The Imperial War Museum was founded in March 1917 as a record of the toil and sacrifice of the ‘Great War’ while the conflict was still taking place. Printed material was central to the Imperial War Museum’s early collections – the Library acquired its first printed item in April 1917, a programme of the pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’, staged by the 85th Field Ambulance in Salonika. 99 years later the Library, its printed collections, and public access to these, remain at the Imperial War Museum – in no small part due to the efforts of campaigners and supporters who fought to save the Library in 2014-15.
Today the printed books collection at Imperial War Museum is a unique national reference library on twentieth and twenty-first century conflict, with access provided freely to all in the research room and ‘Explore History’ centre at the London site. The Library collections are used by a wide range of visitors, from historians, academics, authors and professional researchers to veterans, students, family historians and museum visitors with a casual interest.
On National Libraries Day we celebrate this unique Library and its diverse and valuable collections.
On a recent visit I was shown to a seat in the bright, modern surroundings of the new Research Room, with a wall of brightly coloured book spines to my left and a window overlooking the park on my right. In front of me a tantalising stack of books, boxes and paper files containing Library collections. I had pre-selected my items, each relating to an aspect of the Great War in 1916, from the somewhat brief catalogue records on the online catalogue and I was not sure what to expect. Had I selected what I needed, what would I find between the covers, and in these boxes and files…?
The first items were published in 1916 for the soldiers on the front, to fund raise and to raise morale. Contemporary publications with a patriotic message. From home a gift book to Tommy and Jack and all in the service of King and country on land and sea began with the promise that, “The free proceeds from the sale of this book will be devoted to sending copies to those at the Front and in the Navy”. Illustrations of home, Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch and Edinburgh Castle, also served to strength resolve – the Wallace Monument in Aberdeen is included with its inscription as the caption, “I tell you a truth, Liberty is the best of all things. My son, never live under any slavish bonds.” Doing their bit: war work at home is at pains to point out the support those at the Front have from those at home, hoping our troops “will learn from it how their comrades at home are doing “their bit”. So far so much evidence that more than ‘just’ fighting a war, publications in 1916 were carefully being used to ‘manage’ the conflict too.
And next another publication aiming to raise morale. I open an ordinary red box, to discover a beautiful volume bound in brown leather with an illustration embossed with gold – a path through trees (No-man’s-land?) and light shining from behind clouds (or could it be a shell exploding?) and the title, All’s well. It’s a small volume, pocket-sized. To fit the pocket of a soldier stationed at the front in the trenches perhaps. I gently remove it from the box. Its title page reveals a subtitle, “All’s well!” : some helpful verse for these dark days of war. John Oxenham dedicates the book to his son, who is fighting with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and explains that the title, adopted out of eighty-six alternatives, “is not to be taken as expressing my opinion that all is as it should be with us generally… One has to acknowledge with sorrow that things are not as they might and ought to be, and as, please God, they yet, in His good time, will be.” Added to the front of the volume, in a tiny neat handwritten scrawl, I find a verse from another Oxenham poem ‘A little te deum of the commonplace’ from Bees in Amber. Was this verse added in 1916? Or at Easter 1918? This date has been added, with initials, on the inside of the front cover. Was the small volume I hold in my hands read in the trenches? Did it ‘help’ its owner as Oxenham hoped?
Next first-hand accounts of the First World War, all published in 1916, from Somme battle stories with its chapter, ‘Describing indescribable’ to In the Ypres Salient the story of a fortnight’s Canadian fighting, June 2-16 1916.
And on to ‘souvenir’ publications, a concept I find a little odd to understand amid the horror of the Great War (despite the fact that I may well have put away somewhere newspapers from the days following Princess Diana’s death and 9/11…) First The Bovril handy-book and diary of the War (I wondered if this was a publication that you would have saved up coupons or stamps from the purchase of Bovril to obtain, like cereal packets today?), with its cheerful cover, ensures no aspect will be forgotten with an almost day-by-day record of events.
While in The great air raids on England, September 3rd, 23rd and October 1st, 1916 souvenir photographs and official reports, poor quality black and white photos show the wrecked Zeppelin, including an image of “”Tommies” sorting out the wreckage.”
A gem for those researching military operations and who are interested in campaigns and orders of battle – out of a plain cream folder come handwritten notes, orders for the 13th Yorkshire Regiment, signed B. G. Baker, Lt. Colonel. A timetable of events, neatly written in blue ink on squared paper. Carefully laid plans and notes, “The enemy is known to reinforce along his front line from the country behind…” written one hundred years ago directing the movements of men half my age. Many of whom would never return home. I glanced up from the notes on the table and watched children playing in the park below the window.
A collection of seven rubbings of the names of those killed in 1916 – Commander Bley, Commander Mathy, Unknown German soldier – was exactly as described. An unassuming Silvine drawing books contains stark black rubbings of memorials to lives lost:
KILLED ON SERVICE
OCTR 1st 1916
KILLED ON SERVICE
SEPTR 24th 1916
3rd SEPT 1916
I sensed I had saved something special for my last item. Working backwards, this had in fact been the first item on my list, which was ordered by the Library’s unique classification scheme: 01/3(496.1).0-8
A brown box embossed with gold on the spine:
Album of newscuttings
And what an album! Encased in velvet and stitched with patterned ribbon, I untied its elaborate bow.
The first clipping was short,
“From the first captain to the last recruit the men who fought in Gallipoi did something worthy to make every one of us proud of being a man, let alone an Englishman; they set up a new outpost of man’s power in the universe, and they nearly defeated the inevitable. No evil song shall be sung of their swords.”
The album contains more than simple newscuttings, though there are plenty of these:
“Disaster due to “wait and see.” Scathing report of the Dardanelles commission”;
“All or none! The invidious Gallipoli Medal”;
“Facts the Empire wants to know. Dardenelles “Who did that?” Questions.”
Glued or hand scored in alongside these cuttings are personal mementoes: a ticket to a Red Cross concert at Valetta, Malta is for the Manoel Theatre, Pit and stamped 26 October 1915; a kit bag label belonging to Lieut. Topham of the 2/10th Middlesex Regiment; photos carefully inserted and captioned, “My dugout, A beach West, Sept 1915” and “Bathing off Biyuk Kemikli” with an image showing four men sat, slightly awkwardly, in clear, shallow water; postcards; hand-painted watercolours. The album ends with a Roll of Honour, that of ‘Messrs Boulton Brothers and Company’.
With my 3 hour afternoon slot also coming to an end – and with the Research Room now closed on Fridays so no chance of my return the next morning- I leave with a greater understanding of the events and experiences of 1916, but wishing I had more time, that I had explored further, learnt more; and knowing a repeat visit will be needed…
My short visit barely scratched the surface of the Library collections from 1916 alone. Just a handful of items from this incredible collection, which records over one hundred years of war and includes insight into all aspects of conflict, from military to social, economic to technical, from fighting abroad to the home front, from biography to poetry, from scrap books to souvenirs. A unique insight into our history.
The Library collection at the Imperial War Museum belongs to the nation, and ‘Explore History’ and the Research Room enable access to these unique and valuable collections. On National Libraries Day the Imperial War Museum should be proud of its world class Library and research facilities.
The Library at the Imperial War Museum is open to all – search the Library collections online: www.iwm.org.uk/collections/books-publications and make an appointment to consult Library collections in the Research Room: www.iwm.org.uk/research/research-facilities.
Or you can visit Explore History to consult a limited range of items from the Library collections and to access digitised collections and resources –Explore History is open on a drop-in basis, Monday-Friday, 11.00am – 4.00 pm.
Finally, to view what others have found, discovered or learnt in the Imperial War Museum Library take a look at the #LoveIWMLibrary hashtag, and add your own photos!
Happy National Libraries Day 2016!