Saturday, 29 November 2014

First World War in the Air

First World War in the Air is a new permanent exhibition at the Royal Air Force Museum, London.

And there is plenty to see in the air and on the ground.
The grade II listed building housing this exhibition, was once one of the factories where aircraft were developed and made for the First World War. It was brought here brick by brick from three miles away. It's huge.

The exhibition tells the story aviation and its contribution to the First World War. There are so many stories and I was struck by the technology behind the planes, how it advanced during the war, and also the bravery of the men who flew these planes.

I say bravery with the benefit of hindsight, where on the few occasions I've been in a plane, I have actually read the safety manual and watched as the crew pointed out the emergency exit doors. Trusting in this new technology, they might have felt as safe as houses.

This is the Bleriot XXVII
 Not a military plane, built just before the war, it was built for speed, for racing, not for war.

With wheels that look a little like bicycle wheels,

and the skin, made of fabric, doped and sewn together. 

Reminds me of old canvas tents. 

This is the Cauldron G3 first built in 1914.
 To my untrained eye, it looks like they've left the middle bit out. But it worked and was used for training and reconnaissance.

The RAF as we know it was formed in 1918 during the First World War, the merging of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service.

New logo, still stitching the planes together.

To begin with the planes were used for reconnaissance, for watching the enemy, but evolved to be used for fighting.

The story goes that servicemen, whilst in the air, came up with a few novel ideas for attacking the enemy. These ranged from shooting at each other with pistols, throwing fruit and dropping darts on the enemy below.

See, the RAF museum provides oranges to throw at the enemy in the kid's interactive.

Or you can sit at the front with the machine gun.

Talking of interactives, yep I did have a go at sitting in the cockpit, pitching and rolling using the stick and yawing with my feet. (Impressed with my aviation terminology, I had help, consulted a friend)
This was actually quite tricky and demanded more of my stomach muscles than it should have.

First World War in the Air charts the development of aviation technology during the war and tells us how the industry grew from small beginnings. In Britain in 1914 fewer than 250 planes were built, by the end of the war, more than 600 were being built every week.

There was a rapid growth in the aircraft industry, providing jobs for women, filling the places of conscripted men.

The numbers tell that story too. Military aviation began with 2,073 people,

yet 9,349 lost their lives.

First World war in the Air, a new permanent gallery, opened Dec 4th 2014 and is well worth a visit. It is just one exhibition on the site of the RAF Museum, London, there's much more to explore.
Free admission. Details on the website here.

Just had an email from my step-father, filling in the gaps in my knowledge.
This is the reason why the Cauldron G3, above, had a bit missing in the middle.
"The reason that they left the part behind the cockpit unfinished was
that the engines were not powerful
and crosswinds turned the plane in flight,
so not to give the wind somewhere too push at."

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: What the kids said

If you read my previous two posts on Vimy Ridge in Northern France, about the Trenches, click here, and the Memorial, click here, you will know that we visited whilst on a family holiday. As you may be able to guess, I have a reputation for encouraging a museum visit or two, especially when visiting somewhere new and this is not always met with enthusiasm.

However, I did my research, got a good recommendation and was not going to miss this opportunity, two weeks before the centenary of the beginning of the World War One, to visit a First World War site.

So in all, fifteen of us went to Vimy Ridge, aged three (my youngest nephew) to seventy-two (my dad).

From arriving and seeing bomb craters, to the memorial, trenches, tunnels and visitor centre, everyone was captivated. In fact my family were so keen that we were often (perhaps annoyingly) one step ahead with our questions. Our guide often replied, "I was just coming to that".

Our guide, Francoise, a Francophile Canadian bought so much to life with stories, information, questions and answers. No question was too much trouble and every one was answered, and he even let the group answer questions and share their stories.
A big public thankyou to Francoise!

In the car heading back, we listened to Terry Deary, his 'Horrible History' of the First World War. 

That evening at dinner (not at my instigation) my sister in law asked the kids if they had had a good day. They had. She then asked them "what they had found out today?" I got my notebook out immediately and began scribbling. Here's what they found out.

"Four out of twenty soldiers got stuck (and died) in the mud." age 10

"Returning soldiers (after the war) were treated badly,
especially those wounded and disabled." age 11

"The soldiers got to know each others faces." age 3 (very nearly 4)

"Adolf Hitler killed himself." age 10

"Hitler survived the whole of World War One as a runner." age 11

"Hitler was the fastest communication runner." age 7

"When you went for a pee, you had to pull your trousers down and have a white flag
as they didn't have toilets in the trenches." age 13

"If you go back (desert the front line) you get shot by your own team mates." age 11

"When trenches are close to each other, they can make truces with each other
so they could do certain things, like Christmas
and agree that they wouldn't throw hand-grenades." age 11

"8 million people died in the war, 20 million died of spanish flu in the world after the war." age 11

"There was 30 meters between the trenches." age 15

"If you were a runner, you would only survive (on average) for four days." age 7

"To find out how far away the gun shot was,
you listened to the gap between the light flash and the sound." age 11

"If you go into the middle of no mans land and the other person goes into the middle
with a white flag, you could have a chat." age 10

"On no mans land, the only thing that could grow is poppies." age 11

I'm sure this isn't just what they learnt at Vimy Ridge, whilst there, we didn't talk about Christmas, nor the poppies. However, it's interesting what children take on board, what they find interesting and important. It's mostly about the human experience of war, about getting stuck in the mud, what happens if you desert, going to the toilet, truces, returning home after the war, and enemies and allies talking to each other.

More information about Vimy Ridge,
a National Historic Site of Canada here.
I highly recommend it for families.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Other Side of the Medal: how Germany saw the First World War

I'm not sure what I really think (thought) about medals.
I've never won one.
I did, perhaps naively, think that they were awarded for achievement,
like for coming first or for an act of bravery.

 I had these preconceptions challenged at the British Museum when I saw the exhibition,

This is an exhibition of medals.
These medals were made by artists,
most of whom lived and worked in Germany during the war.
Medals made to tell stories of and tell how they felt about the conflict.

Shown below is the enemy, wounded in defeat.
Russia, the bear with bandaged paws.
Britain, a bulldog, head and leg bandaged.
France, the cockerel limping with strapped up claw.
France, Russia and Britain. Hans Lindl, Germany, 1914

 Refugees displaced during the invasion of East Prussia by the Russians.
The seven month invasion displaced one million people.
Refugees, Ludwig Gies, Germany, 1915

This medal was made to commemorate a mistaken claim by a German airship commander
that he had bombed London, west of Tower Bridge.
The reality was, mistaking reservoirs for the River Thames, he had bombed the Lea Valley.
Nevertheless, lives were lost in Walthamstow and Leyton.
Zeppelins over London, Fritz Eue, Germany, 1915

This medal shows the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915,
whilst travelling from New York to Liverpool,
by a German U-boat submarine, with the loss of over a thousand lives.
Lusitania, Ludwig Gies, Germany, 1915

Here a British medal commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
For the allies, this marked peace and justice.
Treaty of Versailles, Elkington & Co, UK, 1919

The Great War ends.
Medals of 'Pax' Peace made in Germany and Victory in France.
Left; Pax (Peace), Erzsebet Esseo, Germany, 1919
Right: Victory, Louis Patriarche, France, 1919

The British Museum acquired most of these medals during the First World War.
 Copies of them were displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum during the war,
the exhibition becoming part of the propaganda against Germany.

During the war the British Museum was closed,
sand-bags out to protect the collections.

Open today.

As for my feelings about medals.
They have helped me empathise,
understand more of the impact of war on civilians on all sides.
The medal I find most powerful for its depiction of grief and loss is
'Pax' 1919
Peace that costs, that is painful, a look of devastation.
Made at the end of the war it reflects
the experience of so many individuals on both sides, devastated by the First World War.

until 23rd November.
Details on the British Museum website here.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: The Memorial

Mentioned in my last post here, we went 'en famille' to Vimy Ridge in Northern France, a First World War battlefield site. You can read that post by clicking here.
Now I bring you the memorial.

Driving into this National Historic Site of Canada the first thing you all notice is the landscape. "Is that where a bomb landed?", we heard from the back of the car. It was.
We were told that the landscape was scarred by shelling and bombing, but it doesn't really look scarred, it has a kind of beauty, holding memories and prompting questions.

One question was answered for us. The trees were all planted after the war. However, you can't go off and explore, as they can't guarantee that no explosives remain, mines and bombs. Our guide tells us that apparently, "not so far away, a mine exploded during a storm when the ground was struck by lightning".
This impresses the kids.

The monument impresses us all, young and old. It sits on a hill, Hill 145, so called because it is 145 meters above sea level, the highest point of Vimy Ridge.

Walking towards the monument, it's hard to comprehend the scale of it. Commemorating the taking of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps in 1917, remembering the 3,598 Canadians who gave their lives during that battle.
"A victory, but the bloodiest day in history for the Canadians." 

The columns represent Canada and France, the sorrows and sacrifice of war.

Between the columns sits a young dying soldier.

Not sure my nephew should have been climbing the memorial, but just looking at him gave you such a sense of the scale of the monument. The living touching the dying.

The figures on top represent truth and justice, peace and knowledge.

Spirit of sacrifice and Torch Bearer.

Mourners sit at the base, grieving for their loss,

...and male.

Over 11,000 names are carved on the walls, Canadian soldiers who died in France during the First World war, some of whom were never found.

I'm not quite sure who asked it first, I know I was thinking it. Perhaps it was my nephew, my husband, my sister-in-law? But how did something so huge and so white, and considering its location in Northern France, survive the Second World War? Our guide knew the answer. It can't have been the first time it had been asked.

It wasn't a case of luck, that it just happened to survive any bombing by planes flying across Northern Europe.  No, Hitler purposefully, not only spared the Canadian monument but sent SS forces to protect it. In 1940, Hitler had himself photographed at Vimy Ridge to refute the reports in Canadian newspapers that Nazi Germany had destroyed it. Apparently this was all because this is a monument to peace and not a celebration of war.

Sorrow and sacrifice. 

More about the Vimy Ridge memorial on this website here

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: The Trenches

It seems fitting that for this month,
with the centenary of the beginning of the First World War,
that we visit sites that pay homage and commemorate the 'Great War'.
I began November with my last post about the poppies at the Tower of London, here.

During the half-term break,
we went to Vimy Ridge in Northern France, a National Historic Site of Canada.

Despite wondering how you should behave
when visiting places that mark very solemn events
(especially with our kids and their cousins, all eight of them, aged three to fifteen),
we were excited to find out that we were in Canada.
Well on Canadian soil anyway,
the French have given the land, this historic site, 107 hectares to Canada.

When driving into the site, the first thing that struck all of us
was the ground,
pockmarked by shells.

 Recently I have been looking at paintings by Paul and John Nash,
commissioned as official war artists during the First World war,
and have been puzzled by their paintings of the landscape, so bumpy and undulated.
But seeing this, it all made sense.
The ground at Vimy Ridge was never levelled after the war,
it still holds evidence of shell holes and bomb craters.
However after the war, it was reforested,
we were looking at trees all the same age, nearly 100 years old.

If you're interested to see how John and Paul Nash painted the landscape,

All fifteen of us booked into an English language tour by a Canadian guide
and headed underground.

Our tour guide began by making the context for the Canadian involvement
in the First World war very clear.
In 1914 Canada was still part of the British Empire,
so as our guide told us, when Britain declared war, Canada was by rights involved.
It wasn't a question of asking whether or not to participate,
but of deciding what their contribution should be.
Canada sent four divisions, their soldiers all volunteers.

For me, this was a day of challenging so many preconceptions,
making me think about things that had never even struck me before.
The landscape, the Commonwealth.

Underground, "subways" (we are in Canada) were built to bring men to the front,
safely and secretly.
Fourteen miles of tunnels, one meter wide and two meters high,
were dug out by hand, by Welsh miners, through the chalk ground.

Using these...
...pick axes and shovels.
They make much less noise than using explosives to blast your way through the ground.
It took them three months, working 24 hours a day, three eight hour shifts.

The tunnels have been modified for visitors today,
widened and supported with concrete.
However the problem of flooding remains.
Soldiers often had to wade knee deep through these tunnels,
and recently they have had to close the tunnels to visitors and wait for the water to recede.
The colour of the walls shows the water line from the last flood.

Underground there were headquarters, electricity,
telecommunications and some accommodation.
You got to sleep down here if you were a runner.

Runners were a vital part of communication.
Running from the front line, wearing a white armband, back to operations with messages.
This sounded dangerous, and it was.
We were asked what we thought was the average life expectancy of a runner
on the front line.
No-one could have guessed at the answer.
Four days!
But this was a post soldiers willingly volunteered for,
the reward of six times your regular salary,
and getting to sleep in the relative safety and shelter of the tunnels,
being away from the trenches, must have perhaps made it an appealing option
despite the risks.

"Anyone know the most famous German runner?"
There's a story.

From the tunnels, we headed to the front line, to the trenches.
"Trenches of 1917/18, like fortresses, very well thought out defences."

These trenches once two and a half meters deep,
are now lined with replica concrete sandbags and duck boards.

In the visitor centre you get an idea of what the walls of the trenches
would have looked like,
real sandbags and barbed wire,
without the rats, wet and lice that plagued the them.

Facing the enemy, a place to put your rifle and protect your head.

Although this trench is kitted out with replica sandbags and duckboards,
its position is very real.
Here in Vimy Ridge, the front line is only thirty meters from the German trenches opposite.
We were astounded,
Apparently soldiers began to recognise each others faces across no mans land.

From the German front line, faces were easy to spot in the Canadian trench opposite.

Between front lines, bomb craters, no mans land landscaping,
exploded deliberately to make crossing it difficult.

Learning about war in the trenches,
led us to ask questions about life in the trenches.
Where did you go to the toilet?
What happened if you ran away?

The toilet facilities:
Apparently there were latrine trenches,
but if there weren't, there was a truce, the deal here was that
if you climbed over top with a white flag and your pants down (remember this is Canadian speak), you were signalling that you were going to the loo (British speak)
and you weren't shot at.
There was also a truce, an agreement, at Vimy Ridge that hand-grenades would not be used.

As for running away, a question asked by my eleven year old son,
I wondered what was going through his mind.
Deserters were, "shot by their own".
they were few in the Canadian Corp.
We were told that this was perhaps because they were volunteers.
In the words of our guide, the soldiers knew that,
"if you deserted there was a hundred percent chance you were going to die,
if you advanced (over the top), you might live".
What a way to live.

Photos in the visitor centre

It was with this visit in mind that the following weekend,
we went to see the Tower Poppies at the Tower of London,
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,
a poppy for each Commonwealth and British fatality.
Looking at the sea of red poppies in the moat, it wasn't too difficult to imagine those
blood swept lands.
You can read my thoughts on the Tower Poppies on a previous post, here.

Information about Vimy Ridge and visitor centre, here.

This seemed like such a long post,
that I have decided to post about the Vimy Ridge memorial separately in my next post,
coming soon.
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