ON this day, 100 years ago, the first shots of the Great War had already been fired.
German soldiers had crossed the Belgian and French borders to occupy settlements from Brussels to Bapaume, ships and submarines from fleets on both sides of the conflict were sitting on the sea bed, and the first Australians had died in battle when an expeditionary force landed at Rabaul to wrestle New Guinea from the Kaiser.
Britain declared war on August 4, the day German soldiers stormed the Belgian frontier to attack Liege, and during the next four years millions of soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded in what would go down as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.
A century later, the bloody battles of the Great War are being remembered around the world, with commemorative events under way in Britain.
A four-year program has been planned – the UK has dedicated $200 million to remembering the Great War, with 500 new exhibitions and 1500 events on the schedule – and art galleries, libraries, museums, historic homes, castles and military bases are all doing something to mark the moment.
London’s Imperial War Museum is opening after a $70 million renovation that added a new atrium, with space wrapping the gallery dedicated to conflicts from World War I to recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The museum’s Great War galleries are three times the size of the old ones, containing 1300 objects from diaries and letters to propaganda posters and homemade signs that once hung in Western Front trenches, with each piece selected because it tells a story about the people who endured the darkest days of the conflict.
“Each of the objects on display gives a voice to the people who created them, used them, or cared for them and reveal not only stories of destruction, suffering and loss but endurance and innovation, duty and devotion, comradeship and love,’’ IWM director-general Diane Lees explains.
“They will learn of the terrible strain war places on people and communities, and be able to consider some of the questions and choices – ordinary and extraordinary – that people in Britain and its former empire had to face in this first ‘total war’.’’
While there are some significant pieces on display in the atrium, including a Harrier jet hanging from the ceiling and a battle-damaged vehicle used by Reuters journalists in Gaza, it is three smaller items I see after wandering into the Great War exhibition that capture my attention.
I spend a long time looking at an antique map showing the recruiting regions for the dozens of British units sent abroad to fight, a life-sized diagram on a wall illustrating how height requirements for Tommies relaxed as the conflict progressed, and the letter that nine-year-old Alfie Knight sent Lord Kitchener asking for permission to enlist.
While the space packed with relics from World War I is dark and quiet, creating a solemn atmosphere that seems to fit the subject, the rooms on the floors above are more open and light with each level stepping forward in time through World War II and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Visitors can see artefacts collected from the conflicts that shaped Britain during the past 100 years, such as the Lockerbie trial witness stand, the possessions of a couple who died in Auschwitz, the original casing of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Japan, and steel collected after the World Trade Centre fell on September 11, 2001.
Another powerful exhibition is A Family in Wartime telling the story of one stoic South London clan as they endured rationing, evacuation, factory work, loved ones sent overseas to fight, and endless Blitz raids during World War II.
There’s also a little piece of Australian military history with the front section of a Lancaster bomber called Fred the Fox on display. It belonged to 467 Squadron and, crewed by Aussie airmen, flew 49 missions over Europe in 1943 and 1944.
“The museum was designed to provoke contemplation and conversation about the morality, motivation and character of people in wartime Britain,’’ curator James Taylor says.
“It took us four years to create the Great War galleries and we set out to explain the war to a new generation – why the war started and why it continued for so long, and to detail the experience of war for those living in Britain and the Empire.’’
The writer was a guest of Visit England.
The Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Rd is open from 10am to 6pm daily and while entry is free to the permanent exhibitions, there may be a charge to see the temporary displays. See iwm.org.uk
A convenient way to reach the Imperial War Museum is by taking the London Underground. The nearest stations are Elephant & Castle and Lambeth North. Buying a visitor Oyster Card is the best way to pay for public transport and the card also offers discounts on meals and entertainment. See tfl.gov.uk
London hotels are notoriously expensive but the three new Z Hotels – well located in Victoria, Soho and Piccadilly – are an affordable option and while the rooms are small, they are smart, clean, convenient and comfortable. See thezhotels.com
For more information on British events commemorating the Great War visit the official website. See www.1914.org
The Visit England website also offers a wealth of information to those planning a trip to Blighty. See visitengland.com
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 2014