Somerset Remembers the First World War, Museum of Somerset, Taunton

Peter Mason on a first world war exhibition that tells its story through the eyes of Somerset residents and soldiers
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Peter Mason
The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war has been marked by events and exhibitions across the country – from national exhibitions at venues run by Imperial War Museums to talks and displays of memorabilia in village halls.

In every case one of the most interesting things to consider is exactly what the organisers have chosen to remember. As those who have followed the debate between historians about the causes of the war and how it was fought will know, there are almost as many ways of looking at it as there are historians.

The Museum of Somerset has chosen in this exhibition to remember the war through the eyes of its residents. Life on the home front in this rural county is explored in some depth through photographs, newspaper cuttings and objects.

The lives of the men who fought are not ignored. The central section of the exhibition is made up of a series of panels telling the wider story of the war from the point of view of the individuals who took part in events such as the first battle of Mons, the Gallipoli and Mesopotamian campaigns, the battle of the Somme and trench warfare.

Brief information about each subject is linked to the story of one individual from Somerset with a case displaying artefacts related to that person or subject. Among the most moving are the photographs taken in the trenches by Arthur Prideaux.

County focus

The exhibition is well displayed in a logical and clear sequence, beginning with the outbreak of war. This is illustrated by photographs of men signing up and going away, and the enforced service of horses. It also includes call-up telegrams and uniforms.

Other sections, including “doing our bit” and “working the land”, show the essential work that went on in the county, such as raising funds through war loans. There was also the collecting of chestnuts and blackberries, mainly by schoolchildren.

Horse chestnut flour was a substitute for grain used in the distillation of acetone, a solvent needed for the manufacture of cordite, and blackberries were used to make jam, which was almost entirely reserved for the military.

Although rationing did not come in until the later stages of the war, food shortages and price controls affected everyone.

The acreage ploughed for cereal crops was greatly extended and many unlikely spaces were utilised for the growing of vegetables: one photograph shows the parade ground at Taunton Barracks planted with potatoes.

“The last Tommy”

Nearly every town and village would have been affected in other ways, either through hosting Belgian refugees (250,000 came to Britain, with the majority housed in the south of England) or through the billeting of troops and the opening of hospitals run by the Red Cross to assist in the recovery of wounded servicemen, who would be seen in the community in their distinctive blue uniforms.

German prisoners of war would also have been seen working on farms in the county in the later stages of the conflict.

The final section of the exhibition covers the legacy of the war, peace celebrations in July 1919 and the unveiling of war memorials in the 1920s. A wall of remembrance enables visitors to add their tributes to relatives who died in the conflict.

A portrait of “the last Tommy”, Harry Patch, a Somerset man, hangs here and visitors can stand and listen to his memories of life in the trenches that were spoken many years later.

His question, “Why did they die?”, stayed with me and reminded me of the debate between historians that is illustrated in this exhibition by an article about Dan Snow, whose great-grandfather was a general in the first world war.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a restrained and moving artwork, Seeds to the Wind by Jon England, consisting of five pieces. Hung in the centre of the gallery, the main piece looks at first to be a pixelated photograph of a war memorial.

The figure is based on the statue in Portland stone of a Royal Artilleryman, head bowed, rifle reversed, on the war memorial in Somerton. This design was one suggested by the government as being suitable for remembrance.

In using this figure as his inspiration the artist is questioning what freedom had been gained by the war. The pixelation on this figure and the four other pieces showing wreaths, each encircling the words duty, honour, freedom and sacrifice, was created by a scattering of poppy seeds.

Community links

There is a community website linked to the exhibition. I would have liked to have seen more information about this in the exhibition, with a computer terminal enabling people to look at it and possibly add material to it during their visit.

The Somerset Remembers website and the associated Wordpress site have lots more information, photographs, posters and letters and, more importantly, provide the public with a forum for the exchange of information. This will no doubt reveal yet more material. This aspect of the project will presumably continue long after the exhibition ends.

Inevitably in a relatively small exhibition such as this, there will be a simplification of how people and communities reacted to the war. Research in local and community archives reveals a more nuanced picture of life on the home front than is given here, or indeed by some of the publications brought out for the centenary.

It would have been interesting to have seen more on how communities in the county tried to ensure that life carried on as normal as far as possible – how church festivals and weddings were celebrated, and how holidays were spent.

However, this is a minor criticism of what is an excellent exhibition. Much more material is contained in the free commemorative edition of the Somerset County Gazette.

Peter Mason is a writer on culture

Project data

  • Cost £14,450
  • Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund; Friends of the Museum of Somerset; Somerset Military Museum Trust; Friends of Somerset Archives; Western Front Association (Somerset branch); the Taunton Branch of the Rifles.
  • Exhibition design and interpretation in-house
  • Exhibition ends 3 January 2015

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