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

An exhibition at the Bodleian Library,
18 June - 2 November 2014

This exhibition is now closed.

Using letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians, all in some way connected with Oxford University, the exhibition relates contemporary experiences of the Great War. It concentrates on the years 1914 to 1916, from the outbreak of war to the end of the battle of the Somme and the fall of Asquith.

One theme of the exhibition is the challenge of leadership during wartime, and it features letters of two Prime Ministers, one brought down by the war, and another whose experience as an officer in the trenches was the foundation of his political career. It was forbidden to record Cabinet discussions, but an unauthorised diary kept by the Colonial Secretary provides a window on Asquith's Cabinet, complete with character sketches of some of the leading players, including Winston Churchill.

Letters of Oxford alumni who served as junior officers in the trenches on the western front and in far flung parts of the empire convey not only their experiences but also their ideas and beliefs about the war. In Oxford academics engaged in fierce public debate about the war, while in one Essex village, the local rector compiled a diary to record the impact of war on his community, forming a chronicle which he passed on to the Bodleian Library at the end of each year. The rich print resources of the Library, including trench maps, posters, pamphlets and books, many acquired during the war, provide a backdrop to these personal stories.

The exhibition is part of a series of three different but connected exhibitions in three countries 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.

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