AS THIS year’s centenary of the First World War loomed, staff at the Bodleian Library realised they had a duty to mark the anniversary.
With so many archive resources at their disposal, they were in a great position to examine how people in the country – particularly those in Oxford – were affected by the outbreak of the Great War.
The result of months of painstaking research by staff is a fascinating free exhibition at the library, which runs until November 2, and a new book based on the material that has been used to create the displays.
- Soldiers in The Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in the trenches in February 1915
With letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians, all in some way connected with Oxford University, the exhibition, The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches, relates what people thought and the emotions they felt at the start of the conflict.
It concentrates on the years 1914 to 1916, from the outbreak of war to the end of the Battle of the Somme and the fall of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.
While the exhibition inevitably focuses on print resources and original documents, there are also colourful recruitment posters, trench maps, pamphlets and books, many acquired during the war, to provide a backdrop to personal stories.
Curators at the exhibition room keep the lights low so they do not damage any of the precious documents being kept under glass.
But the gloom creates an appropriate sombre mood for visitors reading about the bloody consequences of the conflict in the trenches. A major theme of the exhibition is the challenge of leadership during wartime, and it features letters of two Prime Ministers, Herbert Henry Asquith, who was brought down by the war, and Harold Macmillan, whose experience as an officer in the trenches was the foundation of his political career.
It was forbidden to record Cabinet discussions, but an unauthorised diary by Colonial Secretary Lewis Harcourt provides a window on Asquith’s Cabinet, complete with character sketches of some of the leading players, including Winston Churchill.
The Harcourt family papers were transferred to the Bodleian in 2008 and Lewis Harcourt’s wartime journals were discovered.
The exhibition, which opened last Wednesday, is the first time the forbidden Cabinet diary has been on display.
Mike Webb, exhibition curator and senior archivist at the Bodleian, has edited documents used to create the exhibition for a new book entitled From Downing Street to the Trenches, published by the Bodleian.
Last year’s summer exhibition, Magical Books, attracted a record 100,000 visitors to see rare editions from the pens of fantasy authors like CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman.
Mr Webb hopes the First World War displays will bring in a similar number.
The father-of-two, 52, who lives in Cutteslowe, North Oxford, with wife Chrissie, said: “The book was written first, but I always had the exhibition in mind.”
He has worked at the Bodleian for 21 years but this is one of the biggest projects he has been involved in.
“The idea for an exhibition was first put forward about five years ago,” he said.
- The Banbury ‘Terriers’ march past Oxford Town Hall on their way to a muster at Christ Church on August 12, 1914 – eight days after Britain entered the First World War
“I realised that the library was very strong on political papers and casually enquired if we were going to stage an exhibition about the First World War. I thought it would be too complicated if we covered the whole war so the focus is from 1914 to 1916, and I think that works well, as 1916 was a watershed in the war for the whole of Europe.
“It was a point at which the war could have ended, but both Germany and Britain escalated the conflict instead, and Asquith being removed as Prime Minister was part of that.
“I’m very pleased with what our exhibitions team has done.
- Bodleian press officer Oana Romocea, above left, looks at some of the documents on show at the exhibition
“It is very difficult to unlearn what we know, but we provide fresh insight into these early years of the war by letting these people speak for themselves.”
He said: “The ‘over by Christmas’ idea was certainly present, but there were others who knew that this was unlikely and predicted a war of two or three years.
“By early 1916, the Government and the generals believed that the ‘Big Push’ in France, in combination with the naval blockade, would bring Germany to sue for peace.
“The failure to deliver this final blow by the end of 1916 was one of the main reasons for the fall of Asquith’s government.
- Recruiting posters urging men to enlist
“One of the recruitment posters on display, from 1914, contains a quote from Asquith which refers to ‘a long hard war’, so he was under no illusions.”
The exhibition includes letters of Oxford alumni who served as junior officers in the trenches on the Western Front and in far-flung parts of the empire, including Harold Macmillan.
Mr Webb said: “Macmillan’s letters are particularly interesting.”
In one letter, dated Saturday, May 13, 1916, Macmillan muses on the nature of modern warfare and writes: “Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about a modern battlefield is the desolation and emptiness of it all.
“One can look for miles and see no human being.
- A poster for the exhibition
“But in those miles of country lurk thousands, even hundreds of thousands of men, planning against each other perpetually some new device of death.
“Never showing themselves they launch at each other bullet, bomb, aerial torpedo and shell.”
Macmillan adds: “If anyone at home talks of peace you can truthfully say that the Army is weary enough of war but prepared to fight for 50 years if necessary, until the final object is attained.”
The exhibition also reveals how In Oxford, academics engaged in fierce public debate about the war.
And in one Essex village the Rev Andrew Clark compiled a diary to record the impact of war on his community, forming a chronicle which he passed on to the Bodleian Library at the end of each year.
The exhibition is open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Saturdays 9am to 4.30pm, and on Sundays from 11am to 5pm.
For further information visit bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whats-on/ online/the-great-war
Who’s who of conflict
HERBERT HENRY ASQUITH
Herbert Henry Asquith was the first Earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852-1928).
He won a classical scholarship to Balliol College in 1869 and was Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming Prime Minister in 1908.
As leader of the Liberal government, Asquith was the Prime Minister who took the country to war in August 1914.
A series of crises in 1916 led to his downfall and he was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George.
Herbert Henry Asquith
LEWIS VERNON HARCOURT
1st Viscount Harcourt (1863-1922), politician.
Lewis Harcourt, known as Loulou, was a Cabinet minister from 1907 to 1916, largely coinciding with Asquith’s Premiership.
He kept notes of Cabinet meetings although he was asked more than once not to do so.
His diary provides an insight into the politics and personalities of Asquith’s Government.
CAVALRY OFFICER JOHN BURGON BICKERSTETH (1888-1979)
On the outbreak of war, he joined the 1st Royal Dragoons and served with them in France from 1915 to 1919.
Despite appearing to reject all the war stood for in letters home from the Front, he served to the end and won the Military Cross in 1917.
- The diaries were recently published by Oxford University Press, edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock, with the assistance of Mark Pottle.
The exhibition also draws on the Great War diaries of the Prime Minister’s wife, Margot Asquith.
The diaries were recently published by Oxford University Press, edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock, with the assistance of Mark Pottle.
Following Britain’s declaration of war in the Commons, she writes on August 4, 1914: “I can truthfully say this has been the greatest moment of my life and the greatest moment in British politics since Waterloo.”
INFANTRY OFFICER HAROLD MACMILLAN
THE 1st Earl of Stockton (1894-1986), later Prime Minister and Chancellor of Oxford University.
Macmillan joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps as a second lieutenant when the war broke out.
He transferred to the Grenadier Guards in 1915 and with the 2nd Battalion he saw action in Belgium and France, being wounded at Loos in September, 1915, and again at Ypres in July, 1916.
In September 1916, during the battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme offensive, he was severely wounded and for the rest of the war spent long periods in hospital.
- Infantry Officer Harold Macmillan
THE REV ANDREW CLARK (1856-1922)
A clergyman, scholar and diarist, he matriculated from Balliol College and won a scholarship at Lincoln College.
During the First World War he compiled a record of the effects of the war on his parish at Great Leighs, Essex, which he deposited at the Bodleian Library in instalments between 1915 to 1919.
It comprises 92 exercise books, along with letters and many other papers.
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