This morning I took myself off to see this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
It sets out to tell the story of the Great War using the portraits of those who endured it. As someone who enjoys the tiny detail of history and is fascinated by how the great events impacted on the small lives of ordinary people, I found the exhibition deeply moving. Like many of my generation I find the scale of the sacrifice difficult to fathom, and the nitty gritty of the politics that led the world to war even more so. But here in the faces of the sitters is a story of bravado and pathos, triumph and despair, sacrifice and suffering that anyone can read.
Of course the Great War shouldn't just be remembered from the Allies' perspective, which is something that the exhibition recognises. They have also included material that speaks of the experience of some of those on the other side as well. We see German soldiers, maimed and wounded by the British artillery, struggling with improvised gas masks and broken by the shackles of a truly devastating war. It reminds us that the suffering was universal, and the pain felt pretty much the same whichever uniform you happened to be wearing at the time.
They have also included portraits of some of the women such as Mata Hari and Edith Cavel whose extraordinary stories live on in the popular imagination. And for my money Mata Hari looks every bit as exotic and mysterious as you'd expect her to.
Technologically, socially and politically we've come a long way in the intervening century, but here and there you catch a glimpse of something that looks disturbingly contemporary. Sometimes it's in the brush strokes of a painter whose style feels thoroughly modern, or it's in the expression of a young man whose reaction is one with which we can empathise immediately. This isn't just some dry treatise on a long-forgotten saga; it's populated by real people, who have only just slipped outside the hand-chain of first-hand living memory, and with whom I could identify at once
On one wall there is a huge montage of individual photographs, where celebrated flying aces, famous war poets, nurses, spies, prisoners of war, men shot for supposed cowardice and men celebrated for their undoubted bravery stand shoulder to shoulder. Clearly it is a modern construction, but it allows each one the dignity of his or her own space on the wall with a short bio to tell his or her story. I found this wall mesmerising, and I could have spent hours looking into the faces of the people shown there and reflecting on their stories.
This photo (below) was one of many that touched me. The happy-looking, handsome, young man is Private William Cecil Tickle, who volunteered for service despite being underage. He was killed in action on the third day of the Battle of the Somme, and his remains were never recovered. The hand-written inscription shown on the photograph is by his mother. Almost a century later I could still feel her grief when I read how she'd described him as 'Mother's Billie Boy ... age 18 years ... one of the very best'. What an ocean of sadness must lie behind that simple epitaph.
And here's another handsome young man with an incredible life story. This is Lt. Walter Tull, the 'first person of Afro-Caribbean heritage' to become an officer in the British Army. Walter was born in Folkstone in 1888. His grandfather had been a slave. He joined up when war broke out in 1914, served in the Somme and was promoted to lieutenant in 1917, despite military law proscribing anyone 'of colour' from becoming a commissioned officer. He must have been a truly amazing soldier, who had to fight a whole other battle against the prejudice of the day to win his promotion. Walter was killed in action on 25th March 1918, and his remains were never recovered either.
Entrance to the exhibition is free, and it runs until 15th June, 2014. Do go if you get a chance. It's well worth the effort.