge to remember. The spaces chosen for these memorial exhibits were significant. Entrances, corridors and stairways were used as these areas framed the principal galleries, ensuring that visitors would have to pass through spaces of memory in order to learn more about the historical narrative of the war.

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The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema that documents the winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The sequel to the famous Battle of the Somme (1916), which covers the opening phase of the campaign, ‘Ancre’ should not be dismissed as Somme II. Although similar to the ‘Somme’, Battle of the Ancre is cinematically the better film  and contains haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in the winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.

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Image of a photograph of William Davey

William Davey in uniform while serving with the Dragoon Guards. (Papers of W Davey, Documents 62/179/1)

As part of a major project supported by the Wellcome Trust, I catalogued some of the IWM’s medical collections which had hitherto been largely unavailable to researchers.  A major dividend from making these newly catalogued collections more accessible is that some are now on display in the new exhibition at IWM North, Saving Lives: Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict (13 October 2012 to 1 September 2013). 

The papers of William Davey who served in the ranks with the Dragoon Guards and the Labour Corps on the Western Front, record the effects of his service on his health.  He was awarded a War Badge in December 1917, having received an honourable discharge due to ill health.  On display are his Discharge Certificate releasing him from the Army as ‘no longer physically fit’ in November 1917; a Ministry of Pensions Notification of Final Award dated 1930, providing a full ‘a pension for life’ and a Ministry of Pensions letter dated 17 March 1933 informing his widow after his death (from the effects of gas) that she would not be eligible for a widow’s pension (but could apply for one).

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Image of one of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22nd February 2010' - IWM: Damon Cleary

One of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22 February 2010' IWM: Damon Cleary

As a Collaborative Doctoral Award student working on IWM’s depiction of the First World War, I had the opportunity to attend a one-off collaborative research symposium, hosted by the IWM, on 10 February 2012.  Titled ‘Fromelles and Beyond: History, Heritage, Archaeology and Memory of the Great War’, it was organised by Dr Keir Reeves (Monash University, Australia & Kings College, London) and Professor Carl Bridge (Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, KCL).  It brought together some of Australia’s leading First World War historians with leading academics and historians from France and the UK – a thought-provoking  forum for new research on current understanding of the War.

Opening papers from Dr Jenny Macleod (Hull), reappraising the iconic Gallipoli battle from an international perspective, and IWM’s Nigel Steel, who shared the ‘Regeneration’ plans for the new First World War galleries, set up a forward-looking approach to the day.

Professor Bruce Scates (National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash) told everyone about the international project ‘Anzac Day at Home and Abroad – The Centenary History’. This ground-breaking project will investigate the history of Anzac Day, within both Australia and New Zealand, as well as its largely undocumented role within Turkey, France and the UK. Dr Catherine Moriarty (Brighton) expanded on this theme, looking at the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, and how this ties in with our respective national understandings of the conflict. Peter Francis (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) then explained recent changes in the CWGC’s mission, brought about principally by the Fromelles project.

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