London: Bullets, blood and bravery

By Geoff Cumming

Tales of the horror of the trenches, mateship amid the rubble and love against the odds are told at the Imperial War Museum in London. Herald writer Geoff Cumming and photographer Greg Bowker were there for the centenary of World War One's outbreak.

The Imperial War Museum in London has reopened its doors after a major facelift with an exhibition of historic pieces from World War I. Photo / Greg Bowker
The Imperial War Museum in London has reopened its doors after a major facelift with an exhibition of historic pieces from World War I. Photo / Greg Bowker

Of all the exhibits at the Imperial War Museum's groundbreaking commemoration of World War I, the one that affected me most was a photo of a survivor. Well, three photographs actually, of a soldier whose nose was blown off by a shell fragment.

The sequence could be from a plastic surgeon's CV.

The first shows the awful mess the shell made of Private Thomas Mann's face. The second, taken a couple of years later, shows a tube of skin grafted from his left shoulder attached to his patched-up nose. He looks not unlike an elephant.

The final image is taken with the skin graft removed. After five years of plastic surgery at St Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, Mann found the treatment so painful he gave it up. Still, it's a passable nose job.

The hospital had a cook, Minnie Blows, whose fiance was killed in the war. She resolved to love a wounded serviceman and chose Mann. The pair married and went on to raise four children.

It is personal stories like this that distinguish the Imperial War Museum (IWM), reopened on London's South Bank after an $80 million refurbishment.

Its showpiece, the display in the new World War I Galleries, was completed just in time for the centenary of the century-defining conflict.

Military museums are not everyone's idea of a visitor attraction. The old IWM had an image as a boy-toy drawcard where fans could admire the six-inch guns, the medals and uniforms, learn tales of heroism and talk the torque.

Entering the huge new atrium today, it might seem little has changed. War planes old and modern are suspended overhead, a V2 rocket stands erect and field guns are scattered about the place.

But the four levels of galleries - which canvas the past century's conflicts chronologically upwards - offer more than just static displays of metal and medallions. Embracing the best of modern museology, the new IWM emphasises the human stories of war, showing how we coped both at the front line and at home, and helping to answer age-old questions - like why.

Here, the artefacts of war are blended with sound, film, photography, art and digital technology to tell stories which bridge the gap between our understanding of modern political conflicts and what occurred 100 years ago.

Photos: London's Imperial War Museum

Viewing a display of images from World War I. Photo / Greg Bowker

The new World War I Galleries are a focal point of Britain's commemoration of the outbreak of that global conflict. The museum was conceived in 1917 as a place to record warfare as it was experienced by individuals, beginning with a war still in motion.

Its reopening kickstarts four years of events and exhibitions: from a night in the trenches at a military barracks to remembrance services on the Western Front; from the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth to the Durham Light Infantry Museum.

The exhibition starts by setting the war in context, using images, memorabilia and recordings to show what life was like in the lead up to war. In Britain, there were no female MPs; life expectancy averaged 54 for women and 50 for men.

The political allegiances which made unprecedented conflict on land, at sea and in the air inevitable are explained. Although British emigres in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere took pride in their country, they felt equally bonded to Britain. A New Zealand Patriotic Society poster exhorts men to sign-up: "It's not enough to give your cash".

Though the opportunity to fight for King and country was viewed by many as an adventure, technological advances made for war on an industrial scale; troops in endless numbers were the cogs.

We learn through soldiers' letters and personal recordings of life in the trenches and what they thought of their superiors.

War photographers played a valuable role - capturing the stalemate of trench warfare through the blank faces of the troops.

Film footage shows soldiers carrying the dead and wounded, the images enhanced by the sound of artillery fire and exploding shells.

The carnage at sea is covered in personal accounts, notably of the Battle of Jutland. There is no glorification of war, no shying away from the waste of human life.

We learn of the games the troops played to ward off boredom and the terrible food they ate as much as we learn of the weapons and the key battles. The futility of Gallipoli and the Battle of the Somme are given prominence.

"High Wood is not wood at all," writes Sergeant James Holmes of the 3rd Battery, NZ Field Artillery, "just a mass of splinters and broken down trees and full of gruesome sights."

South African and Indian troops write of "ground torn and rent to pieces by shell fire and "hell on Earth" at the Somme where 600,000 Allied and an estimated 500,000 German casualties occurred.

Some 60 digital displays and interactive screens allow us to delve deeper into particular campaigns and keep younger audiences engaged.

Large exhibits among the 13,000 objects include a Sopwith Camel and a Mark V tank.

One of the smaller displays - a box of bullets accompanied by a letter - tells of a New Zealand contribution which helped save countless British civilian lives. The incendiary Pomeroy bullet, the invention of New Zealander John Pomeroy, was deployed in 1917 against the hydrogen-filled Zeppelins which were inflicting major casualties on English towns. A letter credits the device with swinging "the advantage in the skies over Britain from the German attackers to the British defenders".

Its unidentified author writes: "When [Pomeroy] walked into my office at 1.30pm on the 23rd December 1915 it was the first time I had seen him or heard of him, as he stood before me wearing a large round colonial type of hat, black coat and flannel trousers ..."

Before leaving the gallery, visitors pass through a replica trench with silhouettes of soldiers in action projected on to the sides as voices are heard between volleys of gunfire.

You emerge with a deep sense of poignancy, as well as greater respect for a generation whose values were, if not the biggest casualty, then the collateral damage of World War I.

A display of aircraft at the Imperial War Museum. Photo / Greg Bowker

Upstairs to the next one then, where the weapons are even deadlier. Major displays include A Family in Wartime, which explores how a family of 12 from south London coped during World War II, including interviews with family members.

The Holocaust Exhibition uses film, photographs and rare artefacts to lay bare the Nazi persecution of Jews and others before and during the war.

On to modern, very different conflicts in the post-war era of "Peace and Security". Though naturally British-focused (the use of British troops in Northern Ireland; the Falklands War, Afghanistan), mangled wreckage from the Twin Towers' destruction and a suicide bomber's vest emphasise how the nature of war has changed.

Another keynote exhibition, Secret War, explores the clandestine work of Britain's special forces, from thwarting German spies in World War I to covert campaigns against the Russians.

Crowning it all, the museum's top floor is given over to displays of contemporary art - art which both responds to and helps us to interpret a century of conflict.

We cannot, it seems, live without it, which - just as the IWM was conceived - makes the recording of war of enduring importance to our understanding of it.

OTHER WORLD WAR I COMMEMORATIVE EVENTS IN BRITAIN

Enduring War - Grief, Grit and Humour: The British Library stages an exhibition of letters, postcards, posters, cartoons and displays, using sound and film footage to explore how people tried to cope both at home and on the front line. Includes a satirical magazine, The Waitemata Wobbler, published by members of the 21st Reinforcements Maori Contingent of the NZ Expeditionary Forces en route to Plymouth in 1917. Until October 12.

Western Front Association commemorative journeys: Marking the centenary of the British Expeditionary Force's deployment to France. Culminates in a remembrance service at Arras. August 10-13.

War Horse: A play at New London Theatre, Drury Lane, telling the moving story of a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been requisitioned to fight in World War I. Until February 2015.

From Street to Trench: A War That Shaped a Region: Exhibition at the IWM North, Manchester. Explores the conflict's effects on northwest England. Until May 31, 2015.

Racing to War: The Royal Navy and 1914: Exhibition at the Royal Navy National Museum, Portsmouth. The Navy's role in the lead-up to war and key sea battles during the conflict.

Night in the Trenches: Whittington Barracks in Staffordshire hosts a night in a replica trench in the lead-in to Armistice Day. November 8.

For a full programme of events see 1914.org.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies six times weekly to London from Auckland via their hub in Hong Kong.

Further information: See VisitEngland.com.

Geoff Cumming travelled as a guest of VisitEngland.

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