“Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour” Opens at the British Library to Mark the Centenary of WWI

These women are doing their bit.jpg

Christmas cards, letters, cartoons, posters and the manuscripts of celebrated war poets are among the collection on display for the first time in Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour, exploring the many ways those both at home and on the front line tried to cope with the enormity of the First World War.

With personal objects, such as letters, a handkerchief bearing lyrics for ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, and schoolboy essays reacting to airship raids over London, as well as recruitment posters, humorous magazines and even a knitting pattern for balaclavas, the exhibition considers themes such as humour, faith, comradeship and family and looks at the contribution so many made to the war effort.

Key items in the exhibition include a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to his mother describing his worries about his son serving at the Front, written in the light of his belief in Spiritualism. Also included in the exhibition on rare display is a letter from Isaac Rosenberg and the manuscripts of well-known war poets, such as Rupert Brooke.

Exploring the importance of humour during the war as a way to express or mask anxieties, the exhibition includes a selection of caricatures, cartoons, humorous Christmas cards, a romance novel set in a munition factory and trench journals, magazines full of in-jokes and dark humour created at the Front to lift the troops’ spirits.

In a poignant conclusion the exhibition explores the grief expressed over the millions of lives lost during the First World War. A soldier’s last letter home as he goes into battle is on display for the first time alongside manuscripts of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ and Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’.

An atmospheric video and soundscape called ‘Writing Home’ has been commissioned for the show, using messages from personal postcards written to and from the front contributed by the public.

Enduring War is part of the British Library’s support for the UK’s First World War Centenary programme, which includes leading the UK’s contribution to Europeana1914-1918.eu, the most important pan-European collection of first World War source material, and a brand new British Library First World War website with over 500 items from across Europe, articles by leading experts and teachers’ notes.

Dr Matthew Shaw, co-curator of Enduring War and project coordinator for Europeana 1914-1918, says: “It has been a privilege to make this selection of First World War material from the Library’s great collections, which reveals something of the personal experience of that conflict, the echoes of which are still with us today. Perhaps even better, we have been able to make many of these available online for the first time through Europeana 1914-1918, as well as create this extraordinary audio-visual interpretation of the records left by those who served.”

Alison Bailey, co-curator of the exhibition, says: “The exhibition brings together material that has come to have national significance, such as the manuscripts of now famous war poets, with less familiar items like Christmas cards and concert programmes that people might not expect to find in the British Library’s collection. For example, we have both a manuscript of Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier’ and a card sent to him about socks. Personal and poignant stories sit alongside public statements and literary manuscripts, giving an enduring voice to some of the men, women and children who lived through the war.”

First World War Centenary minister Helen Grant MP, said: “The centenary of the First World War has captured the imagination of people all over the country. Although the dominant emotions for us all are remembrance, reflection and the deepest respect for those who fought for us a hundred years ago, we are rightly also fascinated by the war’s social and cultural impact. This brilliant exhibition helps to capture and share much of that information, and does so in an intelligent and eye-catching way. I commend it to everyone who, like me, wants to learn about how things were back then and how it has shaped how we live our lives today.”

Three new publications have been released by the Library to mark the First World War centenary: Hidden Stories of the First World WarLingo of No Man’s Land, a dictionary of First World War slang, and audio CD The First World War in Poetry. In collaboration with Europeana 1914-1918, author and journalist Jackie Storer’s Hidden Stories of the First World War features the thrilling, tragic and sometimes humorous accounts of ordinary people who were caught up in the Great War. Gleaned from unseen letters, documents and family recollections, this collection of over 30 new tales is illustrated with photos, memorabilia and maps - giving a touching personal dimension to the four-year conflict.

A range of events accompany Enduring War, from silent films to war reporting. Guest speakers, including historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw and war correspondent, author and broadcaster Kate Adie, explore themes from the exhibition and the First World War. For the first time the Library will also offer a performance art experience alongside the exhibition, The Unbuilt Room: Europeana 1914-1918, giving the public a chance to engage with the histories and memories of the War and the exhibition in a brand new way.

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour opens 19 June and runs until 12 October 2014.

Image: "These Women Are Doing Their Bit: Learn to Make Munitions." Poster [London, 1916]. Courtesy of the British Library.

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