Last week we announced our plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, with new exhibitions, a series of talks and seminars, online content and events across Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London.
In the run up to and during the centenary programme, we will post a series of blogs covering all aspects of the programme.
Ahead of the opening of the new exhibition in Leeds Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – the personal arms and armour of the First World War – we spoke to Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson…
What themes are included within the exhibition?
We start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; many heads of state in 1914 owned an early form of bullet-proof vest made of silk and other textiles. We’ve had one recreated and tested it, and you can see the results displayed along with the type of pistol used to kill the Archduke and essentially the start of the First World War.
Moving into the main space, we tell the story of the attempts to design the perfect sword; and the consequences for cavalrymen who faced machine guns and barbed wire on the Western Front. We tell the story of Frank Elms, who started the war as a cavalry trooper, and ended it as a highly trained machine gunner. Other cavalry actually did fight successfully on horseback. We then show the parallel story of the infantry rifle and bayonet; thought to be key to victory by many at the start of the war. In the event, machine guns and artillery became the important weapons, but to the individual soldier of any side, his rifle and bayonet were his best friend. The French even gave their bayonet a girl’s name!
As mobile warfare proved impossible and trench warfare took over, everyone involved began to look for ways to break through and push back the enemy. The machine gun forms the core of the exhibition, as visitors encounter some of the biggest killers of the war as they pass through the space. Personalising this theme is the forgotten story of the men of the Machine Gun Corps, set up as an elite unit to make best use of the famous Vickers gun. We then have a series of cases showing the wealth of responses to the challenge of trench warfare. Medieval style weapons and armour made a comeback, existing weapons were adapted and used in different ways (for example, in the air), and surprisingly modern weapons were invented from scratch.
Finally, we see how faith placed in weapons technology to actually end war forever (the so-called ‘War to End All Wars’) was misplaced, and how it in fact enabled a century of conflict whose effects are still with us today. Not many people realise that the phrase ‘First World War’ was coined during the war itself, when people realised that they now had the means to kill each other more effectively than ever before. The technology of 1880 – 1918, like all technology, is neutral; it doesn’t care how it’s used. It was used to start the war, it caused the hell of trench warfare and took millions of lives, but then went on to end that hell and actually save lives. Finally, it paved the way for the Second World War, the Cold War, and future wars. The objects are intrinsically interesting, but what makes them truly relevant and interesting are the personal stories. You’ll see plenty of both in this exhibition.
What are visitors going to learn from the exhibition?
I think people will be surprised at how advanced some of the thinking was, and that both before and during the war, there were constant attempts to innovate and to put the right equipment in to the soldiers’ hands. However, the right tactics to make best use of it could only be learned on the battlefield. That meant that no amount of ingenuity or innovation could prevent a horrific human cost and a legacy that still echoes today.
Why is the exhibition unique?
Our museum is the only one in the country that focuses exclusively on arms and armour; it’s what we do best. Our collection was already world-class in 2005, but in that year we also received the entire Ministry of Defence ‘Pattern Room’ collection of 19th-20th century firearms. This allowed us to do far more than we could back in 1996 when the existing display was installed. So the unique aspect here is that we lead with the personal weapons and armour, and then give them context by linking back to the real people who made them, held them and used them in anger. We do that in ways people will be familiar with; stories, and a wealth of imagery, and oral history recordings but we have also filmed a range of original weapons being fired, including high-speed camera footage of bullets striking forensic ballistic soap. We explore what these objects were capable of and what people’s opinions and feelings about them were. Instead of using them simply as illustrations in a generic narrative of the War, we make the interaction of objects and people with the battlefield the focus of the exhibition.
Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms
For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.