Posted by: michaeldaybath | August 21, 2014

Enduring the First World War

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour, Folio Gallery, The British Library, London, until 12 October 2014

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is now well upon us and cultural heritage organisations have led the way with exhibitions and other events devoted to the subject. The British Library is no exception. I have already reported on a panel discussion on the war hosted in February, and there have been other events held at the Library since then, including several literary events at St Pancras and a Europeana 1914-18 World War One family history roadshow held at Boston Spa. For most visitors, however, the most visible representation of the Library’s response to the centenary is probably the free exhibition on display in the Folio Gallery at St Pancras.

The exhibition is entitled “Enduring War” and focuses on the human response to war  [1]. It is a relatively small exhibition, with around 80 items, the vast majority from the Library itself. The exhibition is divided into a number of themes, each illustrated by items representative of the Library’s broad collections. Posters feature prominently in the exhibition publicity, including the well-known recruitment poster, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” [2], a large version of which currently adorns the atrium at St Pancras.

There are six main themes. The first (Call to arms) focuses on enlistment and includes a number of recruitment posters (including “Fall in” from 1914 and “Lads you’re wanted: go and help” from 1915) as well as items relating to the raising of pals battalions, formations of Kitchener’s New Army that recruited from particular localities or workplaces (e.g., the recruitment poster, “Serve with your friends” from 1914). Intended to encourage volunteering, this policy had severe consequences on home communities when these units suffered high casualty rates in battle. The war poets are in general well-represented in the exhibition, and this section includes an autograph copy of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” produced for his supporter Edward Marsh in early 1915 [3]. The exhibition also includes some patriotic (jingoistic?) verse by Jessie Pope, which may seem rather dated now but which was apparently extremely popular at the time. One of the poems featured here is her, No! — which interestingly seems to view the roles of the soldier, the sailor, and those left behind as equally important, although the last can perhaps “only aspire to “watch and wait” (while they “busily knit and sew”)!

Shrewsbury Abbey war memorial

Wilfred Owen’s name on the war memorial in Shrewsbury Abbey, Shropshire

This section also covers some of the negative reactions to the war after the introduction of conscription in 1916, including a report from the court-martial of a pacifist (a member of the Religious Society of Friends). There is also a copy of the well-known statement protesting the war that Lt. Siegfried Sassoon sent to his commanding officer in July 1917. This could have easily have had serious personal consequences for Sassoon, but he was instead diagnosed with neurasthenia and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital for treatment (where he met Wilfred Owen). A covering letter to his statement, sent to his relative Harold Cox, reveals a touching uncertainty:

No doubt I am entirely wrong. Poets usually are!
I hope you will give me credit for being honest anyhow.

A second theme (Home comforts) covers the home front, with a focus on the family as an aid to recruitment (e.g., the poster “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War” from 1915) and the importance of a forces mail system that was very efficient in keeping soldiers on the front in regular touch with home. The exhibition includes a letter from the poet Isaac Roseberg to Gordon Bottomley that reveals his pleasure in receiving letters (and provides commentary on one of his poems) as well as mimeographed copies of letters sent home by Indian soldiers that were collated by the Censor of Indian Mails. The role of song is represented by the music of the popular music hall ditty, “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary” printed on a handkerchief, a song from 1912 that would have reminded soldiers of home as they marched along.

It’s a long, long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.

The following section (Do your bit) focuses chiefly on changes in the workplace and some of the effects of total war, e.g. the aerial bombing of civilians. Posters and novels reflected the need for women to take on some of the traditional workplace roles of men, e.g. in public transport, the munitions industry and on the land (e.g., the posters “These women are doing their bit: learn to make munitions” from 1916, and “National Service: Women’s Land Army. God speed the plough and the woman who drives it” from 1917). On aerial bombardment, a page from a school essay records the excitement of a zeppelin raid. Other items included are knitting and crochet patterns that could be used to help supply those at the front with clothing essentials and a certificate from money-raising activities aimed at children.

The fourth theme (Pack up your troubles) looks at humour, which was one of the ways that some people coped with war. There are examples of trench humour, e.g. in Christmas cards and postcards (including illustrations by Donald McGill), caricatures (e.g., William Haselden’s, The Sad Adventures of Big and Little Willie, published in 1915), trench journals (here represented by Aussie), troopship magazines (e.g. the Waitemata Wobbler from 1917 [4]) and cartoon maps (e.g., “European Revue: Kill that Eagle” from 1914). The exhibition also contains some of examples of visual humour from Russia [5] and Germany. Perhaps most moving are some cartoons by Norman Rybot, visually inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, but depicting food shortages during the siege of Kut Al Amara, “Certayne other knyghtes are lyke to dye of wante.”

Religion was another way of coping with war and the next theme (Faith under fire) provides examples of this from a number of different perspectives. A letter from the Brighton Pavilion Hospital transcribed by the Censor of Indian Mails shows a Muslim soldier in the Indian Army reflecting on how difficult it was to say the prescribed prayers in the trenches. Other exhibits demonstrate how organised religion could operate “in the field,” with examples of Christian and Jewish prayer books and orders of service (from both sides of the lines), photographs of field services [6], and a book of poems by the popular Anglican priest “Woodbine Willie,” the Rev. Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, M.C. (Rough Rhymes of a Padre, 1918). The Church of England was also very active on the home front, exhibits here including a poster that could be used to advertise those churches that were “open daily for prayer and intercession.” War also led to a greater level of attention being given to the supernatural, perhaps best demonstrated in Britain by the persistence of the Angel of Mons myth (represented here by a book and postcard). Perhaps related to that was a growing interest in Spiritualism, a religion which claimed to provide a means of communicating with the dead. The main proponent for Spiritualism in Britain was none other than the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the exhibition includes a 1917 letter to his mother referring to his son Kingsley, who was then serving in the army:

I do not fear death in the boy, for since I became a convinced Spiritualist, death becomes rather an unimportant [?] thing, but I fear pain and mutilation very greatly. However, all things are ordained.

British Librarians war memorial

The British Librarians war memorial, The British Library, London

The final theme (Grief and memory) explores responses to the millions of lives that were lost. The exhibits include examples of telegrams and letters of condolence sent during the war itself, as well as of the multiple kinds of “official recognition” that came afterwards, e.g. published casualty lists, war memorials and medals. For example, the exhibition includes a record card for one of the individuals listed on the “British Librarians” war memorial, which can now be found in the staff entrance of the British Library (the record belongs to Rifleman Ernest Edward Spears, 1st/12th London Regiment (The Rangers), an Assistant at Holborn Library, who died on the 7th October 1916, aged 19, and whose name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial). The section also includes some more personal responses to death. These include autograph copies of two of the most well-known war poems of all time, Lawrence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” (1914) and Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (1917) [7], providing an obvious contrast in approach.


They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

An archive sound recording of Binyon reading “For the Fallen” plays on a continuous loop in the exhibition space here, which provides some additional atmosphere. The exhibition also contains the manuscript of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony (1922), a reflective piece that seems to have emerged from RVW’s own experience of the war.

The exhibition is relatively small and there must have been significant challenges for the curators in deciding what to include and what to leave out. It does, however, provide a good representation of the broad types of content collected by the British Library, including books, journals, literary manuscripts, maps, photographs, sound resources, and printed ephemera (including posters and postcards). The manuscript of Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” was on display in the same gallery space last year as part of the Library’s Benjamin Britten exhibition, so it is good for the public to get the opportunity to see the autograph copy of one of his other well-known poems. Indeed, the war poets are very well represented in the exhibition, including poems by Binyon, Brooke, and Owen (but not Edward Thomas) and letters by Sassoon and Rosenberg. However, it is perhaps the less well-known things that are the most interesting. An example being a note that Phyllis Garner sent to Rupert Brooke about socks! Most of the exhibits relate to the British experience of war, although attempts have been made to include hints of what might be going on elsewhere, e.g. in France, Russia or Germany. There has also been a conscious attempt to look beyond the Western Front and to include the experiences of the wider British Empire, most notably India.

The exhibition will run until the 12th October. I would highly recommend a visit to this exhibition if you happen to be in London any time before then. If not, you can find much more information on the war in the British Library’s First World War resource:


[1] The exhibition was curated by Alison Bailey and Matthew Shaw

[2] War Office, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” (poster), ca. 1914-15:

[3] Rupert Brooke, The Soldier. BL Add MS 39255 M:

[4] The New Zealand troopship magazine The Waitemata Wobbler, 1917:

[5] ‘Wilhelm’s merry-go-round’ (Russian poster):

[6] H. D. Girdwood, Church service in the field [Merville, France] (photograph), 1915:

[7] The Poetry Manuscripts of Wilfred Owen. BL Add MS 43721:


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