War Is Madness

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Title: Imperial War Museums (London)

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sometimes military museums are all about uniforms and guns.

The IWM is a little bit different. First of all, the London museum focuses on wars that the UK fought in from WWI and on, so there were no display cases of medieval armor or swords.

The advantage of doing this is that the museum becomes one that you can spend an hour or two in without getting overwhelmed. Contrast that with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has everything from Roman arches to women’s dresses from the 1960’s. Sure, if you live in London and have the time to make multiple trips to a museum, you can focus on one section at a time. For a visitor, it becomes nearly overwhelming. You can just arbitrarily focus on one section, or blow through all sections, spending about two minutes per room, or choose from some kind of top twenty-five item list and head off on a scavenger hunt.

For the IWM, I focused on WWI and WWII.  I know that there are other sections (smaller in size), but just from a larger historical sense, this was an area of personal interest, and clearly the UK had a big role to play in both. I was able to make it through both sections in a couple of hours.

I was not disappointed in either. Although both exhibits had lots of uniforms and weaponry, they also had other areas of interest. For instance, they had Rommel’s desert map for his North Africa campaign. They had Montgomery’s hand written one page plan for D-Day. I’d mentioned before how seeing artifacts that someone historically significant wrote or used always makes me feel closer to the event. I was also fascinated by being able to see an Enigma encryption machine up close and personal. They also focus on the home front side of the war as well. The most poignant was the Mickey Mouse gas masks designed for children. Speaking of the home front, they had examples of both the V-1 and the V-2 rockets that rained down upon London.

The heart of the library is its WWI exhibit, and it is quite impressive. They had so many artifacts that it ended up being overwhelming and I’m sure that I missed many interesting things. Of the weapons, I was most impressed with Big Bertha, the gun that Germany used to batter the Belgium forts.

Instead of trying (and inevitably failing) to put some narrative order to the things that I found cool, here’s a list:

  • Posters designed to recruit across the British Empire (eg exhortations for Indians / Bahamanians to enlist)
  • Hand painted trench signs (some practical (eg Hospital), some ironic (eg Picadilly))
  • A set of wooden clubs with nails sticking out, looking pretty much exactly like a medieval mace, that was used by soldiers when they would periodically leap out of their trench to savagely attack their nearby enemies in fierce hand-to-hand combat; such attacks were scheduled by officers as a means to keep their men’s morale up (?!)
  • A life ring from the ill fated Lusitania
  • An actual letter with a white feather accusing a man on the home front of cowardice (such men were given white feathers)
  • Similarly, a hand written post card was mailed to a man on the home front suggesting that he should enlist with the Girl Scouts
  • The actual signed surrender document by the rebels ending the Irish Easter Rising of 1916
  • Examples of the ersatz bread (composed of sawdust) made by Germans while they were being starved during the last stages of the war
  • David Lloyd George’s copy of the Armistice
  • A 1918 film showing the severe ‘shell shock’ (ie PTSD) that so many English soldiers were suffering from

There was oh so much more. However, hopefully I showed that this wasn’t just a jingoistic description of war in all of its glory. The museum really did try to take an evenhanded look and try to describe the impact that such a major calamity of WWI had on soldiers, the home front, on the people you were fighting, and the aftermath.

The London IWM was started right after WWI, so the events were fresh in everyone’s mind, which I’m guessing was probably helpful in avoiding a hagiographic approach to war.

In 1936, it moved to its permanent headquarters (where it still is today), which was the old Bethlem Royal Hospital. It is more famously known as Bedlam. It was one of Europe’s oldest mental institutions and gained a reputation as being one of the most notorious insane asylums with some truly horrible practices and abuses of the mentally ill.

The irony of hosting a war museum in a location that was formally an insane asylum is probably not lost on anyone. After leaving the WWI exhibit, that connection is even more obvious and stronger.

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