Unsurprisingly, the Imperial War Museum has put on a major exhibition to mark this anniversary-laden date. In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War ‘will look at the personal stories of those who lived, fought and died during the First World War’. This is done by displaying objects associated with various disparate individuals, and is meant ‘to illustrate the different aspects and key events of the Great War and its aftermath’. Explaining the past through personal histories is the current orthodoxy. It is believed that people will only engage with ‘history’ when it is personalised, and thus made accessible (whatever that means). Whether this is true is questionable; what is more certain is that it’s unlikely to help anyone gain a true and helpful understanding of such a complex social process as war.
Associating individual people with otherwise meaningless and often uninteresting objects may give some meaning to the Museum’s collection but does not do much to illuminate the past. It is also an approach that avoids raising serious questions about war – imperial or any other kind.
At 108, veteran Harry Patch can no doubt make up his own mind about his public appearances, but, as someone who has not shown much enthusiasm about the war of which he is said to be the ‘Last Tommy’, he does seem to feature frequently at war- memorialising junkets around Europe, events whose frequency is increasing alarmingly. Harry features in a huge photograph at the entrance to the War Museum’s exhibition: he beams benevolently down at us from his wheelchair on a sandy beach, a giant red poppy wreath on his lap and artificial petals flying around him like demented gulls. ‘It wasn’t worth it,’ says Harry. ‘No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives, let alone thousands.’ What key aspect of the war this image is meant to illustrate is not clear, but its sentimental feel and its key signifiers – a bemedalled old boy and red poppies – speak loudly enough.
This is certainly a good-looking exhibition. The exhibits are artfully displayed. Sombre lighting draws us to elegantly-lit glass cases with their neat notices, and gives significance and gravitas to objects we might otherwise ignore. The medium certainly contributes to the message. But what it tells us about war, or even just the First World War, is not clear; perhaps the onlooker is expected to construct her or his deeper meaning.
It is hard to see these exhibitions as much more than an activity which museums have to perform to justify their existence and keep funds flowing in. Much could be done ‘to encourage the study and understanding of the history of modern war’ (to quote the Museum’s website) but there is little sign of that here.
With Harry Patch’s photo as a kind of preface, the exhibition begins with a gun – one particular gun, the gun that is said to have fired the fatal bullet in Sarajevo. By implication and a hint from the accompanying label, it is suggested that in some sense this was the starting pistol for the First World War. It’s unlikely that the exhibition’s organisers have such a simplistic view: the IWM website acknowledges that the causes of the war ‘are the subject of continuing historical debate’. Nevertheless, the gun is the first item, its shot the first ‘key event’: and it’s not even part of the Museum’s own collection but borrowed especially to front this exhibition.
To grasp complex issues we need to corral them into manageable thought structures, with a beginning and an end at least; such points are invariably determined by the lens through which we view the world. The names we give to things are also important: what was once the Great War is now the First World War – though some argue (with some justification) that in fact it was the seventh world war.
Beginnings are slippery events to identify. Many of us believe that the earth was formed some 4.5 billion years ago out of cosmic debris; others believe that it was constructed, in the space of a few days, a few thousand years ago. For most practical purposes the truth of it makes little or no difference - people will continue to be born and die, the sun will rise and the tides will turn. But daily through news reports we see the bloody outcome of such opposing world views as their followers vie for dominance. Endings are slippery too: over recent years it has been noted that the 1914-1918 war only finally petered out in 1989. Should we now replace the dates on war memorials 1914-1989?Different lenses, different pictures. Meanwhile some want to hurry up the ‘end of time’, and their efforts are fuelling conflict in the Middle East.
Beginnings are also associated with causes, and these too we tend to construct to fit in with our view of the world. What started the fighting in 1914? A small bunch of men, of course – a number so small that they could have comfortably milled about, cups of tea in their hands, in the PPU’s office. Yes, there were grand alliances, and yes, there were the railway timetables. But always there were just a few men who took the final decision.
That a museum should use its collection to explore an event is an obvious and proper act. The IWM, with its prodigious collection of militaria, is well placed to do this. But it comes as no surprise (regrettably) that the military mindset is the guiding light for what the objects on display reveal.
One featured item is a stained and faded scrap of paper bearing half a dozen barely legible words. It is said to be a letter from a young boy to his mother, a young boy whose claim to fame lies in the propaganda value that his death offered to recruiters. For being killed while standing by a gun in the Battle of Jutland, 16 year old Jack Cornwell was awarded a Victoria Cross (also on display). Posters of young Jack were produced and circulated in prodigious numbers during the war via the educational system, and he became a potent symbol for Navy fundraising. The words on his grave in East London give you the flavour: ‘It is not wealth or ancestry but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that maketh men great.’ He was, in today’s language, promoted as an ideal role model for young boys. No mention of this, of course, appears in the brief note accompanying the exhibits. 91 years after Jack’s death he continues to perform the role created for him by a propagandist supporting an increasingly disastrous and unpopular war. And so it is today: criticism of the war surfaces only fleetingly.
There are two guns in this exhibition. One is that Sarajevo pistol. The other is more surprising. It belonged to a former Peace Pledge Union member. Known as ‘Mad Jack’ for his recklessness in support of his men, he was awarded the Military Cross ‘for bringing a wounded man back to the British lines while under heavy fire’. His disenchantment with the war is hinted at in the accompanying quotation, (somewhat undermined, alas, by the Museum’s accompanying text): ‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.’ A medical board decided Siegfried Sassoon was suffering from shell shock and packed him off to hospital, thus nullifying his protest and leaving the Museum’s visitors with the likely impression that such a protest was the result of mental instability. Sassoon went on to protest about the war in other better known ways.
Endings are as telling as beginnings. Here too we should look below the surface. At the end of the exhibition is a well known print of Käthe Kollwitz’s Mother With Dead Child. Her son was killed in October 1914 and in the years following the war she became committed to the pacifist cause, producing a series of vivid anti-war posters. Never Again War contained one of the most powerful and resonant images from pacifist movements in Germany between the two World Wars. But such an image in the context of this exhibition would have been too problematic. It argues against the central belief that permeates this building (formerly a lunatic asylum): that war is inevitable and its practitioners are heroes to be praised and honoured.
Mother With Dead Child is a moving image but, like much else in the war-memorialising industry, it helps to keep our eyes and minds away from the causes of war. Here at the War Museum (as in the now almost compulsory school visits to war cemeteries) sadness at ‘the waste’ of war is mingled with naïve hope for the future. All the while, the question of how wars might be avoided rarely raises its subversive head.