The grainy footage of a world on the precipice of what would become known as the Great War is eerily captivating: a rugby player sporting an impressive moustache retrieves a ball from a scrum; horse-drawn carriages make their way down busy streets; suffragettes march under banners demanding voting rights.
The images of a peaceful society on the brink of catastrophe draw Melbourne Museum visitors into the world of the early 20th century, inviting them to consider the social context of an array of intriguing military and cultural exhibits.
Nigel Steel, the principal historian of London’s Imperial War Museum, says the power of the exhibition, which runs until October 4, “lies in the visceral magnetism of its real objects”.
“These are the weapons that killed: this is a person who survived: these are the words they wrote that transcend the barrier of the years.”
The “weapons that killed” range from the impersonal weapons of industrialised warfare – artillery pieces, machine guns and bombs dropped by hand from aircraft cockpits – to the brutal intimacy of homemade clubs and knives used in trench raids.
Some are large and misshapen, bristling with studs and nails, their primitive crudeness a stark contrast to the mass-produced weapons that later came to symbolise the conflict. This mix of the familiar and unfamiliar is a strong feature of the exhibition. While popular imagination may be well acquainted with images of the horror of trench fighting, it is not as familiar with aspects of war such as production, supply and logistics.
Yet the almost surreal black-and-white footage of workers moving among seemingly endless rows of identical artillery is one of the exhibit’s most engrossing displays. It gives a sense of the immense effort required from all elements of society to feed what Dr Steel describes as a “vast, insatiable war machine”.
“Our main concern is always to offer new knowledge and fresh understanding of a subject that many people believe they already know. Using existing beliefs can be a useful way of hooking people into a new narrative and giving them reference points that they recognise and feel comfortable with before delivering something they’re not expecting.”
“IWM is not a military museum…it is a museum about the experience of war and the impact this has on people’s lives.” — Dr Nigel Steel, principal historian, London’s Imperial War Museum
These include a moving reminder of the dangers faced by women in the workforce, and a letter written by Frederick Meade to the Imperial War Museum in 1918 answering a request for items that reflected the war’s human sacrifice. His words, accompanied by a photo of his wife Lottie, tell how he learned of her death from exposure to TNT two years earlier while serving in France.
It is estimated that around 300 female munitions workers died from being exposed to dangerous chemicals.
“IWM is not a military museum,” Dr Steel explains. “It is a museum about the experience of war and the impact this has on people’s lives. Rather than simply log and record the sequence of events that makes up the history of a world war, we are more intent on allowing people to explore its meaning and consequence.”
Dr Steel says that people’s understanding of the war can be shaped by political views, national perspective and even a person’s family history.
“IWM holds no political agenda or is tasked with projecting no specific message. It is left to us as professional historians and curators working from within the broad remit that the museum holds to be as inclusive as possible, while remaining rigorous in our scholarship and understanding.”
Dr Steel points to the treatment of US neutrality during the war as an example. “No value judgement is given on the American position – whether it was right or wrong – but it remains a simple matter of fact.”
This attitude is evident in a section dealing with the effects of the Allied naval blockade of Germany. Led by the Royal Navy, it is estimated that the blockade directly resulted in the deaths of around 400,000 German civilians.
It is a shocking number, but nothing in the exhibition is designed to lead us to particular conclusions about it.
“There is no single message or right answer about what the First World War means,” Dr Steel continues. “The Imperial War Museum’s job is to provide as clear and meaningful a narrative as possible so that visitors can work out for themselves what they believe this to be.”
“These are the weapons that killed: this is a person who survived: these are the words they wrote that transcend the barrier of the years.” — Dr Steel
Although the attempt to offer a balanced view of the war is clear throughout the exhibition, some may find the comparative lack of material dealing seriously with conscientious objectors and political opposition to the war conspicuous, especially given the brutal punishment to which objectors were subjected.
Still, dissenting voices are not altogether absent, and as visitors are confronted with the war’s awful consequences, it is at least possible that they might end up providing just such a voice themselves.
The strongest statements in the exhibition come from the art, letters and poetry of those who were there. These items – interspersed among such fascinating materiel of war as fragments from the Red Baron’s triplane, the first British gun to have fired shots in anger and the windshield of a British fighter plane damaged by a bullet – give a sense of the wide range of responses to WWI.
One item that vividly conveys the anger about the war is an original copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The General”. Originally published in 1918, the Imperial War Museum’s copy is a revision of the poem Sassoon penned the following year.
It is a bitter denunciation of what Sassoon felt to be the futile waste of life instigated by reckless politicians and perpetuated by callous officers. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“For us, this copy’s interest lies primarily in it being clearly written in his very distinctive hand and the poem encapsulates very clearly the kind of caustic and critical sentiments for which he is best remembered,” says Dr Steel.
“War poetry is a crucial part of World War One’s history and needs to be examined alongside all other evidence – but only as one clear strand of the experience of fighting in that conflict. The statements made by the well-known war poets need to be judged as expression of their own personalities and situations.”
The final section of the exhibition focuses on peace and remembrance. It provides some insight into the suffering of bereaved parents and wives, the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the struggles faced by soldiers who lost eyes, legs and arms, and the sheer conceptual difficulty of salvaging meaning from all the suffering.
“To recognise and feel the lingering sense of shock and anger that followed it is vital that the history of what happened is understood, both intellectually and emotionally. Only then can some sense of its impact be understood.”
“I knew many surviving WWI veterans personally,” he adds. “Hearing them talk about the death of their friends and the difficulty they experienced in internalising the grief and trauma of the war’s experience over the following 70 to 80 years was very powerful.
“I believe it is my job, and has been for over 30 years, to take the sense of bewilderment and disorientation that overshadowed the generation of 1914-18 and project this on their behalf to the people of the 21st century.”
And where the objective sensibility of the historian does actually give way to subjectivity in this exhibition, it can easily be excused. Explaining why Louis Ginnett’s painting “Ypres Salient, Dawn, February 1918” hangs next to the exit, Dr Steel explains that he thinks it is important to impart a final sense of hope.
“Painted after the war, the glow of the rising sun over a new day offers a final note of optimism and consolation,” he points out. “Life begins again each dawn.”
Equally hopeful is an item which, at first glance, seems unimpressive.
It is a German bayonet, with the blade bent to form a scythe. Found near the River Jordan, close to the site where Christ is said to have been baptised, it is inscribed with words from the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah, 2:4 — “And they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
The exhibition runs until October 4. Ticket information is available on the Melbourne Museum website.