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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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Kanyu Riverside Camp

Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

–        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

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WWII Filming in Burma

Filmmaking in IWM’s collections: stripped to the waist, Sergeant Basil Wishart of No 9 Army Film and Photo Section films Indian troops crossing a river near Meiktila, Burma in 1945. © IWM SE5423

On a sunny Autumn afternoon, I moved through the crowds pouring into IWM London to attend a screening of this year’s Film Festival. Launched in 2001 as a student competition by Toby Haggith, the Founding Director, the film festival is back from a three year absence to mark the reopening of the Museum.

It has expanded since its early days to include amateur and professional filmmakers and from the large number of submissions thirty-five films made the cut. Inspired by IWM’s collections, and with a chance to experiment with its unique film archive, the films cover diverse topics including the Domez Camp for Syrian refugees, letters between two lovers during the Second World War and the imagining of First World War letters on Twitter.

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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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Image of German troops advancing on the Russian army. Image courtesy of Fremantle Media.

Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer whose best selling books include works on the Second World War as well as other popular histories. Taylor also writes on the history of film and television. Recent publications include The World At War (BFI Palgrave Macmillan 2012) an account of the making of the landmark documentary series, and a number of publications on the Second World War including Night Raid (Little, Brown 2013), Spies in the Sky (Little, Brown 2011) and Churchill’s War Lab (Little, Brown 2010). Taylor is currently writing the history of a series of change making scientists from the First World War, to be published in 2014.

The World at War is forty years old! It was first shown to immense acclaim on ITV from October 1973 and it has never been off television screens somewhere in the world since. It is as popular with viewers today as it was when first shown, making it the most successful history series ever produced by British television. The title music by Carl Davis, the graphics with the flames and faces of war, the heavyweight commentary by Laurence Olivier, the stunning archive material and the brilliant interviews with those who took part in and witnessed events are as dynamic and compelling a combination today as they were forty years ago. The Imperial War Museum (IWM)World  played an important role in making the series with the then director, Dr Noble Frankland acting as historical consultant. IWM staff viewed and commented on copies of the programmes as they were being made so it is entirely fitting that the IWM should mark the anniversary. Behind the entire project was Jeremy Isaacs (today Sir Jeremy Isaacs). It was his vision that imagined the series in the first place and as producer he oversaw every step of the production process, but he is the first to admit that the series would not have been as successful without the team of fifty talented people who worked on it over a period of three years. It was a young team and many of those who made the series gathered at the IWM to mark the birthday. For nearly all of them, working on the series was the most important creative experience of their lives.

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Image of Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ.

India 1944: Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ. IWM IB 1558

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a member of the Swadhinata Trust, is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Ansar writes here about his research into the experiences of South Asian seamen in the two world wars.

For my study I chose to look at South Asian seamen of Bengali origin because it was a natural progression from my last project Bengalis in London’s East End.

We know that the Bengali seamen formed the first sizable South Asian community in Britain. They settled in London’s East End, close to the Docks, and were commonly referred to as ‘lascars’. The word was once used to describe any sailor from the Indian sub-continent or any other part of Asia, but came to refer to people from West Bengal and modern-day Bangladesh.

 South Asian seamen received less pay, less food and had smaller living quarters than white sailors, and their death rate was higher. Most worked in the engine room as ‘donkeywallahs’ (after the ‘donkey engines’) while those who oiled the machinery were known as ‘telwallahs’. Others worked supplying the furnace with coal and disposing of the ashes. You can imagine my delight at discovering an image of three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS Sutlej in 1944. The working conditions were harsh and hot, and many seamen died of heat stroke and exhaustion.  Lascars trapped in the engine rooms suffered a particularly high casualty rate.

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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 a photograph and letter from Nursing Sister D M L Crewdson

A photograph of and letter from Nursing Sister D M L Crewdson (August 1918) about the award of her Military Medal. IWM DOCS 62/135/1

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work since I joined the Research Department has been cataloguing IWM’s medical collections.  This was part of a major project supported by the Wellcome Trust to expand our understanding and online coverage of the experiences and participation of medical personnel and their patients in various conflicts since 1900.  Working my way through boxes of diaries and letters, I wrote synopses for each of a large number of our collections which has now made it easier for researchers to locate material relevant to the history of medicine.

One of the joys of this research was discovering the personal experiences of medical staff who served during the two world wars.  One particularly moving collection contained the letters written home by Dorothea Crewdson, who as a nurse on the Western Front became one of the few women to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery.  After being wounded when her hospital at Etaples was bombed by the Germans in May 1918, Nursing Sister Crewdson refused treatment in order to continue to tend to her patients.  Tragically, she died from peritonitis just after the war had ended, on 12 March 1919 aged just 32, and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery. 

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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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