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The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches

Home > Oxford > Exhibitions | Free
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Event: -
Letters, phone calls, and pocket watches
Like many others in 2014, the Bodleian Library are commemorating the centenary of the First World War in the most appropriate way they can, in this case with an intense exhibition of letters and other personal stories. The exhibition only covers materials from 1914-1916. They wanted to keep it within the realm of one prime minister, tightly focused on that personal story. It covers Asquith's time in office, but not beyond.
great, war, exhibition, bodleian
The Great War exhibition


Described as subjective and impressionist, the exhibition offers a window into life 1914-1916. How did war affect different communities? What were the personal stories behind the big news items like the Somme? How did the personal lives of politicians and ordinary people develop alongside these political crises?

Andrew Clark of Great Leighs kept 92 diaries of how the war affected his community, and extracts feature throughout the exhibition, including an example of a 'No British Casualties' notice. The ephemeral notices and pamphlets were all kept and filed with notes, providing an invaluable resource for those interested in the period.

great, war, exhibition, bodleian, oxford
The Bodleian's shop offering on the exhibition


We read letters to and from Asquith concerning political situations such as the Dardanelles, but also his wretchedly heartfelt please to Venetia Stanley, his confidante who dropped him when she married a member of his cabinet.

There are physical as well as documentary objects in the exhibition. Cap badges, pocket watched and helmets all feature, for example, making the war more tangible, more personal.

tin, hat, pencils, bodleian, great, war, exhibition
Tin hat pencils


Edward Packe write about the first Christmas on the front. He describes how odd it was, how there was some thawing of relations with the Germans, but already, perceptively, by 27th December 1914, is able to note how overblown stories have been associated with the day. We're warned not to take reports at face value, to be critical of our sources, at the very point the sources arrive.

The Bodleian library lost its own men to the war, and one W.H.B Somerset's letters and ledger reveal how he continued to be paid by the very institution hosting the exhibition. Oxford is one theme throughout the collection, with materials, for example, of Macmillan's time studying and recovering from appendicitis before being called up.

The Germans also receive recognition. Already in 1914 Oxford was an international university, with German Rhodes scholars, for example. Called up to the other side, they found themselves fighting the very men with whom they had been sharing dinners and tutorials. The private college war memorials commemorate these men, and through the lens of individuals such as Ernst Stadler, they find a voice in this collection of stories.

Poignant and personal, political and powerful, this exhibition is well-worth visiting if you're in Oxford. Given how text-heavy it is, you may need several short visits to help you wade your way through the elegant but sometimes scrappy handwriting, as well as the density of telegraphs, and even phone messages. In an age of characterless online communications, it's good to be reminded of how powerful a personal signature can be, proving the sender is still, at that point, alive (and well?).

downing, street, trenches, great, war, exhibition, bodleian, oxford
The book of the materials


A book has been produced to accompany the exhibition. They are also running a series of gallery talks and lectures throughout the summer. Postcards and other memorabilia are available in the exhibition room and the Bodleian shop. The room is the usual small, dark Schola Naturalis Philosophiae, but as ever, the Bodleian has done amazing things with it. Access is ground level. You can't book for groups, so it's worth checking if you take one that it can accommodate you all before going in. You may need to split and rotate groups, but the Bodleian is interesting enough to make this an easy compromise. There are information leaflets in the room, and all items are well-described. Gallery staff are helpful, so don't be afraid to ask. No photography is allowed in the exhibition, which is a shame, but contributes towards both conservation and copyright concerns.
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Why? Personal stories behind the politics of the Great War
When: Monday to Friday 9am 5pm, Saturday 9-4.30pm, Sunday 11am-5pm
Where: Bodleian Library
Cost: Free
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