Stories from the First World War are being revealed for the first time at an exhibition by The University of Nottingham commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict.
All Quiet in the Weston Gallery opens at Lakeside Arts Centre, University Park, on Friday 9 May.
The exhibition uses a wide range of material from the University’s historic archival and library collections to look at the war through the eyes of the people who experienced it — from the soldier on the battlefield to the worker in the munitions factory, from the volunteer nurse to the wife and mother, and from the British ‘Tommy’ to the German ‘Fritz’.
It explores the effects of 1914-1918 on ordinary people, looking at its impact on business, student life, literature and the place of women. Contemporary attitudes to the conflict are also examined, from the propaganda of recruitment images to post-war efforts to memorialise the dead.
The exhibition includes the stories of three families who all sent at least three sons to fight and how German prisoners of war were held at the Sutton Bonington campus of the Midland Agricultural and Dairy College, now the School of Biosciences at the University. The display then widens out to reflect the global nature of the war with material ranging from the papers of a quartermaster in the American Expeditionary Force to the letters of an Austrian soldier in a Russian prisoner of war camp.
All Quiet in the Weston Gallery is curated by Hayley Cotterill, Assistant Archivist with the University’s Manuscripts and Special Collections She has also organised a series of free public talks at Lakeside Arts Centre linked to the display and hopes that an exhibition based on such a landmark event as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will encourage more people to use the University’s archive, which has three million items going back to the 12th century.
“People are aware of the county records office and that they can use their archive, but may think our archive based at the University’s King’s Meadow Campus is only for the use of academics and students,” she says. “We are open to absolutely everyone. The talks are for the public — again, it’s letting people know we are here to be used.”
It is the first exhibition Hayley has curated for the University. She says a highlight had been uncovering the stories of local people behind the photographs, letters, postcards and diaries going on display.
One such story is that of William Lees, a Nottingham lace merchant based in the French town of Lille, who gives a rare written account of life for a British civilian under German occupation.
Another highlight for Hayley is the detective work she undertook to uncover the story behind a letter sent from the front line by a former Nottingham student who signs himself only as Bob and mentions his University pals and fellow servicemen Bill and George. “From this I was able to identify the three friends as 2nd Lieutenant Robert Wilford (Bob), 2nd Lt Arthur William Wilkinson (Bill) and 2nd Lt George Ducker,” says Hayley. “The three appeared to have met at the College where they were all studying to be teachers and joined the army by 1916, entering the Yorkshire Regiment.” Bob’s obituary was later to appear in The Gong, the college magazine, and Hayley believes only George survived the war — nearly all the University’s male students went off to fight and obituaries in The Gong reveal that many did not return.
The public talks at Lakeside include an exploration by the University’s Professor Roger Woods of the Department of German Studies into how German autobiographical accounts written in the Weimar years by nationalists, communists, pacifists and deserters reveal surprisingly similar mentalities. Professor Woods also gave advice on a diary written in a form of coded shorthand by Austrian soldier Bernard Steinitz, who was held in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Bernard and his family were classified as ‘non-Aryan’ by the Nazis and they later fled to England. Like much of the private material held in the archives, it was donated to the University for safekeeping.
In another of the lunchtime talks, Emeritus Professor Malcolm Jones of the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies will add a personal insight into the story of the three Vince brothers, who all went off to war and survived. Professor Jones is a descendant of one of the brothers and he will look at the impact of the war on the Vince family — and why men continued to fight amid such appalling slaughter.
All Quiet in the Weston Gallery: The First World War in The University of Nottingham’s Historic Collections is at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, University Park, from Friday 9 May to Sunday 17 August.
Lunchtime talks take place at the Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts Centre, between 1pm and 2pm from Tuesday 20 May. Admission is free but places are limited: please book with Lakeside Box Office on 0115 846 7777.
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