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Stories brought vividly to life in war exhibition

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Source: ©IWM

General view of the First World War Gallery at the Imperial War Museum London

The 100th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany seemed an appropriate time to visit the newly opened First World War galleries in London’s Imperial War Museum. Others clearly had the same idea. As I waited in the long queue, war poet Wilfred Owen’s words came to my mind: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” These words generally represent my views on war. Would this exhibition change that? Time to find out.

The new galleries are a permanent exhibition and tell the story of the First World War through a series of 14 “chapters”. Visitors can learn about the times, the background to the war and the lead up to it, what started it, why it progressed, what those who fought experienced, how the Allies won and what its global impact was.

The exhibition draws on the museum’s vast collection of memorabilia from the First World War, “the richest and most comprehensive in the world”. Among the 1,300 items on display are diaries, letters, keepsakes and trinkets, photographs, film and art, some of which have not been seen before, the museum says.  

The galleries are hugely atmospheric. After walking past Kitchener recruitment posters (“Your country needs you!”), great guns (including a towering Howitzer called “Mother”), a German soldier’s tunic button and other objects from the famous Christmas truce, trench signs such as “Hellfire Corner” and “Piccadilly Circus”, and an enormous tank, you arrive at a wall on which soldiers’ uniforms are hanging from pegs. Music was playing. ”Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile,” soldiers sang, while the recorded screams of exploding bombs and shrapnel thundered through loudspeakers all around. A father was encouraging his son to try a uniform on; that’s what they were there for. The boy, no older perhaps than many of the soldiers who enlisted, fought and died, hesitated. Maybe he realised that these were not fancy dress costumes and perhaps for the first time in his life he could sense what war really meant, for he declined, and he and his father moved on. Younger, more excitable boys, for whom the exhibition was an adventure, were eager to try them on.

Further on, visitors walk through a “trench”. The museum has done a good job here. As you walk through the narrow, winding replica, with the walls perhaps 18 inches above your head, it is possible with a little imagination to get a sense of what it must have been like in France. There is a clever use of moving images of skulking soldiers being projected onto the upper trench walls, giving you the apprehensive feeling that danger lurks there, just on the other side. Periscopes along the walls invite you to look “over the top”, and when you do you see scenes of utter devastation. There is a constant sound of rain, which, along with soldiers’ quotations displayed in cases just before you enter, helps you to conjure up the mud, the dirt, the vile discomfort and the disease that those who lived in these trenches endured. The museum describes this part of the display as the highlight of the exhibition and it is indeed powerful stuff.

There are some items in the exhibition that may be of special interest to pharmacists and other health professionals. These include displays concerning the rehabilitation and treatment of wounded men who “were treated as heroes” but whose “sheer numbers put a strain on medical services”. Displays on nursing, on prosthetics and the Wandsworth “tin noses shop”, and on plastic surgery are particularly affecting.

Those directly affected by the First World War are mostly no longer with us. But their stories are brought vividly to life in the displays. For example, poignant letters between a private soldier and his fiancée reveal the pain of separation. Three days after writing his letter, and while hers was in transit to him, he was killed. She died in 1974, having never married because “my heart and love are buried in his grave in France”. There will have been hundreds, if not thousands, like them and thanks to these new galleries, their stories are being kept alive for future generations.

I could find no real take home message from this exhibition. Visitors are presented with a wealth of information and left to draw their own conclusions about the war and its impact. I concluded that my view still concurred with Wilfred Owen’s.

As I left the galleries, a more modern exhibit caused me to reflect that, while Europe may now be at peace, there are other conflicts still. A shockingly mangled civilian car, wrecked by a suicide bomb in a busy Baghdad market in 2007 and presented to the museum in 2010, is a clear reminder of the “devastating consequences of warfare for civilians” even now.

The London Imperial War Museum is within walking distance of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Lambeth headquarters. Visitors with an hour or two to spare will surely not be disappointed by a side trip to this compelling exhibition.

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