The Imperial War Museum in London is a far more life-affirming place than its martial name suggests, painting a broad picture of how soldiers and citizens on the home front cope with armed conflict.
In recognition of the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War, the museum underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. The stunningly redesigned site, reopened in July, devotes significantly more space than before to the shattering four-year-long European conflagration that so changed the globe. The museum, which covers all conflicts involving British soldiers since the beginning of the 20th century, nearly doubled the floor space devoted to World War I.
The soaring reconstructed atrium is loaded with gargantuan weaponry, including fighter jets, tanks and rockets from later wars. The First World War Galleries beckon with an introductory film on the United Kingdom’s economic and military position just before the August 1914 outbreak of hostilities.
Once saturated with exhibits featuring the Western Front, where British soldiers served alongside the French, the museum now includes more information about the Eastern Front, where Germany faced millions of Russian troops who also were allied with the British and French. With all the extra exhibit space, the museum found room for a Sopwith Camel overhead, along with tanks and a variety of giant guns — important artifacts, says Paul Cornish, curator of exhibits, “when you’re dealing with a war that essentially was defined by artillery.”
The expanded First World War Galleries give visitors a holistic view of the years 1914 to 1918. They include stark depictions of the changing nature of battlefields at the beginning of the 20th century, with newfangled mechanized weaponry creating a previously unimagined scale of killing, as well as exhibits that delve into the effects of the Great War on England, and how it helped develop the British national character.
An early display along the Great War trail takes you through a high-walled trench modeled on those that the German and Allied troops dug, paralleling each other across Belgium and France in the first months of combat. Open at the top, this simulated trench features a German tank and an airplane threatening above. One can easily visualize soldiers clambering up ladders and across no man’s land, and being repelled by gunfire, or hunkering down for protection against artillery shells lobbed at them from afar.
A nearby display introduces visitors to the advent of poison gas, with the protective masks and suits that the terrifying new weapon necessitated. Another reference to gas warfare is found one floor up, in the museum’s Truth and Memory exhibit, featuring British art from the period. There, John Singer Sargent’s enormous 1919 painting, Gassed, shows a line of soldiers blinded by mustard gas, holding onto each other as they walk single-file.
Back in the main galleries, a vast exhibit on 1916’s Battle of the Somme offers a sense of how stalemates developed in the trenches. Near France’s Somme River, Allied forces tried repeatedly nonetheless to break through the German trench line. The devastating encounters are portrayed against a wide-screen movie view of the battlefield as it changes with the seasons, from scorching July through bitter, frost-covered November. The five months of madness cost more than a million casualties overall.
▪ Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road; 011-44-20-7416-5000; www.iwm.org.uk. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Free.