I hope you people at home are not madly optimistic about the chances of an early peace.
So wrote 2nd Lt Frank Warren from France on 15 October 1918. He was probably aware from the newspapers that Germany had requested an armistice twelve days previously, but he did not guess that within a month the war would be over.
One of the challenges which we set ourselves in creating IWM’s new First World War Galleries was to show it through contemporary eyes, using contemporary voices. The structure and format of the current First World War Galleries prevented such an approach being taken when it was built in 1990. Now modern exhibition techniques offer us the opportunity to do something which was not possible for our predecessors and make contemporary voices central to the gallery.
Viewed with hindsight the First World War boggles the mind. Why did people commit themselves to such a ruinous enterprise? Why did they persist in gambling their lives and limbs, their national wealth and their political power in such an apparently reckless way?
Their actions only become rational when we look through their eyes. One of our Academic Advisory Board, Professor David Stevenson, has stated that this perspective is the ‘first key to understanding’ the war.
Frank Warren’s letter answers a question often asked – ‘why did men carry on risking their lives until the very last day of the war?’ Like Frank, most men on the Allied side had little inkling of how close they were to victory. Germany’s armistice request was treated with suspicion.
By contrast, German soldiers had first-hand knowledge of Germany’s exhaustion. For them Germany’s ‘peace note’ was a clear signal that the end was near. They surrendered or deserted in increasing numbers during the last month of the war.