Story by Sue Burley
October 31, 2002 April 27, 2003
"I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military
I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and
I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe
are evil and unjust."
So wrote Siegfried Sassoon (pictured below, right) to his commanding officer in 1917. The full statement was read out in the House of Commons and later printed in The Times on July 31.
A knowledge of the First World War and the work of the war poets does not quite prepare you for the pathos of this exhibition, displaying as it does a wide variety of original manuscripts, letters and photographs of 12 young men fighting in the trenches of the First World War.
When a friend asked the slightly older Edward Thomas if he knew what he would be fighting for, he picked up a pinch of earth and, crumbling it, said: "Literally, for this."
This is what most of these young men would have thought, fighting in defence of their homes and England, aspirations that would soon end in disillusionment on encountering the worst of human suffering and degradation. After his death on April 9, 1917 by shell blast, Thomass pocket watch was found to have stopped at 7.36am, the exact recorded moment of his death. This was one of the most poignant pieces of memorabilia, among many.
Julian Grenfell, who loved hunting and riding, was extremely militaristic and enjoyed the male companionship of the Royal Dragoons to the full. It seems he took an abnormal joy in killing people.
" The fighting excitement revitalises everything, every sight, word and action. One loves ones fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing them."
But even he, in his poem 'Into Battle', published on the day he was killed by a shrapnel splinter in 1915, wrote these beautiful end lines:
"The thundering line of battle stands
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands
And night shall fold him in soft wings."
Sepia photographs take us back to a pre-war innocence. Letters sent home to friends and family prove to be especially touching and, in some cases, display a façade of cheerful energy, making light of the unbearable conditions in the trenches.
These young men could so easily have been our own sons, brothers, lovers; and it is a strength of this exhibition that it forces you to look again at your own sons and their friends and give thanks that they have not been exposed to such deadly self-sacrifice.
I wonder at the lasting effect of the psyche of a nation so brutally deprived of the youth of one generation. In 1915, the Brooke family not only lost Rupert, who died of blood poisoning in Skyros, but also his brother, Alfred, in the same year.
Only five of these poets returned home after the war and one, Ivor Gurney, was committed to a mental institution, where he died in 1937.
But the lasting impression is the poetry; original manuscripts, often written in torrid, dehumanising places. Nevertheless, these young men wrote some of the most dramatic, barbed and lyrical verse of the 20th Century.
I think it would have been appropriate to have at least one woman represented in this exhibition. Vera Brittain was a writer and poet who lost both her fiancee, Roland Leighton, and later her brother, Edward. She served in the war, nursing the wounded in France and Malta. Her poems are full of the agony of bereavement and loneliness.
There are also some stark oil paintings by Paul Nash and Gilbert Rogers, depicting horrors that leap at you from the canvases.
It might be advisable to take a magnifying glass, as many of the letters are faded and difficult to read. Allow at least two hours to do the exhibition justice.
But if your back aches after a while, a small area has been set aside for browsing through a selection of poetry books and to give visitors a break if the pity of war becomes too harrowing.
RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Imperial War Museum website...