Many of you will recall the Military Boots project that we blogged about last October. The project, which was led by Nottinghamshire artist Joy Pitts, invited people to stitch names of soldiers from the First World War into strips of cotton, which she would arrange into a coherent image of a pair of military boots. The blog was one of our most popular and it was clear that Joy’s project attracted a lot of interest.
The project has now been completed and you can see some images of the finished piece below.
The artwork will be exhibited at Lace Market Gallery, 25 Stoney Street, Nottingham NG1 1LP from the 23rd April to the 13th May 2015. The gallery is open Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm term time only
The Bromley House Library is holding a series of events to commemorate the war. Michael Noble takes a look at what’s on.
The Bromley House Library has served the people of Nottingham for almost two hundred years and is, at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the few remaining subscription libraries in the country. Its appeal lies partly in its collection of around 40,000 books and also in its pleasant atmosphere, described as ‘tranquil and unstuffy’ atmosphere. Founded in 1816, the library has been situated since 1822 in Bromley House, a Georgian townhouse that is now Grade II* listed. Access to the library is usually limited to paying subscribers but it is opening its doors this autumn and inviting the public to pay a visit to see a specially-commission exhibition of First World War artefacts and to hear a range of guest speakers.
The exhibition, which has been generously supported by the Lady Hind Trust, has been mounted as part of Nottingham’s Trent to Trenches programme. It consists of items that have been kindly loaned by the library’s members in an effort to tell the ‘stories’ behind their families’ experience of the Great War.This creates a natural focus on the war as it was experienced by Nottingham people. This personal element is made all the more poignant by the setting of cherished objects alongside beautiful photographic images of their owners, some of whom gave their lives in the conflict. A modern interpretation of the war is provided by local artist Janet Wilmot, whose works have been displayed to accompany the historical material.
The exhibition is displayed in the Bromley House Gallery and in the main reading rooms, and is open to the public every Wednesday from 10.30am – 4pm In addition, the library has a diverse programme of subjects and speakers for Saturday lectures (£5.00 pp) and Wednesday lunchtime talks. The talks on Wednesdays are free but tickets need to be reserved in advance.
This week I had the pleasure of visiting the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and of seeing the From Street to Trench exhibition that has been designed to reflect the contribution of, and effect on, the North West of the First World War.
As with many of the regional exhibitions, the focus is not merely on the local aspect of the war (which, for the North West means references to the Eccles cotton mill and the auxiliary hospital at Dunham Massey) but on the directly personal. Letters and artefacts, many of which have been donated or loaned by local people, tell the story through the eyes of the ordinary men, women and children who experienced the war at first hand. There is a paradoxically rich mundanity to these items. Their very ordinariness means that the war is set as a very loud background event to people’s lives. Examples such as the letter from some children, begging Lord Kitchener not to take their pony for war work, (he didn’t. The animal was too small for it), or the recorded testimony of Ernie Rhodes, who cheerfully recalled being promoted at work when some of the lads above him absented themselves by volunteering for duty in 1914 remind us that people’s everyday concerns didn’t simply stop because there was a war on.
Ordinary considerations filtered through to the theatres of war too. In a letter to his wife dated 1st October 1916 (touchingly appended ‘after tea’), William Anderson described a recent spate of desertions. The effort, he concluded, wasn’t worth it. Not only would it risk a military tribunal, but it would see the deserter’s ‘pay interfered with’. For modern eyes trained to see desertion rewarded with an automatic firing squad, this is a salutary reminder that more ordinary punishments loomed larger in the minds of the men involved. Capital punishment falls outside the 21st century British experience, but having one’s wages docked (and worse, having to explain the shortfall to one’s spouse) does not.
This everyday, in-the-moment correspondence challenges the received view of the war. It was perhaps the time of year, but as I strolled around the exhibition space, I recalled the words of Philip Larkin, who, in MCMXIV, commented satirically on the lines of 1914 volunteers, ‘grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark’. Larkin wrote from an historical perspective (the war had concluded before he was born) and made his comments around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the war. His work was a product of, and contributor to, the popular idea that the war was received as an excellent thing, a jolly good clearing-out that would settle things once and for all and, famously, all be over by Christmas. In this view, the people of 1914 were naive at best, outright fools at worst, blissfully unaware of the devastation that was about to be wrought upon them. ‘Never such innocence’, continued Larkin ‘never before or since…never such innocence again’.
Again, this view is challenged by the off-hand testimony of the people who were actually there. From Street to Trench contains a series of letters written by Merseysider Ada McGuire to her sisters. The first, dated 7th August 1914, expressed the ordinary concern for a loved one; ‘thank God Ralph won’t have to go to the war’, she writes, ‘this terrible war’. That date again: 7th August 1914. The British Expeditonary Force only arrived in France that day and HMS Amphion had been sunk a day earlier, causing the first British casualties of the war (facts that may not have even been known to Ada McGuire as she set pen to paper). The precise, unprecedented terribleness of the war was not yet known either, and still it warranted a horrified adjective. August or otherwise, faces such as Ada McGuire’s were hardly grinning, even at that early stage.
Larkin’s commentary pointedly drew a comparison with the lines of volunteers and those who queued up at the gates of football stadiums on Saturday afternoons. The two were not mutually exclusive and football, as well as sport in general, was just as affected by the war as any other aspect of life. Appropriately, for an exhibition focused on the North West, football has a prominent place in From Street to Trench (the Professional Footballers’ Association is a key supporter). The involvement of the game is demonstrated through examples of that perennial collector’s item, the matchday programme. The edition from Liverpool vs Rochdale on the 16th October 1915 (they drew, two goals apiece) features a recruitment advert for the County Palatine Royal Army Medical Corps), demonstrating how the authorities sought the attention of young men where they knew they could find them -in the stands. A later programme, from Manchester City vs Liverpool on the 16th November 1918 (Liverpool took victory after putting two past a goalless City), shows the state of the game in the immediate wake of the Armistice. A letter from City player Peter Gartland reveals his sorrow at having to ‘finish with the game my heart and soul were in’. His career had been brought to an end not long before when he lost a leg after receiving a ‘wound just the size of a threepenny piece’. He remained stoical and wished the club every success and that he hoped to ‘see them at the top this season’. His desire to look ahead was shared by the club’s officials who used the programme to describe their plans for the future of the game. They were glad to seen an end to ‘the Awful Tragedy’ and wanted to carry on for ‘the good of the boys’. International fixtures would be a non-starter, but there was every possibility of inter-league matches. Football, and life itself, must go on.
From Street to Trench is at Imperial War Museum North. Admission free.
Trent to Trenches is the official commemorative project of Nottingham City and County. Michael Noble paid a visit to see how the first ‘global war’ remained steadfastly local.
Whether by sending its young men off to fight on land, sea and air, by contributing materially to the war effort or by banding together as the costs of the conflict grew, every corner of the country was affected in some way by the First World War. The local impact of the war remains a powerful one and is central to the Trent to Trenches project in Nottingham.
The central exhibition, based at Nottingham Castle, weaves the local seamlessly through a series of objects and stories that nonetheless reflect the global nature of the war. A detailed timeline, painted onto the walls, matches events in Nottinghamshire with those that took place around the world. As visitors progress through the displays (a skilful blend of the chronological and the thematic) materials such as uniforms, letters, diaries and photographs, many of which were kindly loaned by local people, emphasise the ‘Nottingham-ness’ of the war. A lace panel, reflective of one of the town’s traditional trades, portrays British, French and Belgian soldiers as they would have appeared at the start of the war. A huge Union Jack dominates one wall. Its origin? HMS Nottingham, the light cruiser that was sunk by a U-boat in 1916.
The Nottingham had recently taken part in the Battle of Jutland, which was not the only major engagement that had a local angle. During the Battle of the Somme, the Sherwood Foresters were deployed at Gommecourt, towards the northern end of the line. Their role was a diversionary one, intended to draw German attention away from the main assault further south. The exhibition tells the story through an emotionally affecting film which cleverly uses local information to make it familiar: the territorial gain was ‘the distance from Nottingham Castle to Radcliffe-on-Trent’. Doing that in the East Midlands would cost you about two hours on foot. In France on the 1st July 1916 it cost the Sherwood Foresters 424 officers and men.
Further familiarity is found in the personal. You can see Nottingham schoolboy Raymond Pegg’s beautifully illustrated diary in which he commented on the development of the war with the eager pupil’s eye for details of flags and military equipment. The diary, in Raymond’s well-drilled handwriting, is accompanied by photographs of the lad as he would have appeared in between making entries and is a fascinating insight into the mental world of a young civilian at the time.
Flying Ace Albert Ball, a local and national hero, is given a section to himself, with photographs, clothing and other items of interest including his personal weapons. Ball, the son of a wealthy Nottingham businessman, was born on Lenton Boulevard in 1896 and fostered an early interest in engineering which led him to pursue a wartime career in the air. As with so many early airmen, this career was a painfully short one, which ended in 1917 in a crash at Douai in France, but it was a successful one and Ball was the most successful British airman at the time of his death. The ‘Wonder-Boy of the Flying Corps’, his exploits were celebrated internationally, and even acknowledged by Manfred von Richthoffen, the ‘Red Baron’, who described him as ‘the best English flying man’. For all this celebrity, the most resonant aspect of the Ball exhibit is the local and personal -his signature on his flying certificate, the images of his family or the photograph of him as a toddler at home in Nottingham, a local lad from the very beginning.
The Trent to Trenches exhibition is at Nottingham castle from Saturday 26th July – Sunday 16th November 2014.
In 1914, Sikhs represented just 1% of the population of British India but made up 20% of the British Indian Army. Michael Noble looks at a new exhibition that commemorates their role in the First World War
One of the reasons that the war of 1914-18 is considered a world war is that the European powers were swift to involve their colonial possessions in the conflict. For Great Britain, this meant drawing on territories from all over the globe, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, India, the ‘jewel’ in the imperial crown. India provided Britain with a massive volunteer army of over a million men, a sizeable portion of which were Sikhs from Punjab in northern India. Their role in the war is now being commemorated by the UK Punjabi Heritage Association (UKPHA) who have curated an exhibition entitled Empire, Faith and War.
The exhibition’s organisers are keen to emphasise not just the depth of Indian involvement in the war (illustrated by the fact that every sixth British soldier would have been from the Indian subcontinent), but also the breadth. Accordingly the exhibition has been designed to describe the full Sikh experience, from the Sikh Empire to the breaking out of war in 1914 and from there, through the varied experiences of Sikh soldiers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and of Sikhs who remained in India throughout.
The exhibits include propaganda and recruitment material, newspaper excerpts, artefacts such as clothing, medals and phulkari and of course many excellent photographs that depict Sikh soldiers, their loved ones and their comrades from around the world. The story is brought to life through film footage, sound recordings of Sikh POWs and curiosities such as x-rays of injured Sikh soldiers.
Empire Faith and War is much more than an exhibition. The project has larger ambitions to illuminate ‘the Great War’s Forgotten Army’ and will do so through the production of a documentary film, a commemorative publication, education packs for schools, a touring mini-exhibition and ultimately, a database of soldiers’ and families’ stories, which they aim to create with the help of volunteer ‘citizen historians’. The aim is to leave a legacy in which this hidden history is a little less hidden and rather more reflective of the size of the contribution made by those brave men from India.