The World at War [Watch]

A century after the Great War, a new exhibit at UT’s Harry Ransom Center explores the poignant artifacts left behind.

Last letters written from the front lines of war, candid photographs of troops at work and rest, postcards censored by the British Army, trench maps drawn by a poet-turned-war-cartographer, and a child’s diary from London.

 A full century later, these artifacts in the Harry Ransom Center’s new exhibition allow us to piece together how World War I traumatized and fundamentally changed society, leaving behind survivors that Gertrude Stein called “The Lost Generation.”

The World at War, 1914–1918, on view through August 3, goes beyond the battles won and lost and delves into the human experience. Here’s a look at some of the exhibit’s documents that shed light on one of the world’s darkest hours.


Dogs, horses, pigeons, camels, and other animals played essential roles in World War I. Animals were used in combat and for service, as messengers, medics, intelligence-gatherers, and comforting mascots. The German Medical Corps trained war dogs like this one to check the vital signs of wounded soldiers stranded in shell craters.


British soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote many satirical verses from the front lines, taking aim at the British Army’s high command for what he saw as mistakes that cost thousands of lives. In this manuscript of the poem “The General,” exhibition co-curator Jean M. Cannon notes, Sassoon targets the “brass hats” in charge.


The British Army employed these Field Service Postcards for soldiers to update family members on their status. Soldiers could note that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon.” The standardized card didn’t allow soldiers to report more specific (or negative) details about their situations. Poet Wilfred Owen objected to the army’s censorship and made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle, he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice.


The author of this sketchbook is unknown, but exhibition co-curator Elizabeth L. Garver points out that the drawings were done in the style of popular French artist Francisque Poulbot (1879-1946), who was known for his sketches of Parisian children. Garver notes that Poulbot is still collectible, even today. “It was a style that was very popular,” she says. “Whoever put together this little notebook obviously copied several of Poulbot’s designs.”

Top: Canadian John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is one of the most frequently quoted poems of the First World War, and it uses the red poppy to memorialize those killed in the war. The species of poppy that McCrae mentions (Papaver rhoes) thrives in upturned soil, which the trenches and shell holes of the Western Front supplied in abundance.

All images courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.


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