New exhibition: The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches

18 June 2014

The Bodleian Libraries’ summer 2014 exhibition tells the story of the first two years of World War One, focusing on compelling eyewitness accounts ranging from the Cabinet table at 10 Downing Street to outposts of the Empire in Africa.

The Great War exhibitionThe Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches draws upon the Bodleian Libraries' extensive collections to reveal the different meaning and impact these first two years of the war had on politicians, soldiers and civilians.

The exhibition will feature personal letters from Asquith to his confidantes; a forbidden cabinet diary on public display for the first time and other materials all in some way linked to Oxford University. Reflecting the attitudes and impact of the war from government level to the soldier fighting on the Western Front, it provides a variety of individual perspectives on the conflict from the declaration of war on 4 August 1914, to the fall of PM Asquith in 1916.

Highlights of the exhibition:

  • Forbidden diary entries of Cabinet member, Lewis Harcourt, who secretly kept a record of Cabinet discussions during the war. On public display for the first time
  • Private letters of the Prime Minister H H Asquith to his confidantes Venetia Stanley and Sylvia Henley giving his private views of the war – including a letter to Venetia Stanley outlining his views on the British position on 2 August 1914, two days before the British declaration of war
  • Letters of the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to his mother from the trenches
  • Draft of Edmund Blunden’s poem ‘Thiepval Wood’ written at the Somme
  • Diary of composer George Butterworth, recording experiences of army life
  • Eye-witness accounts of incidents in the streets of Dublin during the Easter Rising
  • Letter from W B Yeats to Gilbert Murray, criticising ‘Declaration of British Authors’ in favour of the British war position
  • Letters from T E Lawrence describing his intelligence work in Egypt
  • German items including the diary of Ernst Jünger and a painting of the British bombardment of Thiepval seen from a German trench

Mike Webb, exhibition curator and Senior Archivist at the Bodleian Libraries, said: ‘The letters and diaries on display reflect immediate concerns and reactions to events. They are truly contemporary voices and a direct link to the past.’

The Bodleian’s exhibition is part of a series of three different but connected exhibitions in France, Germany and the UK looking at ‘war in the archives’. The Bodleian exhibition is the second of the three, between August 1914 Literatur und Krieg at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, and 1914, La Mort des Poètes at the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg, which will open in the Autumn of 2014.


An illustrated book accompanies the exhibition: From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916, by Mike Webb (Bodleian Publications, 2014). The book can be purchased in the Bodleian Shop or online at Hardback, ISBN: 9781851243938, £19.99

Exhibition lectures 


A programme of gallery talks and lunchtime lectures will support the exhibition. The first talk will take place on 14 July. The events are free but places are limited so visitors are advised to reserve tickets in advance.

The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches

18 June 2014 — 2 November 2014

Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library, Old Schools Quad, Catte Street, Oxford

Opening Hours:

Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm
Saturday 9am – 4.30pm
Sunday 11am – 5pm


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