Inside the York Castle Museum’s £1.7m First World War exhibition

27 Jun 2014 @ 3.21 pm
| History

A mural of life at the front featured in the exhibition
One hundred years to the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination sparked the events which exploded into the First World War, York Castle Museum opens its major new exhibition dedicated to the global conflict.

The biggest temporary exhibition in the venue’s history, 1914: When The World Changed Forever opens to the public on Saturday, June 28 – also the 95th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, which enshrined the peace terms.

Covering the first floor of the Castle Museum, the exhibition is the culmination of three years’ research and a £1.7 million investment, mostly from Heritage Lottery Fund money.

“It’s about how it affected Yorkshire people,” said Alison Bodley, senior curator of history at York Museums Trust.

“The exhibition explains what it was like in the trenches, what it was like to be left at home – and how the world changed forever.”

You can follow the lives of five different Yorkshire people through a series of rooms which tell the story of the war. They include Dr John Kirk and his family, the man whose collection founded the Castle Museum in 1938.

Before the war

The pre-war car
The pre-war car
The first room in the exhibition features a beautifully renovated car from 1907, built in Germany and craned into place through the museum window.

It symbolises pre-war prosperity – for one section of society. “If you were wealthy you were having a really good time,” said Alison.

“If you were poor, as Rowntree’s survey showed, life wasn’t very good.”

The war begins

A map showing the warring empires
When Germany declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium on route for Paris, Britain declared war on Germany.

York volunteers headed to the armed services recruitment office in the building now occupied by the art gallery.

At the start of the war, soldiers had to be taller than 5ft 6ins tall and now older than 38. By 1918, these stipulations had been considerably relaxed to 5ft 3ins and 50 years old.

Visitors to the exhibition can then climb aboard a reconstructed railway carriage.

Here you’ll see the sort of things soldiers would have taken with them on the journey – hip flasks, magazines, sentimental sweetheart cards and cigarette cards.

“Smoking was a big thing in the armed forces – it was thought to alleviate boredom and boost morale,” said Alison.

Digging in

Welcome to hell… a reconstructed British trench
Welcome to hell… a reconstructed British trench
The generals had expected a mobile war. But new technology changed all that.

Big, heavy machine guns could not easily be hauled around – one reason why both sides on the Western Front dug in for trench warfare.

The exhibition has recreated an English trench – complete with rats and guns – and its better-built German equivalent. Kids will enjoy crawling through the dark tunnels.

They can also hold up a papier maché head above the top of the trenches to attract German sniper fire, and give away their position.

A soldier could expect to go “over the top” on four or five occasions during their tour of duty. When you did so the odds weren’t good – you had a 70% chance of dying.

“Soldiers would tunnel underneath each other’s trenches and set off mines,” Alison explained. “The English and Germans were so close, they could hear each other speak.”

There were very occasional treats, such as the box of chocolates sent out by the Lord Mayor of York and Rowntree’s at Christmas 1914.

The sea and air

RMS Lusitania, sunk by a torpedo
RMS Lusitania, sunk by a torpedo
One corner of the exhibition is given over to the war at sea, including the British blockade which attempted to starve Germany of food and resources.

It also commemorates the moment when Scarborough was shelled by German ships in 1914, and the York people who lost their lives when the British liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by German U-boats the following year.

The Royal Flying Corps – forerunner of the RAF – was, if anything, more dangerous – half the pilots died in accidents or because their early planes suffered technical failure.

War tech

A gas hood with, reflected in the glass, the papier maché sniper's head
A gas hood with, reflected in the glass, the papier maché sniper’s head
On display is an original Great War field telephone – the very early predecessor to today’s mobile phones. When its wires were cut by explosions, messages would be sent by runner, horse or pigeon.

You can see the predecessor to the gas mask issued to troops in 1914 – the heavy woollen gas hood. A horse gas mask is also on show.

The exhibition includes a rare example of a Zep Alarm – sounded whenever the dreaded German Zeppelins were spotted.

The home front

The train that takes you to and from the war
The train that takes you to and from the war
Some leisure activities continued – although most sport was postponed and pubs hours curtailed.

The museum has raided its collection to show printed bills from cinemas and caterers.

Although more associated with the Second World War, “make do and mend” was also the attitude in 1914.

There were restrictions on food too. Eventually rationing was brought in after a bizarre series of regulations which limited the eating of meat and potatoes to certain days of the week.

War’s end

Glass eyes for blinded soldiers
Glass eyes for blinded soldiers
York was in the grip of a flu epidemic when the armistice brought fighting to an end on November 11, 1918. Three hundred residents died of the illness.

A display of wartime “souvenirs” includes a Maxim machine gun captured from the Germans. Medals given to returning troops include a set of three nicknamed “pip, squeak and Alf”.

There’s also a display dedicated to the impact on medicine of the conflict.

Due to the horrendous wounds inflicted on so many men on the front line, big advances were made in prosthetic limbs. A tray of glass eyes developed for blinded servicemen is another reminder of the suffering.

Personal letters and artefacts from one Yorkshire family in the contemplation room
Personal letters and artefacts from one Yorkshire family in the contemplation room
In the “contemplation room” some of the world-changing statistics are displayed: nine million people dead, half a million British children without a father, 750,000 women unable to marry because of the lost generation of men.

People can chalk up their own thoughts on the black walls, while a central glass case display case can be booked by York people to display their own family heirlooms from the conflict.

Taken together, 1914: When The World Changed Forever tells a thousand stories in a few rooms.

“What I learned about the First World War is its impact was absolutely huge and affected so many people in so many different ways,” Alison said.

  • 1914: When The World Changed Forever is at York Castle Museum from Saturday, June 28, 2014
  • Entrance is free to residents with a York Card
  • More information at the museum website