Telling fragments

A First World War exhibition reveals the humanity behind the heroism. Jerome Monahan reports.

In autumn 1914, Julian Grenfell wrote home: "I adore war. It's like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy."

Later he was to say: "One loves one's fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him." These are complex emotions and Grenfell was no thug. He was quite capable of expressing how "bloody" it was to be exposed to enemy artillery and his poem "Into Battle" became one of the most anthologised of the 20th century.

On May 14, 1915 a fragment of shrapnel from a shell struck him. In the letter he wrote home shortly before his death, he described the incident with extraordinary sang-froid: "I stopped a Jack Johnson with my head and my skull is slightly cracked."

This letter and a map soaked with his blood are currently on show at the Imperial War Museum's Anthem for Doomed Youth exhibition, which focuses on the life and times of 12 soldier poets of the First World War.

Although the displays contain a wealth of written material, the exhibition's aim is to provide a three-dimensional portrait of these men, explains head of exhibitions Penny Ritchie Calder.

"It is the ephemera, such as Edward Thomas's pressed flowers, Ivor Gurney's cocoa tin and several of the poets' childhood locks of hair, that often prove the most poignant for visitors," she says.

According to Susan Guiver, head of English at the Royal Latin School in Buckingham, who visited the exhibition last term with members of the sixth form as part of a study day devoted to the First World War, the timing could not have been better.

"The war poets are the focus of unit 6 of the AQA English A2 examination," she explains. "That's the synoptic test, requiring students to show off all they have learnt while tackling unseen texts - including a sense of the wider social context from which the poetry sprang."

At the exhibition there is plenty to offset the view that poets in 1914 and 1915 were invariably gung-ho and romantic about war. Useful correctives are Charles Sorley's writing in which he voices the desire to fight for Germany, and Francis Led-widge's ambivalence as an Irish Catholic about answering England's call to arms. Later in the war and at its end not every poet is writing of the horrors of the trenches and the futility of it all.

Edward Thomas's thoughtful patriotism and Sassoon's optimism in 1919 - expressed in a tape recording - are proof of that. And for the historian fed up with depictions of Western Front soldier's life being an incessant round of mud and blood there's Ivor Gurney's telling letter home - "Yesterday, we had a little affair with a German patrol which made me interested for five minutes, after which I lapsed into the usual blind state of boredom."

The exhibition offers a successful blend of stimuli. For sixth-former Alice Biggins, the poets' personal effects made the greatest impression: "It is easy when you read the poetry to feel detached," she says. "But until I came here and saw their possessions, it didn't click how they were actually there."

Of these perhaps Edward Thomas's watch frozen at 7.36am by the blast that killed its owner must rank among the most affecting.

Anthem for Doomed Youth - 12 Soldier Poets of the First World War runs until April 27. Pre-booked school trips free. Tel: 020 7416 53135444. Art As Evidence and War Artists and Poets study events are available for KS3 and GCSE students by special arrangement.

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