Category Archives: Imperial War Museum

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 – 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

An invaluable, and accessible educational asset. Worth more than one banker’s bonus!

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)

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.

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.

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


Family Letters

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


At the Imperial War Museum

We spent a couple of days last week at the Imperial War museum. I hadn’t realised that the archives and reading rooms are still open by appointment during the refurbishments. But we were able to visit the letters.

Although the letters are archived as two collections, they are in fact stored in five boxes.  Even seeing the five boxes was moving.

The Berryman Letters at the IWM

The Berryman Letters at the IWM

The room was small and at times very full. My sister and niece were there and Chris was there too checking some specific transcriptions.

There were some particular highlights for me. Being able to get reasonable photographs of some of my grandfather’s illustrations, such as this one of the cramped conditions in the trenches, for example:

Ted in the trenches - France 1914

Ted in the trenches – France 1914

I hadn’t seen the letters since the early 1980s when my mother was working on them for the book Socks, Cigarettes and Shipwrecks and I didn’t pay much attention then.

One thing I noticed this time was the palimpsest nature of the record – the photograph below shows a letter from Ted, the note that his mother Gertrude wrote on the envelope, the note that my mother wrote on another envelope and the folder the IWM stores them all in. And now I am publishing the letters online adding another layer to the record.

Ted, Gertrude and Felicite

Ted, Gertrude and Felicite

We found so many things that I am still absorbing it all. I am angered by the cruelty of the telegram that came on two sheets of paper the first one of which read:

Regret to inform you that your son Captain E.R.P Berryman 39 Garhwal Rifles officially reported admitted to no 3 London General Hospital Wandsworth common 10th May suffering from

Telegram - page 1

Telegram – page 1

But I was charmed by many of the letterheads such as this YMCA one saying “for God, for King, for Country”

Y M C A - for God, For King, For Country

Y M C A – for God, For King, For Country

I am endlessly grateful to the anonymous transcribers in the 1980s who typed the letters. without them, and without Chris, this project would be impossible.

It was too much to absorb at once, and in fact too much to photograph. (We found photographs, maps and postcards, cartoons, letterheads, news clippings: far too much for the time we had there). So I need to go back. This is frustrating because I live at the other end of the country. But at least I have a better idea what is there and what I want from the collection for the website.

The Imperial War Museum posted a request for haiku this weekend, and this was my response:

Grandfather’s letters
from trenches, ships and deserts
safe for the future

IWM Haiku

IWM Haiku


Posted by on 31 March, '14 in About, Imperial War Museum, WWI


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Facing up to Facebook

I’ve started down the Facebook Rabbit Hole this week, and have purchased $30 of advertising to people in the UK interested in History, WW1, the Indian Army and the Christmas Truce and also to the friends and family of people who’ve liked the page.  Hopefully it won’t be too intrusive, but just intrusive enough.

This is the first time I’ve bought advertising on Facebook, despite being actively involved in social and campaigning groups using Facebook for a while.  It’s not the first time I’ve tried to buy advertising, but it’s the first time I’ve sat down and worked the grim process through to the bitter end. Blimey, but it’s complex.  All part of their cunning plan, I suspect.

On the subject of Facebook, old school ties and old boys’ networks, I also need to get in touch with other groups that might be interested, the schools they were at, since the Public Schools were such a major part of WW1 (Jim was even in the Public Schools Battalion for a while).  Also, the relevant regimental and naval organisations.  As an individual, I can’t hook up with the Imperial War Museum, which is annoying, I would like to benefit from their click-love.

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Posted by on 2 January, '14 in About, Imperial War Museum, WWI


About this project: Email vs Letters

I want each of the letters to show under the name of the person who wrote it, so all Ted’s letters will have “Ted Berryman” as their author, and so on.  This has been a minor scutter to set up. To do this, I must set each of them up an author on the website, which means they each need their own email address.

I’ve been creating email accounts for dead relatives.

This felt decidedly odd, especially when I realised I want to quote from my mother’s book directly. I simply cannot bring myself to create an email using her name (she died in 2001).

It’s been awkward in practice too. Google’s Google Apps service seemed a straightforward way to manage the email addresses, but it turns out that Google discontinued the free service without warning on the 6th December, a week before I opened the trial account on the 13th.  At least it was a clear week, and not a day before. If I continued with the service, these changed goalposts would cost me a couple of hundred quid I didn’t plan to spend, all for no real benefit.

In the end, I set up email addresses with the company that hosts the website. The downside is it will be harder to move the site if I need to, but at least there’s no additional cost.

It’s bizarre though; so often in the letters Ted, Ben, Richard and Paul write about problems with sending and receiving mail.  They all write their letters in time to catch the weekly mail service to England, Paul takes his letters to neighbouring ships for posting and a lot of them get lost as a result. All the siblings make sure their mother has a reliable address to write to, so her letters will wait safely until they can be picked up. They often mention mail that’s gone missing (gone down with ships sunk by the Germans in some cases). I guess it’s no surprise that letters should be about letters.

Email is more reliable and it’s certainly quicker (less than a second compared with a couple of months).  But in other respects it’s far more fragile.  I’m just about to blast the emails in the Google Apps account into their constituent ones and zeros.  I am entirely dependent on my mail host doing back-ups and not going bankrupt.  But the letters themselves are 100 years old; they are physical letters sitting in boxes in the Imperial War Museum, they have stamps and postmarks, some are marked with scribbled notes about their contents (“letters from my shipwrecked sons”) others are written in pencil and smeared with mud from the trenches.  They’ve come from India, from Iraq, from France, they were stored in the tin box for more than 50 years, and they sat for months on my mother’s dining room table in the 1980s.

There’s a poem in there somewhere.  Maybe I’ll write it when I need a change from setting up dummy email accounts in the names of people who no longer exist.


Posted by on 13 January, '13 in About, Imperial War Museum


About this project: typing letters and cleaning images

Ted’s letter of the 30th September 1914 is 1250 words, 1100 of them in a single paragraph.  He writes mainly about the voyage from Karachi (then in India) to… well, he’s not sure where.  He’s on one ship in a convoy taking troops from India to the theatre of war in Europe, and his sister Ben is in another ship on her way home to England.  Ben had been living in India with Ted as part of what was called “the fishing fleet”, the middle and upper class women who went out to the colonies to catch husbands.  (Their working class sisters were called “camp followers”).

Ted spends most of the letter talking about the journey, but part way through he commissions his mother to buy him a field lantern.  The typescript includes a photocopy of the sketch in the letter, presumably made in the 1970s. 

Typescript showing photocopy of illustration

Typescript showing photocopy of illustration

I am delighted the illustrations are included in what I’ve been sent, but the question is what to do with them. Do I include them in the blog in this rather messy format, or do I clean up the palimpsest that’s showing through from the other side of the paper (an artefact of the photocopying). With this one, I have cleaned it up.

Field lantern with talc sidesIt’s a rather charming image for Christmas, now that I look at it.  I hope to get in touch with the IWM and ask for permission to see and photograph the line drawings in the letters and to include some pictures of the manuscripts in the website. 

In the meantime, this will have to do.

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Posted by on 22 December, '12 in About, Imperial War Museum, WWI


About this project: Picking it up again a year on

This has been nagging away at me all through 2012 which has been an unfortunately busy year.  But I cannot escape it any more. I keep reminding myself that once I’ve got the photographs up on the pages, “all” I need to do is post the letters and schedule them for publication.

At the moment I plan to take the scanned copies of the 1970s typescripts, run them through the OCR software and tidy up the resulting mess, and then copy and paste them here with their scheduled dates.

However, that turns out to be pretty daunting. Here is what the pdfs look like:

Sample PDF

Sample PDF

And here is what the resultant .txt file looks like:

Sample txt file

Sample txt file

There are 1004 pages of typescript all together and as you can see the OCR software doesn’t cope with the strange 70s type-face. Having counted the pages, I wonder if it would be quicker to copy type than to clean up the OCRs. I feel the need for a spreadsheet and a schedule coming on. I do have over eighteen months, after all.

(And my, but doesn’t it sound like something out of the Boys’ Own Paper?)

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Posted by on 14 December, '12 in About, Imperial War Museum


About this project: I’ve received the letters

I got the CD in the post from the Imperial War Museum on Wednesday, and spent a chunk of time copying the files onto my hard drive, my external hard drive, another CD and another CD.  These are precious data.  I’ve also posted a copy to my brother and my cousin.

They are fascinating, of course.  I feel rather odd reading them though; these are my relatives, but they are also strangers and foreign: the past is another country, and all that.

The next task is to convert them from PDFs to text files and after some searching I’ve downloaded ABBYY pdf transformer, and it’s not doing a bad job, though they do need some tidying up.


About this project

My grandfather was one of 5 brothers who fought in different theatres of the First World War: Richard was a doctor serving in the Indian Army Medical Corps, Jim served in the Far East and France, Ted was in France and Mesopotamia (Iraq), Paul was in the Navy, and (Chris)Topher was on the Western Front.

The Berryman Brothers

Standing: Paul and Jim
Seated: Richard, Gertrude, Ted
On Ground: (Chris)Topher

They all wrote home and my mother inherited 650 letters written by Dick,Ted and Paul. In the 1980s she donated them to the Imperial War Museum who typed them up. She then selected some for a book she called Socks, Cigarettes and Shipwrecks because of the disconcerting way the letters veer from the dramatic to the homely and back again. The dramas include first-hand accounts of famous events: Ted witnessed the Christmas Truce, Paul was at Jutland, the shipwrecks were the the SS Persia and the SS Tyndareus.

I want you to experience the letters as my great-grandmother did – spread across four years. This website makes it simple to receive each one by email or read them here exactly 100 years later by getting updates by RSS or Twitter. This is a unique way for our generation to witness the First World War a century on, as the family’s story takes the full four years to unfold.

The site includes the words of the letters, photographs of many of the originals, and family photos and other memorabilia. I must give my grateful thanks to the Imperial War Museum for the transcripts. Many thanks too, to Chris Miller who re-transcribed the letters for me. Without him, this site would not exist. I must also thank the researchers who’ve contacted me since I put up the site with additional information about Jim, Wiggs and Ted.

I’ve become a passionate advocate for the 1.4 million men from pre-partion India who fought for Britain during the First World War, some in tropical kit in the cold winter of 1914/1915 in France, and later on in Egypt and Iraq. Their contribution is rarely acknowledged despite the fact that they were 1 in 6 of the men who fought for Britain. And, for different reasons, their bravery is not often remembered in their homelands. There is more information about those men here.

If you book speakers, I have a one hour talk that includes readings from the letters. Contact me about the talk.