Britain declared war on Germany 100 years ago today on 4th August, 1914, and to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I was asked to write a piece for Metropolitan magazine looking at some of the most remarkable items from the refurbished Imperial War Museum.
The selection includes items as varied as a mounted German pig’s head and Edith Cavell’s nurse cap. One thing I like about the IWM is that it is very good at driving home individual stories amid the context of immense global suffering and complex geopolitics, meaning you can find numerous, remarkably touching, small personal items in its collections, such as this postcard written on a piece of wood from the Western Front.
One of the favourite items I came across – or rather, which the incredibly helpful press team at the museum pointed me towards – was this decorated tin, painted by a disabled Belgian soldier in London as part of a fascinating occupational therapy programme.
The fascinating story of California House at 82 Lancaster Gate is recounted here, but in short the hospital was set up in 1914 by an American expat artist and writer called Julie Heyneman, who – like many in London in the early months of the war – was horrified by the casualties caused by the German advance into Belgium. California House became a refuge for injured, displaced Belgian soldiers who were taught languages and sciences.
Those left paralysed or limbless were encouraged to take up activities like painting, book-binding, wood-carving and drawing – anything that required manual dexterity. Objects created, such as the tin above, were then sold to Londoners, with the soldier-creator keeping some of the proceeds. A similar establishment, Kitchener House at Cambridge Gate, Regent’s Park, was set up for British soldiers. California treated around 500 soldiers, some of whom were able to return home after the war and make a living from their new skills. It closed in 1918.
On a related tip, a reading recommendation for you Watts, if you’ve not read it — Life Class by Pat Barker. A lightly fictionalised account of the Slade school artists (Nevinson, Gertler, Carrington, Nash, etc) at the start of WW1 and having to adjust their lives and their art accordingly. Beautifully captures carefree, bourgeois, pre-war London being suddenly plunged into the horrors of the Western Front.