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‘Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers went to the folk-dancing department; Mr Pauling went to woodcuts and weaving; Mr Digby-Smith was given the Arctic circle; Mr Bentley himself, after a dizzy period in which, for a day, he directed a film about postmen, for another day filed press-cuttings from Istanbul, and for the rest of the week supervised the staff catering, found himself at length back beside his busts in charge of the men of letters.’

Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags (London, 1942)

Thus, does Evelyn Waugh describe muddled reform within the Ministry of Information. First mooted in 1935, organised in secret and briefly activated during the Munich Crisis of 1938, the Ministry of Information (MOI) formally came into being on the day of Britain’s declaration of war. Over the next two years much would be made of supposed confusion within the MOI which was the subject of vehement criticism, not least from journalist Norman Riley in his scathing book 999 and All That (a reference to the number of staff reportedly employed by the Ministry). Pilloried in the press and lampooned by comedians, the MOI experienced four changes of Minister between 1939 and 1941. Yet perhaps the most notable early blunder concerning Britain’s wartime information policy was not in fact of its making.

(D 1199) A Mobile Film Unit car leaving MoI headquarters at Senate House London; 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205195723

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© IWM, LBY 83 / 726: The façade of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, in 1943. Photos and quotations extracted from 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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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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Fashionable ladies at the races, by Horace Nicholls © IWM

Fashionable ladies at the races. Photograph by Horace Nicholls, reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate.

17 February, 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of an important and yet comparatively little-known British photographer. Perhaps more than any other photographer, Horace Nicholls has shaped our perception of Britain during the first decades of the twentieth century. Even though his name is probably unfamiliar, you will almost certainly recognise his iconic images of fashionable upper class ladies at Ascot or, in stark contrast, women munitions workers during the First World War.

During the early twentieth century, Horace Nicholls was one of Britain’s best known photographers. As one of the first photojournalists, Nicholls’s work shaped that of succeeding generations. Nicholls photographed the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. He clarified legal copyright in photographs in a landmark court case in 1901. He photographed Edwardian social and sporting events and documented the impact of total war on the British people. As Britain’s first official photographer on the Home Front, he had unique access, particularly to women war workers. After the war, at the invitation of the Women’s War Work Sub Committee, Nicholls became the first head of the new Imperial War Museum’s photographic studio where he worked to secure and develop the museum’s photographic collections.

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From left to right: Paul Cornish, Jamie Carlin, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Vikki Hawkins and Anna Ravenscroft of the IWM Second World War Galleries team

From left to right: Paul Cornish, Jamie Carlin, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Vikki Hawkins and Anna Ravenscroft of the IWM Second World War Galleries team

‘The test has now begun.’

These five words, which have struck fear into the hearts of many, seem oddly out of place in the Wellcome Collection’s impressive Reading Room. It’s not just the location, rather that all participants including five from the IWM’s Second World War Galleries team, are wearing false moustaches. How better to get into the mind-set of a would-be British Army officer in 1942?

To celebrate the opening of the Tavistock Institute Archive papers on the War Office Selection Boards or WOSBs (pronounced wos-bees) at the Wellcome Library, a series of innovative workshops have been created to allow visitors to undergo the same military psychology tests that were used over 70 years ago. Although never kept a secret during the war, it has only been through the doctoral research of Alice White, and the meticulous cataloguing of the Tavistock Institute Archives by Elena Carter, that a wealth of information about the creation and development of the WOSBs testing programme has been uncovered. Co-created with Matt Gieve of the Tavistock Institute, these workshops will no doubt run for more than the initial four sessions planned.

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John Siblon, ‘Between Hierarchy and Memory: Commemoration of African and Caribbean Servicemen after the First World War’. Photo: ©IWM

I was invited to speak at a workshop on 15 October at the Imperial War Museum, London, on black people’s involvement in the First World War. I was honoured to be part of a panel where the work of each speaker complemented one another. I was asked to present my findings on research into the commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen after the war ended. I was also asked to give my thoughts, along with the panellist Anna Maguire, one of IWM’s PhD students, on photos from the IWM’s collection on soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment, the South African Native Labour Corps, and the Nigeria Regiment, and finally a session with questions to the panel. 

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Dirty Wars: A Century of Counterinsurgency by Simon Innes-Robbins ©IWM

Dirty Wars: A Century of Counterinsurgency by Simon Innes-Robbins ©IWM

It was with great delight and pleasure that I received copies of my book, Dirty Wars: A Century of Counterinsurgency, which was published by The History Press on 6 October and will be published in North America in February 2017. This is the first book written for IWM by a member of staff to fully explore the origins and continuing importance and relevance of counterinsurgency.

‘Who is the enemy?’ This is the question most asked in modern warfare; gone are the set-piece conventional battles of the past. Once seen as secondary to more traditional conflicts, irregular warfare (as modified and refashioned since the 1990s) now presents a major challenge to the state and the bureaucratic institutions which have ruled the twentieth century, and to the politicians and civil servants who formulate policy.

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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.

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