To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, Guildhall Library currently has three free exhibitions: From Beef Tea to Battleships: Personal Stories from the First World War; The Remembrance Image Project and Poppy.We knew we wanted to focus on the individual for our exhibition to mark the centenary of the war and were lucky enough to have some fascinating objects loaned to us, including a memoir, a torch which saved a soldier’s life and an autograph book. Looking through these items, and through books from our own collection, was a very humbling experience. From Beef Tea to Battleships is a result of this research and features the objects that best reflect the experiences of the people who lived through the war.
One person who features in this exhibition is William Greenall Coe, known to his family as ‘Boy’. He began his training as a naval rating at the Naval Barracks in Chatham on 3 May, 1912 and qualified as an Engine Room Artificer 25 days later. He served on the first submarines in the Navy during the First World War and wrote to his mother almost every week. On display are letters from Boy and documents relating to his experience of the war, as well as letters from those he knew, in particular relating to his death in 1917 from double pneumonia and consumption.
While we can trace the life story of some of the people featured in the exhibition, we also have objects on display from people we don’t know much about. Some only bear the initials of those they belonged to, but each item reveals something that may otherwise have been lost forever.
The exhibition also features a military bugle on loan from the Horniman Museum and Gardens as part of their Object in Focus project. The bugle is best known as the instrument which sounds ‘The Last Post’ to honour those who have died – we thought this seemed particularly fitting with the theme of the exhibition.
The Remembrance Image Project is a contemporary photography exhibition by Simon Gregor. Simon has been taking pictures of sites associated with the conflict on the anniversary of when they saw action. From poppies to battlefields, he has aimed to capture the spirit and emotion of each location. The photographs displayed are from the research phase of the project.
Poppy is an installation by floral artist Rebecca Louise Law and her team. Rebecca has worked with us before to create a beautiful display for the Worshipful Company of Gardeners exhibition, and we were delighted when she agreed to create something to commemorate the war. We had the idea to use paper poppies from The Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal to create a curtain through which people could walk, seeing the poignant poem In Flanders Fields at one end of the tunnel, and the bugle at the other. Visitors are encouraged to use this space for remembrance and contemplation, and to pick a flower from the curtain – please leave a donation to The Royal British Legion in return.
Accompanying the exhibitions is a series of events on different aspects of the war, from memorials and women’s poetry to the effect on letter writing. We hope you get to visit the exhibition or attend one of the events and learn more about the extraordinary sacrifices made by men and women in the First World War. The exhibitions are available to view until 12 November.