The big exhibition to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice is definitely worth seeing, though I have a few reservations about it.
It mostly consists of ninety boxes, each one containing mementoes of someone connected with the war. Each box is lit by electric bulbs on the end of long white stalks – so the effect is of votive candles. Many of the little shrines are for those who died in the war, and there is a general air of elegiac reverence.
It is full of fascinating objects – Wilfred Owen’s cigarette case and Siegfried Sassoon’s pistol for starters. (That pistol is a lot more impressive than the little Browning automatic (also on display) thatwas taken from one of Gavrilo Princip’s co-conspirators. There are some stunning exhibits; the one I can’t get out of my head is Henry Tonks’s painting of a soldier with terrible facial disfigurement (with below it, photographs that show how the surgeons managed to partly patch him up.)
There are reminders of stories that made the headlines during the war – such as Captain Fryett, the merchant seaman who tried to ram an attacking U-Boat. He was captured, and charged with piracy by the Germans because he had done this without officially being a combatant. He was executed.
You see something of the nation’s desire to memorialise every aspect of these exceptional four years. I was struck by some of the paintings, such as those of the postal censorship office in Portugal Street. Two pictures, one of a room full of men, the other full of women, reading letters home from German P.O.W.s. I wonder whether there was a difference in the sort of letters that each sex read.
Finally, though, I kept thinking about aspects of the war that were not included. These treasured memories of loved ones made them all look like innocent victims. There were only a few reminders that the men sent out to France were sent to be brutal (though there is just one very deadly-looking home-made cosh fro hand-to hand trench fighting. There are pignant letters home, and a room full of those beautiful embroidered silk post-cards that were so popular – but no examples of the rude post-cards that British soldiers bought in Paris and elsewhere (There were plenty on show in the Amours, Guerre et sexualité exhibition in Paris last year.) Long before the Great War, Kipling had pointed out that “single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints” but you’d never deduce that from this exhibition.
It’s a show about things people kept as souvenirs of the war, and many of these are souvenirs of loss. The curators have made that the touchstone of the show, and have embellished contemporary expressions of loss with later ones. What are the quotations from the sixties poets Edwin Brock and Vernon Scannell doing up on the wall, telling us how we ought to feel about the things we are seeing?
Whether they intended it or not, the curators have created an exhibition that ties in easily with the usual pop-culture myth of the “futile” first world war. There is plenty of easy irony indulged in – the first room is labelled “Over by Christmas”, and Haig’s little memorial box features his words before the Somme: “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with Divine help. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the artillery preparation so thorough.” There is no indication of how his forces finally managed to win the war.
I’m uneasy with the “futility” myth, because I feel it underestimates our ancestors. They were not fighting for a stupid cause, but for one that they sincerely believed to be just. Yes, of course the war was more terrible than anyone had expected in 1914, but very soon its grimness was clear, and recruits from 1915 onwards had a pretty clear idea of what they were volunteering for. Covering the men of the time with a tragic irony that insists that they were merely victims diminishes them.
Well, that’s that off my chest – and my bit of a moan should not deter you from seeing the exhibition. There is much in it that is very definitely worth seeing, and much that is deeply touching.