The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches, 1914-16
12 June- 2 November: all welcome (admission free)
Using letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians, alumni of Oxford and their families, friends or colleagues, the exhibition relates 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 is the challenge of leadership during wartime, and the title is inspired by the prominence of two Prime Ministers in the exhibition, and the presence of several other future ones: Asquith was brought down by the war, while Macmillan’s experience in the trenches was the foundation of his political career. A letter from Attlee recovering after taking part at Gallipoli will be on show, while character sketches of two members of Asquith’s cabinet who were to reach No. 10 Downing Street, Lloyd George and Churchill, emerge from the letters and diaries of their colleagues. The Colonial Secretary Lewis Harcourt kept a private diary of cabinet discussions, even though he was told not to; and this offers fascinating insights into the debates about war aims and strategy, and details of 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, recruitment posters, pamphlets and books, many acquired during the war, provide a backdrop to the personal stories. Taken together, the stories convey the drama and confusion of the War as it was lived, providing unique insights into a contemporary reality unclouded by 100 years of reflection, remembrance and recrimination.
For more information, see the Bodleian Library’s exhibition website.