The York Castle Museum’s new exhibition sets out to tell the story of the First World War. STEPHEN LEWIS takes an early look around.
THE First World War tank rears above you as you stand in the recreated German trench at the Castle Museum's stunning new exhibition.
Its tracks glisten with the mud churned up as it ploughed its way through No Man's Land. The sheer weight of it is terrifying as it hangs over you, seemingly about to crash down into the trench.
Hard to believe its only made of wood, laughs Philip Newton, the Castle Museum’s assistant curator of social history.
Until this moment, I’ve been marvelling at how much better the German trench is than the British one.
The two form the centrepiece of the museum’s new 1914: When The World Changed Forever exhibition, which opens on Saturday. They are laid out end to end along a long corridor on the Castle Museum’s first floor, separated by a stretch of imaginary No Man’s Land.
The British trench seems slovenly, somehow. It is scarcely higher than your head, and lined with sandbags which seem to slump with the weight of the cold earth pressing in on them.
A crawl hole opens off one side, which children will love exploring. Both the Germans and the Allies used to try to tunnel beneath each other’s trenches, explains curator of history Alison Bodley. “Then they would place bombs there and try to blow the other side up.”
One of the consequences of all this tunnelling was that, as they were digging away, each side could sometimes hear the disembodied voices of the other side making a tunnel of their own just a few feet away.
Another consequence was rats.
Venture into this crawl hole if you dare, Philip says. “You will hear German voices, in German, saying ‘do you hear that?’ And then you might feel something furry...”
The German trench, by contrast, is a model of efficient design. It is much deeper than the British trench, so providing better cover for the soldiers sheltering there: and the walls are solidly lined with timber, not just with sandbags.
The German trenches were better, admits Alison. The Germans had dug in on higher, drier ground before the Tommies arrived – and they built with typical German efficiency. The trench seems almost neat – until that terrifying British tank rears up over the edge above you.
No mere exhibition can give you any real sense of what hell it must have been to be in the trenches during the First World War, of course. But this one brings home at least some of the claustrophobia and horror of the experience.
At one point, as you walk along the trenches, there is a machine gun station: at another details of an attempt to go ‘over the top’.
As any fans of Blackadder will know, this was the most horrifying moment of all in the trenches: a whistle, then a scramble up and out of the trench into withering enemy fire. “Good luck everyone,” says Rowan Atkinson’s Captain Blackadder in the final episode of the series, before he and his comrades are shown charging into the smoke and fog of No Man’s Land, with gunfire and explosions all around. In a poignant final moment, the scene fades into footage of a sunny poppy field and birdsong.
No poppy fields and birdsong at the Castle Museum. But what they do have is an interactive ‘trench periscope’ which mimics those troops would have used to peer over the top before venturing out. Look through it, says Alison, and you’ll see explosions and the sound of rifle fire, and look out across a crater-pocked No Man’s Land.
There is also what was known as a ‘sniper head’ – a fake head on the end of a stick which could be poked up above the trench.
It wasn’t simply used to test whether there were any enemy snipers about, Alison says. By checking the angle at which bullets hit the head, you could also work out where they were...
The two trenches are unquestionably among the highlights of the new exhibition.
But the really extraordinary thing about 1914: When The World Changed Forever is the sheer scale and ambition of it.
A whole new suite of rooms has been opened up on the first floor of the Castle Museum as part of the £1.7 million lottery-funded project. And the extra space has been used to tell the story of this war which changed the world from beginning to end.
One room is devoted to York in the period known as the ‘Belle Époque’ just before war broke out. The world was on the cusp of huge change, with the beginnings of powered flight, the rise of the motor car, and new fashions and freedoms following the end of the Victorian era. But there was also real poverty. “If you were rich, life was good,” says Alison. “But if you were poor, it was really tough.”
A painted backdrop showing Micklegate Bar in 1914 sets the scene. Incredibly, museum curators even winched a genuine 1907 Colibri car in through the museum’s first-floor window – after disassembling it first – to act as the centrepiece to the room.
“It’s positioned as if it is coming around Nunnery Lane with Mickelgate behind it,” says Alison.
Moving on, you enter the recruiting room. There is a desk, behind which sits a smartly-dressed recruiting officer. Details of your height, weight, eye and hair colour and distinguishing marks will be taken.
Then it is off to the railway station to find out how troops joined up. There are original recruiting posters – including a stunning silhouette poster made by York’s own Captain Harry Oakley. Troops left for the front on a train and a railway carriage has been recreated. It is modelled on a genuine one from the period and even has moving scenes glimpsed through the carriage windows.
Next up is a map room, showing the location of British, French, Russian and German Empire forces around the world – and then you enter the trenches.
Other highlights as you move around the exhibition include a medical tent; sections devoted to naval and airborne warfare – "Royal Flying Corps pilots had a life expectancy of just 11 days", says Alison: "a truly chilling statistic" – and a recreated supply area from just behind the trenches, illustrated with another stunning backdrop .
There is a room devoted to life on the Home Front back in York; a section on the Zeppelin raids; an internment camp; and even a recreation of Gommecourt Wood, the scene of bloody fighting during the Battle of the Somme. It includes a lookout post in a tree – and gives visitors a great view out along first the German and then British trenches.
Threading the whole complex story together, a constant running theme as you go around the exhibition, are the stories of five groups of real characters and how they fared during the war (see panel).
Their stories are continually updated as you move around. This, and the clever use of the Castle Museum’s many items of period and military memorabilia – everything from letters, postcards and medals to a Vickers machine gun, a Lee Enfield rifle, a horse’s gas mask and a crude but vicious trench club – make for an experience that is authentic, human and at times almost overwhelming.
The room set aside at the end for quiet reflection – somewhere to sit and think over what you have just seen and learned – is very welcome. In the centre is a small case in which objects and documents can be place to commemorate someone who died in the war. Members of the public can book this space to commemorate a relative. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
One room in the new 1914 exhibition is set aside as a community room, for use by local groups. The idea is for the groups – including local history societies – to use the space to mount their own exhibitions of photographs and other memorabilia. If your group would be interested in staging an exhibition in the space, contact email@example.com
As you go around the new 1914: When the World Changed Forever exhibition, you follow the stories of five different people – all real characters from York’s past.
Alice Battersby was a book keeper in a tailor’s shop in Leeds and joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp in 1917. She was posted to Calais. Find out what she did when she was there.
Thomas Burnett is a mechanic in Leeds. He had served in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps for eight years and when he left in 1908 remained in the reserves. As soon as the war broke out he was called up and sent to France. In the first year he fought in many heavy battles. Why didn’t he fight in the last years of the war?
John Richard Ford is a Woodsman at Duncombe Park, Helmsley. He was known as Dick and had a sweetheart called Ada. He joined the Army Cyclist Corps and was posted to France, but later came back to marry Ada. Why else did he go home?
Albert Gunnell is a shop Assistant in York and finally joined the Royal Flying Corp. Find out what he caught
Dr John Kirk is a doctor in Pickering. He is married to Norah and they have two sons, John and Franklin, and a daughter, Joan. Why doesn’t Dr Kirk go and fight? Why was Norah honoured after the war? Do his sons survive the war? Find out as you go around the exhibition.