Features | Lest we forget – Remembering World War One

To mark one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War, Leeds Museum and Galleries is teaming up with a group of volunteers to run a series of exhibitions and activities. We take a look at the significance of The Great War for students today and the ongoing memorial work.


On the August, 4 1914 the British declared war on the German Empire. One hundred years later it is vital we remember the advancements, the impact and most significant of all the people who lost their lives, on the front line and at home.

For students, it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of deadlines, socialising and chores. However, our worries, cares and woes are completely different to our peers’ a century ago. For the majority of young men their future was not a degree from a prestigious university but death on a foreign battlefield. For women, home life would never be the same, as David Lloyd George sent them to work for the first time. The work was hard, tiring and essential. Everyone in society was touched by the war; very different to today’s climate where turmoil and violence is geographically distant. Yet the war happened a century ago so why is so much focus being placed upon it now? Mainly due to the fact that the First World War directly affects us now. Medical care, social equality and social structure all changed and evolved because of a four year war, which arguably should never have happened.

Healthcare is probably only of the few benefits we can take from the violence and death. The improvement of knowledge and treatment was met by demand, but advanced miles in the minutest time. The First World War was the first war when more soldiers died from wounds than disease. This is mostly due to advancements in weapon technology. The horrific injuries sustained by these destructive machines led to new practices such as plastic surgery. Harold Gillies is heralded as the “father of modern plastic surgery” and he and his team helped 5,000 seriously injured men. Further medical advancements included new splints, developed in 1915, which helped to heavily reduce the mortality rate from fractures. Blood storage became possible in 1917 due to a greater understanding of blood typing saving many lives, which would have previously died from blood loss.

Shell shock was another new phenomenon and its victims suffered from anxiety, hysteria, paralysis and nightmares. 80,000 cases were dealt with but many soldiers carried the mental scars for the rest of their lives.

The foundations of treating mental illness can be found in the First World War. Yet it is unfortunate that the prejudice that surrounded shell shock a hundred years ago still lingers today. Our inability to make change is evident as we remember the First World War, highlighting the importance of having an effect and moving away from archaic attitudes; just because it cannot be seen does not mean you cannot suffer from it.

Society also underwent a massive shift in class and gender equality. In the trenches there was a definite hierarchy with the officer rank being held by the upper classes and foot soldiers mostly from the lower and working class. However, over the duration of the war, this social barrier collapsed. The officers’ uniforms were very distinct and an easy target for German snipers, causing the death of many upper class officers. A vacancy needed to be filled. More frequently the new officer was a soldier, who had worked their way through the ranks, earning their position through hard work not birth right.

However, for women, a greater change was going to occur. During the First World War, women were drafted into the munitions factories to make weapons for the Western Front. They toiled on farm land to feed their nation. They worked as engineers on planes so that the pilots could do necessary reconnaissance. They did essential work, which not only benefitted the war effort but was a highly significant factor as to why Britain could keep fighting.

Previously, it had been argued women should not be allowed to vote because they could not fight for their country. The First World War proved the misogynist opinion wrong. In 1918, women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote. This was only 40 per cent of women in Britain, however, and did not represent the majority of people who aided the war effort. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act was passed, meaning women had gained voting equality with men. The First World War was a catalyst for women rights and since many people remain passionate about gaining social equality between the sexes, the First World War should be and remains important for women.

Yet, the most significant reason for commemorating the First World War is the people who lost their lives. What should be remembered is not just the British soldiers who fought but also the soldiers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Our history in schools is sadly biased towards a singular British perspective, despite it being a World War. So it is important we remember everyone. Approximately 100,000 men died in the British army, during the First World War – a tragic and devastating number. What should be remembered is the names of these soldiers and their personal stories.

This is what Leeds Museums and Galleries hope to achieve through one of their volunteer projects based on the efforts of the Leeds Pals Battalion. Lucy Moore, from Leeds Museums and Galleries told LS: “The period of 2014-18 will see a process of commemoration at international, national, regional, local and personal levels. The city will aim to deliver a lasting legacy from the Commemoration to support its cultural ambitions of breaking down barriers, involving all communities, telling the story of Leeds, nurturing talents and giving young people a voice.”

A temporary exhibition in August called ‘… But Not Forgotten’ will also include “an installation to instil a poignant moment of reflection on the outbreak of war, working with objects from our collections that are not displayed”, Lucy adds. Students should “Look out for internship and volunteer opportunities on our website.” Leeds Museums and Galleries are keen for students to get involved in what will be pivotal to British society and history.

“We want to explore the histories of objects in our collections and the people behind them, from medals to ration cards, from aeroplane propellers to postcards home. We want to promote discussion, ask questions and embrace the story of Leeds and its role in the First World War, from Barnbow to the Somme and beyond”, Lucy highlights.

Another aspect of the Leeds Pals project is ‘The First World War and Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, a Heritage Lottery Funded First World War Centenary Project. The project is in connection with the training ground at Nidderdale, where the Battalion trained before departing for France. The unique chance to be trained in archaeology and be a part of researching and digging up artefacts first hand is extremely rare. Yet because of the centenary and its close proximity to Leeds, it is available. This strand of the project is headed by Amanda Peacock, from Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, who “hopes to tell the story of the Leeds Pals.”

It is important for people to get involved with such events and volunteering as Amanda tells LS “it is the last opportunity we have to gather information which is slowly slipping away. Memories, families holding accounts, people passing away or getting very old our opportunity decreases every day.”

The commemoration of the centenary gives us the chance to tell individuals stories and remember the people of the First World War – not the statistics and battles, but the people behind the weapons giving them a voice.


Victoria Hesketh

Image property of Leeds Museums and Galleries

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