Showtime: London

UK museum looks at epic, intimate sides of WWI


Associated Press

It’s an iconic scene of Britain at war: Thousands of Londoners huddled in Underground stations as German bombs rained down.

But this is not the 1940s Blitz — it’s World War I, more than 20 years earlier.

For most people, the Great War evokes images of mud, gas masks and the trenches of the Western Front. The Imperial War Museum wants to expand that view. A century after the conflict began, the London museum aims to provide a new perspective on “the war to end all wars.”

Many people are surprised to learn that London was bombed — first by zeppelins, then by planes — and that 300,000 people sought shelter in subway stations, said the museum’s senior historian, Terry Charman.

“They say: ‘Air raids? Really?’ ” Charman said. “I think we see the First World War very much through the prism of the trenches of the Western Front. You forget that there was a home front.”

Reclaiming stories of the home front is one of the missions of the museum, which reopened July 19 after a six-month closure for a $70 million renovation.

The museum was founded in 1917, as the war still raged, to preserve the stories of those who were fighting and dying. It retains that goal, as well as its “Imperial” moniker, a relic of a vanished British Empire.

In other ways the museum has modernized. It now covers recent conflicts, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and includes an impressive collection of old and new military hardware. From the ceiling of the building’s new atrium hang a Spitfire fighter plane, a Harrier jump jet, a V1 rocket and more.

But the museum’s curators are just as interested in human stories. The World War I galleries move from the battlefront to the home front, to show how the first “total war” shook society from top to bottom.

The permanent exhibition includes more than 1,300 objects — from weapons and uniforms to diaries and letters — and alternates between the big picture and small details. Both perspectives have emotional power. It’s hard not to be humbled by the sheer scale of the slaughter. After war was declared in August 1914 — with Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side and Britain, France and Russia on the other — 7 million men marched off to war. By December, a million of them were dead.

Multimedia displays capture the vast tragedy of the Battle of the Somme, which saw 20,000 British soldiers killed in one day. Visitors learn about tanks, planes and other technological innovations that changed the course of the war. They share space with crude weapons that suggest the almost medieval savagery of trench warfare, including catapults to fling grenades and an iron-headed club for crushing skulls.

Many visitors will find the small, personal items especially moving. Soldiers complain of boredom, rats, lice and cold in letters home from the trenches. The wallet of a soldier killed in battle holds faded photos of his wife and children. In a letter, 9-year-old Alfie Knight begs to be allowed to enlist because “I am very strong and often win a fight with lads twice as big as myself.”

Most of the displays show the war from the perspective of Britain, its empire and its allies — including the United States, which entered the conflict in 1917. But senior curator Paul Cornish said that for him the most evocative object was a frying pan bearing a German patriotic message: “The German housewife sacrifices copper for iron.” Copper was a prized war material.

“She wouldn’t have had much to put in it,” Cornish said. Meat, eggs and fat all grew scarce as Britain tried to starve Germany into submission.

“This was a highly advanced society reduced to beggary by the total nature of the war,” Cornish said.

All the words seen and heard in the exhibition come from the wartime period. There are no reminiscences or later memoirs. Lead curator James Taylor said that was a deliberate decision, to convey the war as it was experienced: “four years of surprises, four years of shocks.”

The exception comes in the museum’s final room, where the last word is given to Harry Patch, the final known survivor of the trenches, who died in 2009, aged 111.

“I’ve tried for 80 years to forget it,” he said. “But I can’t.”

•  Imperial War Museum: Lambeth Road, London; 011-44-20-7416-5000; Admission: free.

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