The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches, 1914-1916 [Bodleian Exhibition 2014]

This is an update on earlier posts about the First World War exhibition at the Bodleian Library. The final title has been agreed. It will run from 12 June until 2 November 2014.

JJ Poster 80

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster no. 80, from the John Johnson collection.


Using letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians, all in some way connected with Oxford University, the exhibition will relate contemporary experiences of the Great War. It concentrates on the years 1914 to 1916, from the outbreak of war to the end of the battle of the Somme and the fall of Asquith. One of the themes of the exhibition is the challenge of leadership during wartime, and it will feature a variety of manuscript and print materials revealing different experiences and perspectives.  It includes letters of three Oxford-educated Prime Ministers: H.H. Asquith was brought down by the war, and Harold Macmillan’s experiences in the trenches were the foundation of his political career.  Clement Attlee fought at Gallipoli. Private papers of politicians relate stories from the Cabinet where aims and strategy were debated, detailing arguments and personality clashes not noted in the official record.  Letters of Oxford alumni who served as junior officers in the trenches on the western front and in far flung parts of the empire convey not only their experiences but also their ideas and beliefs about the war.  In Oxford academics engaged in fierce public debate about the war, while in one Essex village, the local rector compiled a diary to record the impact of war on his community, forming a chronicle which he passed on to the Bodleian Library at the end of each year. The rich print resources of the Library, including trench maps, posters, pamphlets and books, many acquired during the war, provide a backdrop to the personal stories.

The exhibition is part of a series of three different but connected exhibitions in three countries looking at ‘War in the Archives’. The Bodleian exhibition is the second of the three, between August 1914 Literatur und Krieg at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach,  which opened last week, and 1914, La Mort des Poètes at the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg, which will open in the Autumn of 2014.  At the core of the partnership is the German expressionist poet Ernst Stadler, born in 1883 in Alsace, then part of Germany, educated at Strasbourg and Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He was killed by a British shell at Zandvoorde in October 1914 in an action noted in the diary of brigadier Ernest Makins now among the Bodleian’s collections. In the Bodleian’s own archive there is an entry in the register for Ernst Stadler of Magdalen College, admitted to the Library to study English literature in November 1906.

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