Exhibiting the First World War
By Jennifer Wellington
In October 1918, London’s Trafalgar Square was transformed into a facsimile of a battlefield in France. Hoardings painted to look like the scenery of the front surrounded a large area in which trenches were constructed alongside the apparent ruins of a French village. Lamp posts were altered to look like shell-shattered trees. Spectators could move through the trenches themselves, look at gun emplacements fitted with actual guns, and (if they bought war bonds) climb inside a tank which had seen action at the Front. This display, mounted in conjunction with ‘Feed the Guns’ week, was one of many multimedia shows of different kinds attempting to depict the war as the fighting continued. Who organised these shows? Why did they put so much effort into creating them? Who went to them, and why?
The First World War took place at a time of technological and political change. Participants perceived this ‘Great’ war – a term coined as early as 1915 – as unlike anything seen previously. Recording and remembering the war seemed not only desirable, but essential. Individual soldiers collected objects as witnesses of their own war experience. Combatant nations commissioned officers to write histories, collect artefacts, and organise artists, photographers and filmmakers to record the conflict. Government and army historical units formed to minutely document all facets of the conflict; thereby transforming the event into history whilst it was still occurring. Collecting these objects and representations reflected both the power of the modern state, and the scale and novelty of the war, reaching their logical conclusion in numerous wartime exhibitions and new museums dedicated to the war. Although armies had traditions of trophy-taking dating back to antiquity, and entrepreneurs had, for example, taken and exhibited photographs of war from the mid-19th century, this comprehensive, centralised state effort was new – and particularly striking in its novelty given that these schemes were begun when the outcome of the war was by no means certain.
Britain, for example, founded the body which is now the Imperial War Museum in early 1917. At this point in the war, their prospects looked bleak – after the catastrophic losses of 1916 (including the Battle of the Somme grinding on from July to November), British forces had to be extensively remanned. As the year progressed, German Zeppelins raided Southeastern England and London, the French army suffered mutinies, the British suffered further severe losses at Passchendaele, and the Bolshevik Revolution removed an ally from the war, freeing more German troops to fight on the Western Front. Exhibiting and preserving the conflict was thus seen both historically important and crucial to motivating the public to continue prosecuting the war.
People, be they members of the armed forces or the general public, wanted to see images and objects which provided them with as authentic a connection to the war as possible. The state was able to disseminate these. Objects from the battlefield in particular provided this sense of authenticity through their apparent proximity to the experience of war. Direct contact – viewing them or touching them – created a sense of connection to the dramatic events of the war, and to friends, sweethearts, and family members at the front. Collections of war-damaged weapons captured from the Germans were displayed in London as early as 1915, with crowds gathering around them in the Horse Guards Parade reporting particular fascination with any signs of damage – evidence that they had been there. Later in the war, postcards were produced and circulated of mangled German anti-aircraft equipment displayed as part of an Allied War Exposition that toured the United States. (The enemy was simultaneously depicted as dangerous, possessing large, menacing weaponry, and defeatable, as those weapons had been damaged and captured.) Captured enemy helmets and enemy and British soldiers’ personal effects displayed in similar touring exhibitions also seemingly directly manifested the experience of war to those at home.
Photographs, too, were believed to provide a window into the reality of war, and exhibitions of war photographs were extremely popular in wartime Britain. Of course, the images on display in officially-sponsored photograph exhibitions were very selective. Although many soldiers continued to take photographs clandestinely, British authorities banned personal cameras on the Western Front by 1916. The photographs displayed in exhibitions and used in the press were thus drawn from a pre-censored pool of official images. These images purported to show the unvarnished reality of warfare: exhausted soldiers returning from battle, destroyed buildings, churned mud and fractured trees, frightening new technologies in action, nurses and smiling patients, troops fooling about behind the lines. ‘Candid’ photos were, however, often staged; and sensitive subjects like British and Allied dead almost universally avoided. Images of destroyed landmarks were presented as evidence of enemy barbarism. Cultural and official taboos sanitised the visual landscape of war available to those at home, even as war photograph exhibitions were advertised as windows into reality.
Advertising for war photograph exhibitions also emphasised the possibility of civilians recognising a person whom they knew or loved in the photos – a person who, at the time of those displays, was still at the front. The wartime population to whom photographs were shown could thus apparently connect with the experiences of those currently at war. The Imperial War Museum’s report on its touring 1918 British battle pictures exhibition described how an Oldham man, one of the 50,000 visiting the Exhibition when it was held there, recognised in a photograph his son ‘whom he had not seen or heard of for three years. He is now hoping through this to be able to trace the boy’. This, the report continued, ‘naturally aroused great interest in the town’. The same was true elsewhere: in Baltimore, Maryland, for example, newspaper advertisements placed in February 1918 claimed that in the enlarged photographs of the Canadian official war photograph exhibition touring there the ‘details had been brought out so well that in four Canadian cities nearly 200 of the soldier boys were recognised by their parent or other relatives while GOING OVER THE TOP’. (The same claims were made about official war films.) By 1919, the British touring battle photograph exhibitions run by the Imperial War Museum had recorded over a million visits. The hope of recognition, combined with the lure of an accurate window into the terrifying otherness of the battlefront, were both factors in the great popularity of these exhibitions.
Official war artists were likewise commissioned and sent to the front, and the fruits of their labours exhibited at home. Likewise, objects and artefacts were collected by official collecting units in the field and stored ready to be displayed in the national war museums planned for after the war. These were intended to immortalise the experiences of the nation at war – as Sir Alfred Mond said in a speech at the opening of the Imperial War Museum at the Crystal Palace in 1920: ‘It is hoped to make it so complete that every individual, man or woman, sailor, soldier, airman or civilian who contributed, however obscurely, to the final result, may be able to find in these Galleries an example or illustration of the sacrifice he made or the work he did, and in the archives some record of it.’ The museum’s prominence and longevity is in itself some evidence of the success of this goal, and of enduring public interest in attending exhibitions depicting war. Of course this interest, while powerful and profound, is (and was) by no means universal. During the First World War, millions did indeed attend war exhibitions sincerely looking for a connection to the war and to those fighting it. But those exhibitions did not necessarily have the intended impact on everyone who visited them: some, exhausted by the war and its aftereffects, preferred to forget. As a Tatler magazine reporter observed in a December 1919 review of the British official war art exhibition, one ‘bright young woman … shrugged petulant shoulders at Sargent's piteous “Gassed”’, and exclaimed ‘I'm tired of the war, let's go and dance!’
Dr. Jennifer Wellington is the author of 'Exhibiting War: The Great War, Museums, and Memory in Britain, Canada, and Australia', published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.