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Bringing the Great War to a New Generation

Commentary, 18 July 2014
The Imperial War Museum is about to unveil its new First World War Galleries to the public. But what lessons can be drawn from these galleries about how to help a new generation connect with a 100-year-old conflict?

The Imperial War Museum is about to unveil its new First World War Galleries to the public. But what lessons can be drawn from these galleries about how to help a new generation connect with a 100-year-old conflict?

Somme British dugouts

Men of the Border Regiment resting in shallow dugouts near Thiepval Wood, August 1916. Image courtesy of IWM.


How do we in Britain in 2014, both as a nation and as individuals, relate to the First World War?

Actually, perhaps a more precise question is how can we relate to the First World War, a conflict that was an all-consuming experience of a bygone age? 

Understanding the progress and impact of a war which was not only geographically vast, but which also touched lives – of both civilians and soldiers – on an unprecedented scale is difficult enough, without the additional challenge of trying to reconnect with an Edwardian Britain that seems a whole world away from today’s multicultural, multilingual and technology-driven society.

Then consider the fact that, with even the Second World War gradually slipping from living memory, most of us have no direct experience of war to serve as a guide to the range of possible emotions and horrors experienced by those on the front 100 years ago.

This is the fundamental question that the Imperial War Museum (IWM) has sought to answer over the past four years as it planned for the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, and as it designed and created the new First World War Galleries to be opened to the public this Saturday, 19 July.

Contemporary, Individual Voices

One guiding principle in answering such questions was the overarching emphasis on contemporary, individual voices, according to the IWM’s Head of Content for the Galleries, James Taylor.

Contemporary not only to avoid the seemingly intractable debates that the interceding decades have generated, but also to explain such fundamental issues as why people continued to deem the war worth fighting in the face of unprecedented casualty numbers. And individual because it is easier – and more rewarding – to connect with personal experiences than to try to absorb the scale and complexity of a global conflict that drew in millions of combatants and saw states turn their entire national endeavours over to the fight.

In taking this approach, as the IWM’s Director General Diane Lees notes, the museum is returning to its founding mission to record the toil and sacrifice of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, rather than glorifying war.


IWM Gallery graphics

An interactive display, explaining the outbreak of the Great War, in the IWM First World War Galleries. Image courtesy of Ashlee Godwin, RUSI. 

And, perhaps ironically, it is the Galleries’ use of digital technology – a marker of just how much day-to-day life has changed since 1914 – that makes the telling of so many individual stories possible. Impressive interactive displays offer up hosts of extracts from letters and diaries, presenting 100-year-old history in the finest possible detail and in the most personal of forms, bringing to life an otherwise unimaginable conflict.

The War on All Fronts

Another principle is the seamless integration of the fighting front and home front within the exhibition space – something not done previously – which clearly demonstrates the totality of the war experience: as the war proceeded, it became impossible to sustain the efforts at the front without the full support of those left at home.

As David Reynolds, an academic adviser to the IWM and Cambridge historian, observed, this intermeshing partly reflects the greater interest in social history in the UK over the last 30–40 years. But it also points to a fresher, more complete understanding of the war and its impact that has developed with the passing of time. Having acknowledged ‘the familiar story of mud, blood and the trenches’, it is also essential to ‘get out of those trenches’ and explore the wider perspective.

Perhaps there is also something in the fact that most of us can relate to at least some of the basic elements of the home life that persisted throughout those four years, despite the vast social changes in terms of class division, gender equality and labour rights that prevailed.

A Century of Global Conflict

For the IWM, one final way of bringing the conflict closer to today’s generation – and that of tomorrow – is to situate it within the wider debates of global conflict over the course of the intervening century.

In one respect, this means fully integrating the experiences of the British and empire soldiers in the First World War Galleries, which not only emphasises the crucial role played by the soldiers of today’s Commonwealth, but which also serves as a point of shared history for Britain’s twenty-first-century multicultural society.

However, the public reopening this weekend is not just about the First World War Galleries. The museum’s entire building in south London has been remodelled, with every department – dealing with the Second World War, the Cold War and recent conflicts, for example – having at least some input into the process.

Nowhere is this approach to war as a broader, thematic subject, rather than a series of historical episodes, more evident than in the central atrium.

Upon entry, the visitor is greeted by a Harrier, Spitfire and V1 bomb hanging from the ceilings; while on the ground there is the mangled metal of a car deformed by a bomb in Baghdad post 2003, a T-34 Soviet tank of the type used during the Second World War and the Cold War thereafter, and a Great War era 13-pounder gun, which was the only one to survive an attack by the German 4th Cavalry on L Battery on the morning of 1 September 1914. Its operators were awarded Victoria Crosses for their courage in continuing to fight against overwhelming odds.


Nery gun, Great War

The 'Nery gun' - a 13-pounder which was the only gun to survive when L Battery was attacked by the German 4th Cavalry, 1 September 1914. Image courtesy of Ashlee Godwin, RUSI.


These ‘Witnesses to War’, as the IWM calls them, were chosen for their ability to convey an overarching historical narrative. The aim, in the words of Nigel Steel, principal historian for the atrium, was for there to be ‘a series of conversations’ between them. This is not ‘didactic’ history, he said; but ‘internal dynamics’ at play, with each viewer bringing their own associations and memories to the conversation.

Reaching Across the Decades

The centenary marks a wonderful opportunity for historians (military and otherwise) and defence professionals to explore in detail the war effort and the campaigning at the front – as many did at RUSI’s First World War conference yesterday – and to make huge advances in scholarly understanding of events 100 years ago.

As the commemorations unfold over the coming four years, however, the greatest challenge will be to reach across the decades to bring it, and its impact, to life for the general public. This is essential. For today’s generation is being asked to make a huge leap of imagination, not only across time but also across a chasm in terms of experience.

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