Page last updated at 08:19 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 09:19 UK

Exhibition remembers World War I

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Helmet in exhibition
The exhibition opens on 30 September and runs until September 2009

The Imperial War Museum in London is opening an exhibition revealing the experiences of 90 people whose lives were irrevocably marked by World War I.

Among the exhibits in "In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War" are a pistol and a bomb carried by the men who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking off the war.

It would ultimately leave 21 million men, women and children dead, and claim the lives of one million British and Commonwealth forces.

Some of the stories featured are well-known, yet the sight of the poem, Returning, We Hear The Larks, in Isaac Rosenberg's neat handwriting on a yellowing sheet of paper, marked with his crossings-out, still has a peculiar power which resonates across the decades.

In another room, the Military Cross for bravery awarded to another World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, is on display, adding a bitter posthumous coda to his best-known work, Dulce et decorum est.

The news of Owen's death reached his mother on Armistice Day. She wore his medal until the day she died.

'Total war'

But it is the stories of unknown soldiers and their families that can be the most moving, such as a letter from a soldier to his young son, delivered after his death in battle.

It reassures his son that the father he would grow up without died in a good cause.

Watching the extract from Geoffrey Malin's film, The Battle of the Somme, it seems incredible that anyone survived the bitter trench warfare in the world's first "total war".

But there is an audio extract of one NCO who describes "going over the top", and finding himself alone - the only man from his unit still alive after the others were mown down by machine guns spraying bullets "like water from a hose".

Having spoken to surviving soldiers of the First World War, all of them emphasise that they believed in the rightness of Britain's course
Terry Charman, senior historian

Yet the suffering was not limited to the men fighting on the front.

Civilians in Britain were also dying, as the curator of the exhibition, senior historian Terry Charman, explains.

"I think it is unique is that this is the first total war in which civilians were no longer safe at home," he says.

It saw Zeppelin raids, German airships raids and aircraft raids in which 1,500 British citizens were killed.

And there were bombardments of North Sea ports such as Whitby and Scarborough by battle cruisers.

He adds: "It affected the whole country. Rationing was introduced at the end of the war as a result of the German submarine campaign, which came very very near to starving Britain into submission in 1917."

Global war

World War I was the beginning of what Winston Churchill later described as "the woe and ruin of the terrible 20th century" - a global war, fought not just on the Western Front, but also in Russia, the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa.

Casualties were on a scale never seen before, while the use of aircraft and submarines in large numbers and the first appearance of tanks on the battlefield brought terrible new dimensions to conflict.

One exhibit brings that home - a medieval-looking metal mask, worn by men in their tanks to protect their faces; nearby is a white gas mask whose blank eyes seem to scream of the terror of the gas attacks in the trenches.

The exhibition also reflects some of the huge social change that the war instigated, with men conscripted for the first time and women taking their places in the factories and fields.

Mask worn by men on early tanks
World War I saw major developments in warfare

The diary of Florence Farmborough, a nurse on the Russian front, describes how she and others treated the wounded men, bandaging their wounds, with no time to feed the injured soldiers as more casualties kept arriving - and begging for nothing more than the blissful oblivion of sleep.

A tattered lace camisole tells a rare story of hope, and the luck of a survivor.

It belonged to Margaret Gwyer, a newly-wed who embarked on the ill-fated Lusitania. She had just married in Canada, and was returning to the US on the liner when it was torpedoed on 7 May 1915.

She was thrown into the water and sucked into the funnels of the ship before an internal explosion propelled her out. She was rescued - as was her husband.

As the numbers of surviving British veterans of World War I dwindle, Mr Charman says it is vital that such personal stories are told.

Victory

But he believes that interest in the conflict is far from dying out.

"It is shown in the many battlefield tours and pilgrimages that take place, and are taken by children who have no direct contact with the war at all," he says.

As a historian, he also takes what some might see as a surprising view of a conflict which many only think of in terms of the appalling slaughter of the trenches and the 20,000 who died in the first day of the Somme.

"Having spoken to surviving soldiers of the First World War, all of them emphasise that they believed in the rightness of Britain's course," he says.

"They felt that it was a war worth fighting. I think perhaps we look at it through the prism of Oh What a Lovely War, and that's dangerous. The generals weren't all butchers and bunglers.

"Undoubtedly there were mistakes made, but something that is often forgotten is the battle of 100 days in 1918, when the British Army won the greatest succession of battles in military history.

"I think it's almost uniquely British that we go on about our defeats. But it was a British Army victory in which we captured more German guns, prisoners and territory than the Americans, French and Belgians combined, and that's worth remembering."


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