London: WWI Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

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I’m actually kind of embarrassed to admit that this was my first visit to the Imperial War Museum, especially because I used to live within walking distance of it (in the old E&C, boy am I glad not to be living there anymore!). In fairness to me, it had been closed for a long time whilst they were revamping it, but I think it’s been open again since the summer, so no more excuses!  Actually, I do have one more excuse…by the time I made it there last week, after a long day spent running errands, it was already well after 4 (as you may be able to tell from the nighttime photograph, although I suppose it could have been about 3 and that dark these days) and there was absolutely no earthly way I’d have time to see everything (I think the museum has about 5 floors; just look at it, it’s huge!) so I decided to zero on one of the areas I knew they’d put a special focus on redoing, the First World War Galleries.

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The WWI stuff is in the basement, which was quite convenient as I just happened to wander down there in search of the toilets.  From the outside, it didn’t look like much, and I thought I’d be able to zip through and maybe move onto the Second World War.  I was wrong, because everything is hidden in galleries that snake through the interior of the museum, and it is huge and awesome in there.

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Now, I have been to a lot of WWI museums in the past couple of years (the Ijzer Tower, and the In Flanders Fields museums spring instantly to mind, but there’s been plenty more that touch on it, most recently the Wellington Arch), and though I do still think the Ijzer Tower rocked because of its sheer size, the Imperial War Museum blew the rest of them out of the water.  It was just very comprehensive, and took you through each stage of the war (and the home front, in Britain and Europe) in chronological order, which I really appreciated.

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I believe that the IWM is run by a different organisation than the one that manages the Royal Armouries in Leeds, but that’s kind of what it reminded me of, only more in depth.  There were tonnes of strategy games and other interactive things that really made it fun; I got to play a game where I removed broken Huntley and Palmer biscuits from the production line (which brought on flashbacks to one of my earliest posts on the biscuit tin gallery at the Reading Museum).  Regular readers will know that I’m no great fan of children, and I think part of what made my experience so nice was that there were none of them in there (maybe because it was past school hours, and not a weekend) so the adults actually got a chance to play all the games, which was great.  They also had a dress-up bit, and a display where you could check to see if you were fit to be a soldier by measuring your height and girth and such (I was too short to have made the grade initially, but would have passed muster after they lowered their standards…and if I was a man of course).

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Speaking of flashbacks and such, I knew there would be something about Edith Cavell in there, she pops up everywhere else, even when you’re not expecting her!  I wasn’t disappointed as they had one of her nursing caps.  This was in addition to a splendid collection of uniforms, including one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s with a shortened sleeve for his withered arm.

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Actually, there were lots of very cool artefacts.  You may be able to tell from the pictures I took that I’m kind of partial to the recruitment posters, but they also had figurines representing Churchill, David Lloyd George, Philippe Petain, and Woodrow Wilson (I couldn’t get a good photo of Wilson because of the awkward lighting though), and plenty of things that the troops actually took into battle, including the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy shown above that one soldier apparently used to “entertain” his fellow soldiers.  Getting shot at, sprayed with poison gas, and being forced to listen to a ventriloquist…damn, war really is hell.

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I thought I was pretty well versed in the war generally after having been to all these museums, reading a book about it here and there, and watching Paxman’s series on it last spring, but there was so much information here that I managed to learn some things.  For instance, did you know that the French 75 cocktail was named after a type of cannon (shown above)?  I love French 75s, as they’re a mix of champagne, gin, lemon juice, and sugar, which is pretty much what I’m looking for in an alcoholic beverage, but I wasn’t aware of the Great War connection until the helpful placard pointed it out to me.

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I know that America, due to their isolationist policies, entered the war very late, but I liked that the galleries also gave some space to the Doughboys, and some of Wilson’s post-war plans, because sometimes I do feel a bit left out of things at other European war museums.   I also liked that there was some information on German civilians and how difficult life was with food shortages (the dishes below are ones they were encouraged to use to conserve food, and they’re about the size of a child’s tea set.  Britain also had rationing dishes, but they were at least three times the size of the German ones), not to mention the weird substitutions that were encouraged (I think the text on that poster with the gnome on it translated to something like, “Need oil?  Use mushrooms!”  How does that even work?  They’re so watery and horrible!).

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Skipping ahead to the end of the war, there was of course the obligatory poignant section about the horrific injuries of some of the survivors, as well as a recognition of the many dead soldiers and civilians, but being the Imperial War Museum, and not a war memorial, it wasn’t dwelt upon as much as at some other places.  The quote on a wall from Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier from WWI (who is now deceased) was simple, and yet stuck with me, “I’ve tried for 80 years to forget it.  But I can’t.”  I think that does sum up the impact the war had on Britain, even to this day, and why exhibits like these are still so important.

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I really do think there was something for everyone here, with attention given to the roles of women, children, and pacifists in the war, as well as plenty of weaponry and artillery for people who are into that stuff (they even had a mock trench, though it wasn’t anywhere near as elaborate as the ones at Ijzer Tower).  It wasn’t quite as specialist as some exhibits I’ve seen, so hardcore military historians might not find much for them (though I think the quality of the artefacts is excellent, and quite varied) but for the average person who just loves history generally, they’re perfect. I think you can tell that I loved the WWI Galleries, and I spent a fantastic hour exploring them.  I will definitely now make a point to return to the IWM (though I may or may not blog about it, I don’t want to bore everyone, but there might be some other really cool exhibits), and I advise others to do the same.  I can’t compare the galleries to what they had before, since I never saw the earlier ones, but they are really spectacular now.  4.5/5





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