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All the same in a hundred years

Every year I spend Christmas and New Year with my family of 100 years ago, loading letters written by my grandfather and his siblings and tweets about them for the 12 months ahead. It’s a deep dive into their experiences during the Great War.

1916 had been a mixed year for the Berrymans: Ted and Richard were safely in India while Paul spent most of the year playing hockey and performing theatricals with the Fleet in Scotland. But at the end of May he “lost heaps of pals” when he fought in the Battle of Jutland. His letter about the battle led to me standing, a hundred years later, in front of the Navy’s new Aircraft carrier, wearing a high viz jacket while being interviewed by the BBC for their commemorative programme. In Orkney the commemorations focused equally on the parallel experiences of the Orcadian civilians and the British and German Navies. Meeting German sailors on a British Warship in the harbour at Kirkwall was a powerful statement that “that was then and this is now”.

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) - © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs)
© IWM (HU 113701)

The slaughter on the Somme puts 2016 into sharp perspective. Ivan Bennett, Benedicta Berryman’s fiancé, was killed there in June. The most meaningful part of working with the letters for me, has been discovering Ivan’s story piece by piece. We knew only two things about him when we started: that the Berrymans didn’t like him and they called him “Wiggs”.  In the last four years we have found out who he was, the tensions and tragedies in his own family and much more about the difficulties he and Benedicta faced when they became engaged. Finally, at the end of the year, I found this portrait photograph of him and I finally feel some closure on this story of star-crossed love.

Topher first went to France at the beginning of the year, and his unit fought on the Somme, but we don’t know if he and they went over the top on that first day. He continued to have a wretched time, outshone by his heroic elder brothers. We will see that Richard asked for Topher to be assigned as his groom early in 1917, which was a comfort for their mother. But our current understanding of dependency and power within a family makes me worry for clumsy, stammering Topher working for clever, impatient Richard.

Ted ended 1915 spending two nights in an open boat, before being rescued after a shipwreck in the Mediterranean. He was sailing to Egypt, and he spent 1916 there and in India where he was bored and frustrated. He was newly engaged, and his 1916 letters show a complex mix of grief, survivors’ guilt and envy because volunteers were getting action and promotions which he (a career soldier) was missing out on in India. One of the more amusing sub-plots concerns his dress sword – necessary for the glittering events surrounding the Viceroy’s residency in Delhi – but still a weapon and impossible to send through the post.

We hear almost nothing from Jim in 1916. He was not a natural soldier and did not adapt well to army life. So much so that Ted and Paul both show some irritation that he still hadn’t left British soil when the war was two and a half years’ old. He married Sheina Hellier in September 1916 though the arrangements for their wedding show Jim’s characteristic vagueness.

The Berrymans’ experiences in 1916 remind us that although the Great War was a global blood-bath, it was also mundane and even dull for many of those involved who were kept on the side-lines. The letters also show us the siblings’ different characters – Richard, charming, impatient, and lacking insight; Jim, unfocused and ill-adapted to army life; Ted, curious, thoughtful, dutiful, fully-engaged with the complexities of the international situation, and frustrated at not being involved; Paul, sporty, making the most of Naval life, but kind and courteous too; Topher, cold and unhappy, outshone by his heroic older brothers; Jane, energetic and social, opening a tobacconist shop in London and a firm favourite with her brothers’ friends. The other girls are harder to know, except for poor, grief-stricken Ben, her unhappy love affair coming to the unhappiest of conclusions.

In 2016 we have been disorientated by change and shocked by the deaths of many of those we admire, and I have often reminded myself that a hundred years ago the world was more frightening and far more deadly. We are blessed that those left us this year had acted in front of cameras and sung into microphones; that they, and we, had schooling and didn’t have to spend our lives digging the fields or sewing shirts; that the men did not drown at 18 in the Flanders mud and the women did not die at 22 of sepsis after child-birth; that none of them died of Spanish ‘Flu or tuberculosis. Whatever battles we have to fight, the world has given us much in the last 100 years.  

1917 will be a busier year for the Berrymans. We will see more romances, there’ll be another shipwreck, Ted will fight in Mesopotamia in places like Basra and Baghdad which are still in the news today, Richard and Topher will endure in the mud of France.

So as we start 2017, I wish all of us the good wishes the Berrymans wished each other 100 years ago.

Family Letters
@FamilyLetters
@BerrymanLetters

 
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Posted by on 2 January, '17 in About

 

13 July 1916 – Ivan Bennett, Ben’s fiancé, is killed in Trônes Wood

Benedicta Berryman, the eldest of the Berryman sisters, was engaged Ivan Bennett who was killed in Trônes Wood, on the 13th day of the Somme.

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) - © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) – © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan’s childhood

Ivan Provis Wentworth Bennett was younger than Ben, 25 to her 30, and working for a law firm when war broke out. Ivan’s background was similar to the Berrymans’. He was the son of a retired army officer, and the grandson of a gentleman landowner on one side and a clergyman on the other. Ivan was the fourth of five children. However, there had been a scandal; Ivan’s mother Eleanor (née Senior) initiated divorce proceedings which were finalised in 1907.

Researcher and local historian Mary Alexander says very fairly:

[Ivan’s father Frederick was] guilty of adultery, assault and cruelty to his wife. Divorce was very unusual, difficult to achieve, and shameful. Perhaps Frederick was a particularly unpleasant man, or perhaps Eleanor was unusually determined. Frederick seems to have retired early from the army, and this, with the family’s frequent moves, might suggest an inability to settle down. … [Or perhaps] Eleanor was difficult to live with, sending Frederick into the arms of Mrs McTavish, with whom he was accused of committing adultery, and provoking him to strike his wife.

Divorce did not lead to closure. Epitaphs of the Great War says about Ivan:

[Eleanor] was … widowed in 1908 when her [former] husband committed suicide in Bournemouth. Following which, Ivan, who was 17 and in the Lower Sixth at Wellington College, left school and became articled to a firm of solicitors in Guildford.

So not only did Ivan suffer the emotional and social consequences of his parents’ divorce, but his professional opportunities were also curtailed by his father’s suicide.

As a child, Ivan sometimes stayed with his extended family. Epitaphs of the Great War also says:

In the 1901 census, ten-year-old Ivan is staying with his uncle and aunt and their five-year-old daughter Dorothy Joyce Husey-Hunt in Hove, Sussex. His parents and siblings were living in Bedford.

As we shall see, this family connection remained strong even after Ivan’s death.

Romance, and war

The Berrymans all called Ivan “Wiggie” or “Wiggs”, a naval nickname of unknown origin for someone called Bennett. The obvious question is whether Paul gave him the nickname.

Ben and Ivan probably met in Guildford between 1908 and 1913. Her mother, Gertrude, disapproved of the romance. Gertrude had strong but narrow convictions and there were so many things about Ivan for her to disapprove of: his parents’ divorce and his father’s suicide, his age and relatively junior position in a law firm, and a possible connection with spiritualism which Gertrude, deeply religious as she was, would have disliked. The Church of England was not without its feuds, and Gertrude may have disapproved of the churchmanship of Ivan’s grandfather the Revd Senior. And Ben mentioned that Ivan was “against soldiering” (perhaps he associated soldiers with his father’s domestic violence). Impossible now to know what Gertrude disliked so much about Ivan. Whatever it was, in 1913 Ben went (or was sent) to India to stay with her brother Ted and meet his much more eligible fellow officers. But war broke out, Ben came home and Ivan joined up.

In September 1914, Ben wrote

Wiggs tell  me he was inlisting (sic) into Kitchener’s 2nd Army, well it obvious the right thing to do, however much against soldiering one is. I do consider the civilians are fine all the same, as it’s not their job- after all one expects a soldier or sailor to live for a chance of active service, their whole training leads up to it, but with a civilian he has all the roughest part & none of the nice.

Within six weeks of Ben’s return, they were engaged and she wrote defensively to her mother:

I don’t know whether you’ll be pleased No I don’t suppose for a moment you will be I can’t quite expect it but Wiggs and I have decided that it’s best to be engaged. The unsatisfactory way in which we were going on was NO good, it isn’t all done on the spur of the moment, much thinking has been done & I’m sure it’s best. There are to be no great shoutings about it but anyone who wants to know can, you will I fancy think we are doing right, the other situation was rotten for me but I didn’t want to sort of rush Wiggs into anything so things had to wait.

Ben’s brothers mention Ivan occasionally in their letters. Their fondness for Ben led them to  accept the situation. The one photograph we have of him shows him with her brothers and looking as if he’s about to laugh, so maybe they came to like him for himself.

When she saw this photograph, Ivan’s great-grand niece said:

I … couldn’t believe the family resemblance “Wiggs” has to my Father at the same age!

Ivan Bennett

Back L-R: Ivan Bennett, Ted Berryman, Richard Berryman
Front L-R: Topher Berryman, Jim Berryman
Spring 1915

The Wartime Memories Project provides context for Ivan’s military career:

7th Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) was raised at Guildford in September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s Second New Army and joined 55th Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. The Division initially concentrated in the Colchester area but moved to Salisbury Plain in May 1915. They proceeded to France in July and concentrated near Flesselles. In 1916 they were in action on The Somme …. including the capture of Trones Wood….

Mary Alexander gives us the specifics:

He became a 2nd Lieutenant on 12 September and a Lieutenant on 27 January 1915. Ivan went to France in July 1915 and was made a Captain on 12 November 1915.

Ivan’s last Leave

In May 1916, Ivan was home for 10 days’ Leave. It seems likely that he would have visited his cousins in Hove, his mother in St Leonards on Sea, and possibly Ben who had a job using “adding machinery” in a bank (presumably in Guildford). Richard gives contradictory information when he comments on letters from Ben. On 2nd June he says:

Bad luck on Ben not being able to get away, now Wiggs is home.

But perhaps they did see each other; a fortnight later, Richard says:

[Ben] seems to have enjoyed herself when Wiggs was home

However, Ted reports:

Ben tells me his nerves were all wrong, so I’ve no doubt a few days at home did him no end of good.

100 years on, it is tempting to assume Ivan had shell shock but he could have just been exhausted and jumpy. This all hints at difficult and possibly rather fraught final encounters in a star-crossed relationship cut short by war. Poor Ivan. Poor Ben.

The Battle of Trônes Wood

Mary Alexander continues:

[Ivan] was not there for the first day of the Somme in 1916, but took part in the attack on Trônes Wood on 13 July.

The Regimental diary for July describes the action in detail in an appendix; these pages can be read here, here, here and here. The diary says:

The situation in TRONES WOOD was not clear. Enemy were known to have received orders that it was to be held at all costs.

Nobody in the battalion has reconnoitred the area from & over which the attack was to be delivered, & time would not permit of any such reconnaissance being made. All orders … had … to be made from the map, which, it was afterwards found, does not give a very accurate representation of the ground.

Bombardments took place all day, and the Battalion went into action at 7:00pm:

The remainder of the Battalion was immediately met with a heavy Machine Gun and rifle fire….. The first line suffered immediate & heavy casualties. The second line reinforced at once but also suffered heavily, & in spite of very gallant leading by CPT. I.P.W.BENNETT & 2/Lt P.R. WOOLATT was unable to get within 100 yards of TRONES WOOD.

The bombardment recommenced from 8.45 to 9.15 over ground which the men had been sheltering in, and before and after the bombardment, the remaining men withdrew, the wounded being brought in under shell fire and rifle fire by “2/Lt. J.S. WALTER and 2 men ….. working continuously and most gallantly for 3 hours”.

Ivan is not mentioned in the report again, other than being included in the list of those killed.

Wikipedia describes the terrain thus:

The wood had dense undergrowth which … made it difficult to keep direction and during the battle the trees were brought down by shell-fire, becoming entangled with barbed-wire and strewn with German and British dead.

Mary Alexander says:

During gallant leadership he was shot in the head and killed. His batman, Private Courtman, helped him until he too was wounded.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

By …14–17 July… all the trees in Trônes Wood had been toppled, with only low stumps remaining. Tree trunks, barbed wire and human remains lay everywhere, the ground open and easily observed from German positions.

Writing home in August, Ted says to his mother:

Many thanks [for] the enclosures about Wiggs; pathetic reading but how splendidly he died, and what a general favourite he must have been. Thanks most awfully for sending them; I am so vastly relieved to hear he died quickly; I knew he must have died bravely.

“Crowned with the sunshine of eternal youth”

Ivan was initially buried on the battlefield, either near to where he was killed or possibly in the cemetery shown in this photograph.

Graves in Trones Wood just after the war: Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields

Graves in Trones Wood – Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields

Despite the amount of information available about his death, his grave wasn’t marked with his name and his body was not identified until it was moved to Thiepval Anglo-French cemetery in 1931.

Epitaphs of the Great War  says:

If Ivan Bennett had not had such distinctive initials his body would probably never have been identified. … his body was not recovered from the battlefield until it was discovered in December 1931. There was no identity disc on the body, which was wearing an officer’s tunic with the buttons of The Queen’s West Surrey Regiment, but among the effects discovered with it was a whistle, a cigarette holder and a pencil case engraved with the initials I.P.W.B.

Mary Alexander says:

When he died his address was in Hove. Administration of his will was granted to his mother. He is listed on the parish memorial in Holy Trinity, Guildford, and on the Merrow war memorial, where he was living before the war.

His mother administered his will, but in January 1917 Ted says

I do hope Wiggy’s things have been settled amicably by now, it seems strange that it can’t be done somehow & poor Ben must feel it frightfully.

This suggests that Gertrude wasn’t the only one who had qualms about the relationship, but that Ivan’s mother may have disliked it too. His short life was clearly full of complexity and it is interesting that he recorded his address as Hove. Did he see home as being with his aunt, uncle and cousins rather than with his mother in St Leonards on Sea?

In 1931, it was his cousin, Mrs Dorothy Joyce Bousted (nee Husey-Hunt) who chose his epitaph “Crowned by the sunshine of eternal youth”.

Epitaphs of the Great War says:

The lines come from ‘Rupert Brooke’, a poem by Alfred Dodd published in 1918 [which] outlines Dodd’s belief in the survival of the spirit after death, not as in the Christian belief in eternal life but as in the world of Spiritualism.

Thanks

Ivan is just one of the hundreds of thousands of young men who died without children or grand-children; the great-uncles whose names are forgotten. My mother did not know who the “Wiggs” in Ben’s letters was, and my thanks are due to the many people who helped me piece together his story. Chris Miller identified that “Wiggs” was Ivan Bennett. Rebecca Aubert confirmed his photograph. Mary Alexander and Charlie Eve sent me most of the biographical details here. Sarah Wearne curates the Epitaphs of the Great War website giving other biographical details and information about his epitaph. The photographs of Ivan’s grave and Thiepval come from the War Graves Photographic Project at twgpp.org. Additional information is from Wikipedia, WW1 Battlefields, and The Wartime Memories Project.

 

 
 

31 May 1916 – The Battle of Jutland

Paul’s ship the HMS Malaya was stationed in Rosyth in the Firth of Forth from 22 May onwards and they saw action in the Battle of Jutland.

The Battle of Jutland

Jutland is a difficult battle to interpret as both sides claimed victory. It took place in the North Sea off Denmark over the 31st May and 1st June 1916.

The Germans inflicted more damage to more ships and were quick to publicise this. The dangerous way the British stored and handled cordite contributed to the German successes because there were dreadful explosions following hits which might not otherwise have inflicted serious damage to the structure of a ship; a bad fire broke out on the Malaya and other ships just blew up and sank.

It took time for the scale of the British strategic victory to become apparent: the British Grand Fleeet controlled the North Sea after Jutland and the German High Seas Fleet did not put to sea again during the War. However, by that time the damage to the Navy’s reputation had been done becuase the British press and public criticised the Navy in response to the news from Germany. The British wanted an outright victory like Trafalgar where Nelson had wiped out the French Navy 111 years before.

The Battle of Jutland – Gains and Losses

The Forth Bridge from the deck of HMS Malaya

The Forth Bridge from the deck of HMS Malaya

 

HMS Malaya at Jutland

The Malaya was badly hit during the battle and several people were dreadfully burned.

 

HMS Malaya after Jutland

After the battle, HMS Malaya was repaired in the sea dock in Invergordon

HMS Malaya in dock in Invergordon after Jutland

HMS Malaya in dock in Invergordon after Jutland

 

 
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Posted by on 31 May, '16 in Jutland

 

Email test post and thank you

Hello

This is a test post to check whether or not sending the letters by email is working. While I am here, I thought I’d let you know a bit about how the project is going.

The Twitter feed widely followed with well over 2000 followers. I left it to itself for a lot of the year, and am starting to re-engage with it again which will increase the followers as the war progresses. Facebook is expensive so I am not using it much to publicise the letters but I will use it a bit more in 2016. These emails are good, but it’s hard to gell when they stop working properly. Do please email me if you miss the letters for a while. info@familyletters.co.uk will get to me.

Please like and share posts directly on Facebook or Twitter. This helps enormously.

In April I gave a short talk about the Indian Army in WW1 to an audience of a couple of hundred people who found it moving, most of whom had not realised the Indian Army had been involved in the fighting at all. I gave a couple of longer talks about the letters to smaller groups in Edinburgh who also enjoyed them. This is something I hope to do more of, so if you have a group like the WI or Rotarians interested in a speaker, please let me know.

I managed to track down the exact house in Guildford that Gertrude lived in; it’s now a business centre and I hope to get in touch with the people managing it to let them know the house’s history. It was odd wandering around the gardens on a Sunday trying to match the views with the photographs of the family. I also found the site of Churn railway station where Ted was sent very briefly in the summer of 1915.

It’s been thrilling to be in touch with so many people about the project including cousins I didn’t know existed. I owe great thanks to my extended family for their time and their memories. The project has also made me alert to the First World War all around us, from memorabilia in museums to war memorials in hotels and railway stations.

In other news, I am breaking my “no spoilers” rule to say that I’m very proud that the Orkney museum will be including Paul’s letter about Jutland in their display this summer and I hope to attend the Jutland commemorations in Orkney in May.

Finally – thank you so much for following the letters so far. I really appreciate it.

With kind regards

Benedicta Makin / Family Letters

Giving a talk about the Indian Army in WW1

Giving a talk about the Indian Army in WW1

 
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Posted by on 31 December, '15 in About

 

30 December – SS Persia is torpedoed and sinks

30 December, the SS Persia  in which Ted was sailing to India to rejoin his regiment, was torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean at 1 p.m. while the passengers were eating lunch.

Here is what my mother wrote about it in the 1980s:

Casualties were heavy, and Ted’s name was not on the … list of survivors published. Nell’s reaction was to go up to her room and write him a long letter. ‘I know he’s all right,’ she said firmly when she came down. Perhaps the fortune teller’s prediction that ‘your man won’t ever get killed or drownded’ gave her confidence, but her sisters could not stand the strain as time went by with no news and they went to consult this same fortune teller, the gardener’s wife.  Mrs Ridler put out the cards, shaking her head. ‘It’s all black, all black – ‘ ….

The photograph below was taken a few weeks earlier and includes two of Nell’s sisters, Gladys and Belinda. Left to Right it shows: Gladys Fielding, Ted Berryman, Nell Fielding, Jane Berryman and Belinda Fielding.

Gladys Ted Nell Jane and Bellows 1915

Gladys Ted Nell Jane and Belinda 1915

The sinking of the Persia was a war crime because she was a merchant ship and she was torpedoed without warning. Her most famous passengers were Lord Montagu of Beaulieu who survived because he was wearing a patent life jacket and his mistress Eleanor Thornton who drowned. She was the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot on the Rolls Royce. The Persia was carrying gold and jewels belonging to Maharaja Jagatjit Singh who disembarked at Marseilles feeding conspiracy theories that he had been warned about the attack. The wreck was discovered in 10,000′ of water off Crete in 2001 and some of the jewelery was salvaged but not the gold.

 
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Posted by on 30 December, '15 in About

 

25 December 1914 – Christmas Truce

Ted and the Garhwalis were present at the Christmas Truce though they didn’t play football. Ted wrote about it to his mother on December 31st and about it to Jane on January 1st. You can hear Matthew Ward of @HistoryNeedsYou read the letter of December 31st below:


Ted’s commanding officer Col Drake-Brockman found the Truce unmilitary and uncanny, but a good opportunity to search for the bodies of men who’d been killed some five weeks before. Here are his memories of the Christmas Truce from his book “With the Royal Garhwal Rifles in the Great War 1914-1917”.

I had just … got back to my dugout when Captain Berryman came running up with the news that “the Germans were out of their trenches.” “The devil they are!” I replied, and went up with him. Sure enough I found a number sitting on the parapet of No. 2 Company’s trench, and also out in front of No. 1 Company. They were trying to converse with our men and giving them cigarettes, biscuits and boxes of cigars. As I could speak German I conversed with them. They all belonged to the 16th Regiment, and it is a strange coincidence that at the battle of Nueve Chapelle later in March, 1915, among the prisoners that the Battalion took there were these identical men who came out on Christmas Day at this informal “armistice”. They seemed very jolly, as if they had had a good feed with plenty to drink. In fact they told me that they had had a good dinner. One of them said to me that there must be “Friede auf der Erde” on this day being Christmas Day. They seemed convinced that they were winning, and one of them said, with a wave of his hand, that the Russians were quite out of it. He gave me a bundle of newspapers to corroborate his statement.

This “armistice” was of short duration. Strictly speaking it should not have taken place without permission. Both our and the German headquarters (we saw from captured documents later) were very angry about it when it became known, and rightly so. At 3.45 p.m. a whistle sounded from their trench, and they all, driven by their neat, dapper N.C.O.s, or “unter oficiers,” scuttled back to their trench. The men were not so neatly turned out as the N.C.O.s, naturally, as they have harder and more fatigue work to do. One man, I noticed, had on a pair of civilian corduroys over his uniform ones.

The truce was well kept for all that night. Not a shot was fired. The silence, so different to the usual crack of rifles and spluttering of machine guns, was almost uncanny.

The way they came out was amusing. First, the evening before, they put out small Christmas trees with lighted candles on them on the top of their trench. Our men were astonished, as it looked, they said, like their own “Dewali” festival in India. During the morning singing and shouting were heard. After a time heads appeared, and finally thier whole bodies – and out they came! It shows what confidence they had in our men. We could not have treated them in like manner. We took the opportunity to search for poor Taylor’s and Robertson-Glasgow’s bodies. They were killed on the 18th November. Only the latter’s body was found. Taylor and the Garhwali officer must have got right into the the German trench and been killed there. Robertson-Glasgow’s body was found close to the parapet. He was buried in the military cemetery between Epinette and Le Touret on the Rue de Bois.

It was a strange feeling being able to wander up above ground after being so long below the surface. A couple of dead Germans were close to the side road. They looked so quiet and lifelike in the attitude they were lying in, so opportunity was taken to have a look at them. They were mere skeletons inside their uniform! One had no head. Both must have been killed by a shell.

 
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Posted by on 25 December, '14 in About

 

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Letter to the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum

Save the IWM Library

Click here for posters and leaflets

The Trustees of the Imperial War Museum have decided to close the Library and make 60-80 highly specialised staff redundant at an annual saving of £4m or so.

George Osborne has provided money for the Education Services, but how much integrity and truth can those have, without the research Library to back them up?

There is a petitition to save the Library at bit.ly/save_IWM – please consider signing it. Follow @Save_IWM for updates and retweet to spread the word. There are posters, leaflets and a list of people to write to here.  Please consider writing to the Trustees, either individually on masse to

The Board of Trustees
IWM London
Lambeth Road
London SE1 6HZ.

This is the letter I’ve posted to the individual Trustees c/o the IWM London (19 letters, one each) and to George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP as Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport c/o the House of Commons.


Dear Sir

Please reverse the decision to close the Imperial War Museum library and make the specialist staff redundant. The sums of money involved are not large, especially compared with the huge sums of money spent on short term commemorations of the First World War. It beggars belief that the IWM Trustees should spend so much on refurbishing the building, and then close its intellectual heart.

Let’s be clear, saving the Educations services is not enough. In fact, without the library it may even be an empty gesture.

There are many reasons why this is a bad idea and even morally wrong, here are just a few.

First, a personal reason. My mother donated 650 letters to the archives written by my grandfather and his brothers during and after WW1. The archives are “safe” but how can I believe you when you say that? I am considering options for finding other more appropriate places for them to be stored. I cannot be the only donor who feels that their trust is betrayed by the Trustees of the IWM. I cannot begin to think how those who donated regimental records of and other irreplaceable books now feel. Closing the IWM Library sends out a very bad signal to those who donated to the IWM Library, and to those who donated to the National Archives, the British Library, the National War Museum, and all other organisations who hold materials in trust.

The library is not just A library, it is unique in the world and serves a specific purpose. That purpose is to help us all understand the causes, course and consequences the single event that has had the most impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries: for example, we would not be sending troops to Iraq now if the treaty lines at the end of the First World War had been drawn differently. Closing the IWM Library makes it harder for journalists, think tanks, researchers and maybe even politicians to understand and explain critical and deadly events playing out in the present.

It’s a resource for everyone: what’s in the library ends up on our TV screens, in films and on the radio via the research done by documentary- and film-makers, authors and playwrights. It’s also a resource for academics and historians, who still have not arrived at a shared understanding of why the war started or why it ended. Closing the IWM Library will affect everyone, not just a dusty few.

A library is only as good as its librarians, who have spent a lifetime understanding what the material is and how it connects together. The books and other materials have been donated in good faith; to disperse the library is a betrayal of that trust, and once dispersed the library cannot be re-gathered. The materials have not been digitised; they cannot be found online. Closing the IWM Library is to smash a unique human and physical resource which cannot be recreated.

The library is not just a British resource – in a very real sense it’s not ours to close. One in six of the men who served Britain in WW1 was not British but a member of what are now foreign countries. Australia is loud in commemorating the Anzacs, but the heirs of the 1.5m men from pre-partition India who served in the WW1 and the 2.5m who served in WW2 are more ambivalent about their heritage. We owe our victories in no small part to them, and the IWM records their stories – there is no Indian Wilfred Owen, no Indian Siegfried Sassoon, the regimental histories in the IWM library are important records; in some cases it is the only place that those records are held in an accessible form. Closing the IWM library not only betrays those men and our moral debt, it re-writes history. A cynic may ask whether that is the intention.

In this centenary year, tens of millions of pounds, possibly more, have been spent commemorating the men who died, much of it on artworks that say more about us than about the men they commemorate. Politicians have missed no chance to be photographed standing in the cold and looking solemn. It beggars belief that something that actually does commemorate the First World War, and help us understand it and explain it, should be closed. Closing the IWM library reveals a sentimental hypocrisy at the heart of many of the centenary commemorations.

Finally, let me share with you some of the reasons given by others why the IWM Library should not be closed. These came from the petition in the few hours before I wrote this letter and are typical of the 15,000 or so reasons people in the UK and abroad are challenging this decision.

CO LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM less than a minute ago
I’m signing because I use this library. It is a valuable resource for scholars and the public alike

RG ORPINGTON, UNITED KINGDOM 6 minutes ago
An invaluable, and accessible educational asset. Worth more than one banker’s bonus!

BB EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM about 1 hour ago
This is a world-leading resource with a world-leading library. Ways must be found to keep it fully maintained.

DR FROME, UNITED KINGDOM about 1 hour ago
2014 is the centenary of the Great War, given all the millions spent THIS year on politicians attending various commemorative events it seems cheap to cut funding for what must be our permanent reminder of the sacrifices in WW1 (and other conflicts)

SW WARWICK, UNITED KINGDOM about 1 hour ago
The library is not an optional extra – it’s the intellectual heart of any cultural institution. … if you want to be a relevant, world class educational resource that can support exhibitions, publishing and scholarship at every level then you need a library and qualified staff to run it.

JW PORTLAND, UNITED KINGDOM about 3 hours ago
It seems particularly poignant to be trying to save the IWM just after the recent wave of public support to remember WW1. I’m a former MoD scientist with a deep understanding of conflict and its causes. I visited IWM two years ago in a different role as Chair of Governors of my local secondary school, and was deeply impressed by, for example, the holocaust exhibition. The IWM is an invaluable resource and it chronicles a key aspect of the century that transformed life in Britain. We cannot afford to lose any part of it.

DHA, SC about 3 hours ago
I’m an English professor, and I’ve made use of the IWM in the past.

MJ GIOLOU, PAFOS, CYPRUS about 4 hours ago
I believe the resources of the IWM are an internationally important archive which should be preserved for future generations and should remain fully accessible to the public.

JK TAUNTON, UNITED KINGDOM about 6 hours ago
preservation and maintenance of all historic and heritage property is vital, we must leave for future generations our history, we live in a miserly short term political environment which has no concern for the future.

RT SHEFFIELD, UNITED KINGDOM about 7 hours ago
Every family in Britain was touched by WW1 in which my great grandfather fought and my grandfather and brothers in WW2. Commemoration is an essential part of learning and remembering the lessons of the past. Put money on my taxes do not take money away from the fantastic work the IWM does and the fantastic learning resource it provides and the educational outreach it undertakes.

IR WIRRAL, UNITED KINGDOM about 6 hours ago
Lest we forget

Yours sincerely

[Signed]

Family Letters

 
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Posted by on 13 December, '14 in About, Imperial War Museum