First World War exhibition

Exhibition tells of experience of Scots in First World War

A small batch of letters written by a mother in Aberdeen to her son serving on the front line in the First World War is one of the most moving items in the entire holdings of the National Library of Scotland.

The letters have remained unopened since the day they were posted because George Buchanan Smith never lived to be able to read them. The Gordon Highlander was among the 60,000 British soldiers who died in the Battle of Loos in September 1915 and his letters were subsequently returned to the family marked 'killed in action'.

This is just one of the many remarkable stories told in a major exhibition at NLS that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the war by looking at what happened through the eyes of the people who experienced it.

'Behind the Lines: Personal stories from the First World War' tells the story of the war through treasured letters, diaries, journals, postcards, recruiting posters, contemporary films, photographs, maps, official reports and propaganda material. It looks far beyond the familiar images of the war to show there was no typical experience.

Manuscripts Curator Alison Metcalfe, who put the exhibition together with Social Sciences curator Jan Usher, said: 'It is impossible to tell the full story of the war in a single exhibition. What we have tried to do is to understand it through the records that people left behind of their experiences, be that fighting at the front or waiting for news back at home.'

One of the most important historical documents of the war is the daily diary kept by Field Marshal [Earl] Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army [on the Western Front] for most of the war. It is a key part of the Library’s First World War collection and excerpts from the diary, along with a selection of other items from the Haig papers, including letters to his wife, will appear throughout the exhibition.

This is just one of a number of personal stories told in the exhibition. Others include:

  • Brothers in arms Archie and Bertie Dickson who both served in the Royal Navy and fought at the Battle of Jutland where Archie was killed at the age of only 16. Bertie survived the war and carried a photograph of his brother with him for the rest of his life. The photograph will feature in the exhibition, as will a censored letter he wrote to his parents, describing the battle and his anxious wait for news of his brother
  • Mairi Chisholm — at 18 she went to the Western Front and spent most of the war caring for soldiers at a first aid post at the Belgian front line. She had no nursing training, but learned the necessary procedures by copying others
  • George Ramage — he joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1915 and was sent to Flanders, enduring the horrors of trench warfare before being wounded and sent home
  • Conscientious objectors Arthur Woodburn, Emrys Hughes and Thomas Hannan who were all jailed for their opposition to the war and their refusal to fight. After the war, Hughes and Woodburn both became Labour MPs and Woodburn served as Secretary for State from 1947-50. A hard labour camp was set up for conscientious objectors at Dyce outside Aberdeen
  • Major Alasdair Geddes, son of the Scottish pioneering town planner Sir Patrick Geddes, who faced danger on a daily basis. He manned kite balloons which were raised some 3,000ft above the front line, still tethered to the ground, and allowed enemy movements to be observed.

The exhibition has been planned in sections which takes the visitor on a journey through the war. It begins with the countdown to hostilities breaking out; the call to arms which led to an initial wave of eager recruits; the reality of active service on the frontline in France, Gallipoli and East Africa, and in the Navy or Royal Flying Corps; life on the 'home front' back in Scotland and, finally, the aftermath of the conflict when the guns fell silent and those involved returned home.

'The items in the exhibition are only a small selection from our WW1 collection but they are a window through which people can see what the war was like for a variety of individuals,' said Jan.

Alison added: 'We wanted to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the war by honouring the many ways people experienced the conflict. We hope visitors to the exhibition will come away with new insights into one of the most important chapters in recent human history'.

'Behind the Lines: Personal stories from the First World War' runs from 27 June to Armistice Day, 11 November, at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.

27 June 2014

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