But this is not the 1940s Blitz — it's World War I, more than 20 years earlier.
For most people, the Great War evokes images of mud, gas masks and the trenches of the
"They say: 'Air raids? Really?'" Charman said. "I think we see the First World War very much through the prism of the trenches of the
Reclaiming stories of the home front is one of the missions of the museum, which reopens Saturday after a six-month closure for a 40 million pound (
The museum was founded in 1917, as the war still raged, to preserve the stories of those who were fighting and dying. It retains that goal, as well as its "Imperial" moniker, a relic of a vanished British Empire.
In other ways the museum has modernized. It now covers recent conflicts, including those in
But the museum's curators are just as interested in human stories. The World War I galleries move from the battlefront to the home front, to show how the first "total war" shook society from top to bottom.
The permanent exhibition includes more than 1,300 objects — from weapons and uniforms to diaries and letters — and alternates between the big picture and small details. Both perspectives have emotional power. It's hard not to be humbled by the sheer scale of the slaughter. After war was declared in
Multimedia displays capture the vast tragedy of the Battle of the Somme, which saw 20,000 British soldiers killed in one day. Visitors learn about tanks, planes and other technological innovations that changed the course of the war. They share space with crude weapons that suggest the almost medieval savagery of trench warfare, including catapults to fling grenades and an iron-headed club for crushing skulls.
Many visitors will find the small, personal items especially moving. Soldiers complain of boredom, rats, lice and cold in letters home from the trenches. The wallet of a soldier killed in battle holds faded photos of his wife and children. In a letter, 9-year-old
Most of the displays show the war from the perspective of
"She wouldn't have had much to put in it," Cornish said. Meat, eggs and fat all grew scarce as
"This was a highly advanced society reduced to beggary by the total nature of the war," Cornish said.
All the words seen and heard in the exhibition come from the wartime period. There are no reminiscences or later memoirs. Lead curator
The exception comes in the final room. The last word is given to
"I've tried for 80 years to forget it," he said. "But I can't."
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