‘Lest We Forget’ at IWM North


Selecting the Unknown Soldier. Image from ‘Lest We Forget’

Until February 24, 1919, there is a very good free exhibition at the Salford branch of the IWM. ‘Lest we Forget’ is about remembrance, and ways in which the Great War cast its shadow over succeeding years.
The exhibition starts with the dead – a wall of small photos of bodies sprawled on various battlefields (the sort of picture that was rarely shown publicly during the war years). Then it shows how the dead were dealt with. There are examples of letters sent home from officers and chaplains regretting the death, offering condolences and speaking warmly of the dead man. These are followed by informative displays on the Imperial War Graves Commission, and their controversial decision to keep all bodies near where they fell, and to make graves uniform. Plans and sketches show how deeply considered a decision this was.
Later we see examples of the much-feared telegrams announcing a death. Scrawled in pencil by the local postmaster or postmistress, just a few words, expressed baldly. The examples here were kept as treasures by families, and they are put in the context of other mementoes, and memorial cards and ribbons that were a way of expressing grief and memory for a family denied the ritual of an actual funeral.
Something I wasn’t expecting was a small display about spiritualism, including notes on a séance where a dead soldier was (possibly) contacted.
Then there is a lot about public expressions of grief. The great sequence of paintings commissioned for the memorial hall that was never built have come up north. There is Sargent’s Gassed, of course, and Wyndham Lewis’s A Battery Shelled (which the general public seems to have loathed) and fine paintings by Spencer, Tonks and others. The exhibition is worth seeing for these alone.
We are told about ex-servicemen’s associations, and their merger in the British Legion (though nothing about the interesting politics of this merger) and of course there is quite a bit about poppies and Cenotaph remembrance.
My only quibble (and I always do seem to have a quibble, don’t I?) came towards the end of the exhibit, where it rather sketchily showed how the war has been remembered in culture. There were Owen and Sassoon manuscript drafts, and the manuscripts of Journey’s End and Oh What a Lovely War and Birdsong. A device with headphones allowed you to listen to snatches of pop songs that referenced the First World War (Some boys from a school party were excited to find some Iron Maiden, but they were disappointed when the extract stopped before the song got really violent.) There were snippets of film and TV to see: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 version), Oh What a Lovely War!, Gallipoli and Blackadder Goes Forth.

And then there is this set of bookshelves behind a perspex screen. It is, I think, the only item in the exhibition with no explanatory caption, but I suppose we’re to take it as representing the literature of the Great War. There are some good books there, like Solzhenitsyn‘s August 1914, and the only-to be expected Goodbye to All That and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. There’s a Ken Follett saga, and Testament of Youth – fair enough. But mostly (I don’t know how clear this is in my not very good photo) they are Pat Barker’s  trilogy, Birdsong, War Horse and Ben Elton’s The First Casualty – each of them represented by several duplicate copies.

Yes, these are probably the books that most people think of when they’re asked to name Great War novels – and the exhibition just confirms these prejudices.

Wouldn’t visitors have learnt more from a display showing how the war has been dealt with in other ways, especially in popular literature? What about ‘Sapper’, and Alf’s Button, and Greenmantle, and Biggles, and war comics? These did a lot to shape memories of the war in the twenties, and lasted into later decades as well.   As a child, I learned about the First World War from Biggles, and I remember a gripping article in an annual about early tanks. Later generations had Charlie’s War to learn  from.

And come to think of it, couldn’t the film section have given us Shoulder Arms and Josser in the Army, and a snip from a hero-celebrating British Instructional Film like Ypres, as well as those right-on classics…?

But I’m imagining a different exhibition from the one in Salford – and despite my grouse, I’d repeat, this is an excellent one. Go to see it.

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  1. Posted November 17, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

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