Ordinary stories behind an extraordinary war

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The horrors of the Great War, and what it meant to the people of Yorkshire, are being examined in a major new exhibition that has just opened. Andrew Vine reports.

THE face peering out from a sandbagged trench is eerily lifelike. High domed forehead, clipped moustache, and an expression of the utmost seriousness.

It belongs to an unsettlingly realistic papier-mache head, designed to be raised on a pole above the parapet of a trench to attract fire, so that troops could determine from which direction they would be shot at when they went over the top. Sometimes, to bolster the illusion that a man was really foolhardy enough to show himself to snipers at the other side of no man’s land, a lit cigarette would be placed in its mouth and smoked through a tube by a soldier in the trench below.

York Castle Museum’s dummy head dates from about 1916 and is intact, which makes it very rare indeed, because most of them did their job superbly by being shot to pieces. It is one of the most eye-catching elements of 1914: When the World Changed Forever, Yorkshire’s biggest and most ambitious exhibition marking the centenary of the start of the First World War.

It has been four years in the making – appropriately enough, the length of the war – and cost £1.7m, the majority of which is from the Heritage Lottery Fund. And over the next five years, it will guide visitors through not only the story of the fighting, but the lives of York’s people caught up in it.

Echoes of the Great War sound close by the Castle Museum. It was right outside that German nationals living in York were rounded up when war was declared. And it was in the streets around that a committee of upright local worthies patrolled to discourage fraternisation between innocent young ladies and the troops pouring into the city in 1914.

At the heart of the exhibition are the stories of five local people, who visitors follow through the course of the war to discover their fate.

They are Alice Battersby, a book-keeper who worked in the army pay office in Calais, Thomas Burnett, taken prisoner in France, John Richard Ford, who carried messages by bicycle amid the fighting, Albert Gunnell, a shop assistant who served in the Royal Flying Corps, and Dr John Kirk, whose social history collection was used to found the Castle Museum.

Drawing their stories together has involved not only delving into the museum’s own Great War collection, but new research with the help of the families, which has unearthed a revealing picture of York at war, one aspect of which was the public’s attitude to conscientious objectors, who were branded “slackers” as men rushed to enlist in the summer of 1914 when Britain thought it would all be over by Christmas.

“Conscientious objectors were quite a big issue for York because of the Rowntree connection, it’s a Quaker city,” said Alison Bodley, senior curator of history at York Museums Trust. “It was said that ‘slackers’ should be made to go to the front line and pick up the bodies of the dead soldiers and hopefully get shot themselves.”

The euphoria of that first summer soon wore off in the face of stalemate on the Western Front and mounting casualties, and York knuckled down to harsh new realities.

“They were tough times, strange times,” said Alison. “York was a very military place, and the immediate effect was that it was full of troops. People were quite worried about the impact that was having on young ladies, so a committee was set up to patrol the streets to stop them over-fraternising with the soldiers.

“People were making do and mending, so these things that you think are Second World War concepts were in reality from the First World War.”

The journey that visitors take through the exhibition starts in the years before the outbreak of war – complete with 1908 car hoisted through a first-floor window at the museum to get it in place.

It then continues through the recruiting offices, the train that took men to war and into an atmospheric reconstruction of a trench. Shell shock, and the likelihood that men executed for cowardice were suffering from it, is examined, along with war at sea and on the home front, including the German bombardment of Scarborough in 1914.

The war’s legacy is a key part of the exhibition, not least the changing role of women who took over the jobs of men serving abroad, and when it was over found that they were a much stronger presence in the workplace.

In bringing the exhibition together, Alison discovered that even a century on, careful thought had to go into what to show because so much of it remains deeply disturbing.

She said: “There are some very sad things. There’s a letter that was sent by a mother to her son, saying that ,‘I hear it’s really rough where you are at the moment,’ and it was returned to her because he had died just a few days earlier. “We’ve got a tapestry that was done by a man who had to have his leg amputated and he didn’t finish it because he died, so there are some really heart-wrenching stories.”

There were mixed emotions in York once the war was over. Parties were held and bunting hung out as 10,000 people thronged the streets around the Minster for a service of thanksgiving.But relief was tempered by sadness at the loss of life, and another ordeal lay just around the corner, with the influenza epidemic that swept Europe claiming 300 lives in the city.

“Every story is important, and everyone’s story is important. It wasn’t just about soldiers – it was about everyone.”

• York Castle Museum is as www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk