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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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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 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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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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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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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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EVA16_TomFlanagan and Megs Morley_A History of Stone ,Origin and Myth_2016_HD Video, Colour ,Sound Image courtesy of Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley_Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley_2 edit 2

A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016), Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley, Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley

‘I grew up with that border and I wouldn’t want it back again…’ intones the septuagenarian taxi driver taking me from Shannon Airport to Limerick. He is speaking of the boundary separating British-governed Ulster in the north from the Republic of Ireland, which since 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, abolished border controls, symbolically softening an 800 year-long conflict. Now, in the aftermath of June’s referendum, the border’s return seems inevitable:  a clear indicator of the disruption to the Irish peace process resulting from Brexit.

I am visiting EVA Interantional, Ireland’s biennale of contemporary art, coinciding this year with the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, a calamitous event, which definitively swung popular opinion against the British Administration leading to the War of Independence and the constitutional division of the country.

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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.

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