The Imperial War Museum in London is a far more life-affirming place than its martial name suggests, painting a broad picture of how soldiers and citizens on the home front cope with armed conflict.
In recognition of the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War, the museum underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. The stunningly redesigned site, reopened in July, devotes significantly more space than before to the shattering four-year-long European conflagration that so changed the globe. The IWM, which covers all conflicts involving British soldiers since the beginning of the 20th century — including Irish rebellions and wars in the Falkland Islands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan — nearly doubled the floor space devoted to World War I for its reopening. Remarkably, more than 5,000 square feet were added without any changes in the exterior of the historic building in the city’s Lambeth district (originally the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill ).
If you choose to walk from downtown London to the striking brick edifice encircled by a park, you’ll be drawn by its towering dome. The soaring reconstructed atrium is loaded with gargantuan weaponry, including fighter jets, tanks and rockets from later wars. The First World War Galleries beckon with an introductory film on the United Kingdom’s economic and military position just before the August 1914 outbreak of hostilities. An empire of both great wealth and great poverty, Britain still ruled the waves around the world.
The major redesign — after decades of lesser updates since its dedication in 1920 to reflect successive wars — has allowed administrators to gear displays to a new generation of museumgoers. “The first visitors had lived through the war, or had parents or grandfathers who had,” says Paul Cornish, curator of exhibits at the museum. “Also, the historiography of the first war has changed by leaps and bounds in recent years.” The new galleries have driven attendance up sharply; the museum now draws 8,000 to 10,000 visitors daily, up from its previous average of 3,000.
Once saturated with exhibits featuring the Western Front, where British soldiers served alongside the French, the museum now includes more information about the Eastern Front, where Germany faced millions of Russian troops who also were allied with the British and French. With all the extra exhibit space, the museum found room for a Sopwith Camel overhead, along with tanks and a variety of giant guns — important artifacts, Cornish says, “when you’re dealing with a war that essentially was defined by artillery.”
When I first visited, two years ago, the museum’s Second World War exhibits interested me more. That was the war my father fought in as an American Army officer. To me, a war museum in London conjured thoughts of the Nazi air raids that threatened Britain’s survival and the 1944 D-Day invasion across the English Channel. But this time, exploring the century’s earlier mayhem, I find myself gripped by the historical context that the museum has provided around it.
The expanded First World War Galleries give visitors a holistic view of the years 1914 to 1918. They include stark depictions of the changing nature of battlefields at the beginning of the 20th century, with newfangled mechanized weaponry creating a previously unimagined scale of killing, as well as exhibits that delve into the effects of the Great War on England, and how it helped develop the British national character.
An early display along the Great War trail takes you through a high-walled trench modeled on those that the German and Allied troops dug, paralleling each other across Belgium and France in the first months of combat. Open at the top, this simulated trench features a German tank and an airplane threatening above. One can easily visualize soldiers clambering up ladders and across no man’s land, and being repelled by gunfire, or hunkering down for protection against artillery shells lobbed at them from afar.
A particularly inspiring exhibit brings alive the famed “Christmas truce” of 1914 — during which Allied and German soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches to meet in no man’s land, and together sing carols, swap trinkets and kick soccer balls around — with photos, letters, uniform buttons and other exchanged items. It was, perhaps, the world’s “final installment of gentlemanly warfare,” as one historian puts it. More sobering, though, is learning about the 81 British troops who still were killed that first Christmas of the war, and how such spotty cessations of hostilities weren’t repeated after 1914.
Next comes a display introducing visitors to the advent of poison gas, with the protective masks and suits that the terrifying new weapon necessitated. Another reference to gas warfare is found one floor up, in the museum’s “Truth and Memory” exhibit, featuring British art from the period. There, John Singer Sargent’s enormous 1919 painting, “Gassed,” shows a line of soldiers blinded by mustard gas, holding onto each other as they walk single-file.
Back in the main galleries, a vast exhibit on 1916’s Battle of the Somme offers a sense of how stalemates developed in the trenches. Near France’s Somme River, Allied forces tried repeatedly nonetheless to break through the German trench line. The devastating encounters are portrayed against a wide-screen movie view of the battlefield as it changes with the seasons, from scorching July through bitter, frost-covered November. The five months of madness — before commanders on both sides realized that even massive firepower wouldn’t be enough to break the catastrophic deadlock — cost more than a million casualties overall. With that environment of defeatism affecting all parties, one can imagine how the introduction of masses of fresh troops in 1917, when the United States entered the war, became a deciding factor in the eventual Allied victory.
Elsewhere in the galleries are depictions of what were then novel forms of killing, via strange threats far from the trenches: German Zeppelin bombardments on England, and the first U-boat torpedo attacks on shipping as Germany attempted to break the British blockade.
This May at the museum, attention will focus on the centenary of the 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania off the Irish coast, which drowned nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Outrage in the then-neutral United States led Germany to stop such “unrestricted” torpedoing of passenger liners. But that lasted only two years, and the resumption of such attacks finally sparked the United States to declare war and join the Allies — sending more than a million soldiers to Europe and helping to turn the tide.
Throughout the galleries, “reflection spaces” invite visitors to consider questions provoked by what they see, including the effect that a soldier’s fear of being killed had on his ability to fight and whether it’s possible to legislate to make war more humane. A last bid for reflection, near the end, asks whether the First World War’s peace terms made a Second World War inevitable two decades later, as students have been taught over the decades. Here, too, recent scholarship lets the museum offer a more complete picture than once was possible. It suggests that “yes” is too simple an answer, given all the post-war economic and political changes that swept the globe between the wars.
The question is designed to introduce the World War II area, of course. But while most fellow visitors move on to that, I return to the trenches for another run-through of the displays that bring to life what was so wrongly called “the war to end all wars.”
Roy Harris is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.”
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Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Covering conflict, especially involving Britain, from World War I to the present, to encourage understanding of the wartime experience on the front and at home. Free.