Skip to main content

Two years before the centenary of the outbreak of the 1914-18 War, Edinburgh’s Central Library on George IV Bridge has newly opened an exhibition and a series of talks on Edinburgh’s War: Recollections of World War I.  The exhibition runs until 16 January 2013.
World War One remains one of the great historical junctures which has burned itself into the popular imagination.  For the first time in European history a war ravaged a continent, involved mass armies from every nation and was fought with the assistance of technology previously unimagined.  The results were devastating loss of life, a generation blighted by its aftermath and, ultimately, another world war.
The Central Library exhibition, brief and impressionistic thought it might be, succeeds in avoiding the glorification of war but it also avoids an exclusive concentration on the horrors of the front.
There are contemporary newspapers.  The front-page of The Daily Graphic of 5 August 1914, announces, with the confidence of these early summer days, “Great Britain’s Ultimatum to Germany Flouted: War Declared.”
A more contrite and sombre Star on 11 November 1918 states that “The War is Over (Official).  Armistice Signed at 5 AM Today.  Hostilities End on all Fronts Six Hours Later. Red Flag in Berlin.”
Between these bald statements were the long lists of casualties and a single page from The Times during the Battle of the Somme illustrates the awesome reality of these intervening years.  Similarly, but with the under-statement of the bland military report, a battalion war diary from July 1916, written in the vicinity of High Wood on the Somme, reports on the horrors of a Scottish unit’s experience.
Decorated shell cases, snippets of barbed wire, a steel helmet, cap badges and medals are the usual illustrations of these years and they are part of this exhibition but it ranges far wider.
Dolls and teddy bears, in soldiers’ or nurses’ uniforms, a photograph of a toddler, bandolier over the shoulder and rifle carried, mirrored by another photo of the same child but on this occasion beside his uniformed father, are a reminder of the disruption to families which mass mobilisation created.  The sentimentality of war-time propaganda is illustrated in a photograph of a blind soldier holding a baby: “The Child He Will Never See.”
The world continued however while war waged.  A sheet of music, the score to ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ by George Asaf sits beside postcards, cigarette cards and photographs.  Suffragette posters sit beside posters instructing the civilian population on appropriate actions in the event of an enemy landing in Britain.  Photographs of nurses and military hospitals, books on the home front, photographs of workers in home industries, all provide a wider view of this all-engulfing conflict than many a larger or more ambitious panorama might achieve.
A primary purpose of the exhibition is to entice the interested viewer to dip into the library’s wealth of written material and a range of books on the war and available to the public are on display.  Among them, is Bob Burrow’s wonderful Fighter Writer, the story of Dundee Journalist, Bob Lee, and his war-time experiences.  Parallel to the exhibition is a series of talks on various aspects of the war, including one on Leith’s War and one on the medical and nursing management of World War 1 casualties.  For further details of the exhibition and of these talks, see,
It was Britain’s greatest war poet, Wilfred Owen, who penned that most powerful of self-descriptors for his work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The poetry is in the pity.”  Little else will ever better express the only appropriate response to that most devastating of conflicts and this exhibition captures the pity.
This article was first published in Lothian Life on 8 November 2012:

Leave a Reply