Last fall, we were fortunate to be able to visit the Imperial War Museum in London. My back had decided not to cooperate with our vacation schedule. After spending essentially most of a weekend on the floor, I finally had enough of a recovery to rearrange our schedule.
Because it was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, museums and other institutions had created programs and remembrances across the city, from the almost 900,000 ceramic red poppies in the moat of the Tower of London to musical programs and the newly opened World War I galleries at the Imperial War Museum.
A number of historians and others have observed that the 20th century began with World War I and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The galleries at the war museum are evidence of how much truth there is in that observation. The “Great War” or “The World to End All Wars” caused the collapse of four empires (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey), changed the map of Europe, gave birth to communism, led in a straight line to World War II, and forced a reluctant United States to assume a position of leadership that most Americans did not seem to want.
The exhibition is striking, haunting, almost humbling, moving from the start of hostilities in August 1914 to Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918. Paul Cornish, curator of the museum’s Department of Exhibitions, has written the companion book for the large display, The First World War Galleries. It’s just as striking, haunting and humbling as the exhibition itself.
The book is not meant to be a definitive history of World War I; numerous other books tackle that challenge. Instead, Cornish provides an overview of the war, using highlights from the exhibition to explain what happened, and why.
He also provides interesting nuggets that go far in explaining what happened.
· Of all the warring powers, the United Kingdom had the smallest land army, which was seriously depleted with initial fighting in Belgium. The arrival of the British expeditionary forces from India helped save the British army.
· The Battle of the Somme, lasting from July to November of 1916, costing the British more than 20,000 casualties on the first day. The French were actually better prepared (and more experienced) to engage in the battle.
· The war quickly became a war of technology – the use of armored vehicles (tanks); the use of poison gas, first by the Germans and then by the British; the war in the air with planes and dirigibles; even the use of metal helmets to protect against shrapnel (as Cornish says, armor returned to military gear).
· Britain was shocked with the shelling of three English towns by German warships, and almost 1500 Londoners died in bombings by German planes and dirigibles.
· In 1916, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph died (he had reigned since 1848); his successor tried to negotiate with the Allied powers but Germany got wind of it and took over the Austrian army.
The First World War Galleries is a fascinating book, even apart from the exhibition itself. And it tells the story in text and illustrations of a war that helped shape much of the 20th century.
Painting, top: The Menin Road by Paul Nash, oil on canvas (1919), Imperial War Museums, London (scene of the landscape after the Third Battle of Ypres).
Photograph: Chateau Wood in the Ypres / Menin road area by Frank Hurley, taken Oct. 29, 1918; Australian War Memorial, a scene similar to the that painted by Nash.