Laurence Alster describes an exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum on the months that ended the First World War
In a letter home dated November 12, 1918, the day after the official termination of the First World War, Lieutenant Alex Wilkinson of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards described his feelings. "The jolly old war has come to an end at last. For peace I don't care a bit. Thank heavens I had a really good battle before the end. I would not have missed it for anything in the whole world."
Coming at the end of the new temporary exhibition, 1918: Year of Decision, at the Imperial War Museum, London, Lt Wilkinson's sentiments visibly jolt people. No wonder: everything that precedes his letter tells of a very different reaction from those caught up in the conflict.
Set in a room to one side of the museum's main hall, the exhibition concentrates on the final stages of the First World War in Europe, when Germany was being pushed back by the Allies towards its own frontier. The exhibition is an object lesson in the imaginative use of a limited area. The final drive against the Germans is depicted through archive film on large and small screens, life-sized models of soldiers (with improbably clean uniforms), plus display cases showing weapons, letters, medals and important documents.
The only failing is the densely-written display boards which detail the concluding stages of the war. After conscientiously reading the first two or three, visitors generally give up and concentrate on the exhibits. It is the thematic unity of the displays that makes them so absorbing. Film of a captured German ATV tank, for instance, is matched with British intelligence documents detailing the more vulnerable sections of the weapon.
A large wall picture of British soldiers blinded by poison gas comes from a loop film of the same line of casualties pitifully shuffling along, each man's hands on the shoulders of the one in front. Another caption tells us that the German Blue Cross shell, displayed nearby, contained an irritant that compelled soldiers to remove their gas masks even in the presence of poison gas.
One can scarcely conceive of the horror of such moments. The problem for most soldiers was finding words to describe them. "The tremendous nervous strain was enough to break down the strongest constitution," writes one, while an officer charged with informing a mother of her son's death resorts to consoling cliches: "He died as a soldier should, on the field of battle (and, I am told, suffered no pain)."
Both sides suffered the same, of course: "A week ago the Nautmeirs received news that their second son had fallen and just a week later a second telegram to the effect that their younger son had been killed," writes a German housewife to her husband on the Western Front in June 1918.
It all makes Lt Wilkinson's exaltation of combat even more incomprehensible, not to say frightening. And, as the same wall display reminds us, he was not the only one who felt this way. A German contemporary of Wikinson's, Corporal Hitler, was even at this time nursing resentments that would plunge the world into far worse conflict only two decades later.
1918: Year of Decision, at The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ, until 29 November, 1998
Tel: 0171 416 5000. Group rate (min 10): Adults Pounds 3.80 children Pounds 1.90. Open 10am to 6pm