Renewal: Life After the First World War in Photographs at IWM London
Kyle Hoekstra explores the aspirations and challenges of a world emerging from the “war to end all wars” through the IWM’s photography archives
Renewal is one of several exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum in London this winter engaging with the legacy of the First World War. Like the captivating Mimesis: African Soldier a few rooms over, Renewal: Life After the First World War in Photographs offers a global collage of experiences of the war. Through select objects and over 130 photographs, it emphasizes the lasting impact of the war on both individuals and societies.
By the end of 1918, the war in western Europe had turned into a humanitarian one waged against the privation, hunger and suffering that followed the conflict. The sorrow of refugees returning home registers in a 1918 photograph of a French family looking upon devastated Amiens, while the ruins of Ypres’ Cloth Hall symbolize the difficulties of re-establishing civil order and prosperity.
Ypres’ transforming landscape was captured in the photographs of Louise Briggs, which she delivered in lantern lectures. A discreet reproduction of the slides plays in one of the galleries to the sound of construction work, revealing the toil of rebuilding urban life. But as civil society regrouped, tensions emerged between town planners, for whom the ruins were quarries of much-needed building material, and those who wanted to protect them. The spoliation of souvenirs, including by British tourists, prompted locals to place a sign in English proclaiming: “It is a heritage for all civilised people.”
While Ypres was rebuilt, Ornes and Fleury near Verdun are among the “villages that died for France,” memorials whose landscapes are pictured upturned and scorched, freckled by isolated structures.
As urban society was rebuilt, so were individuals. Improved treatments like artificial limbs and facial masks helped restore the confidence of injured soldiers, photographs of whom trace their psychological and physical rehabilitation.
But for many who fought, the process of resuming normal lives was not easy. German prisoners of war blamed for the destruction of Saint-Quentin’s basilica were forced to work in the rubble until up to 1920. They were among the eight million prisoners of war who faced a disorganised repatriation process and often suffered terribly from malnutrition and disease. Near the end of the war, Germany released prisoners without adequate preparations: a soldier’s mud-worn clogs on exhibition testify to the kindness of a sympathetic Belgian.
Having returned home, a major obstacle facing soldiers was the lack of secure work. Among the three million British personnel who had returned by November 1919 are those pictured relieving their rifles in Cologne before boarding a ship. Accompanying this photograph are the demobilisation papers of a Sergeant William Anderson, which documents his good fortune being employed as a bank clerk.
In the West Indies, political unrest followed lacklustre job offerings, and decisions to move sugar manufacturing away from the colonies, while in Britain a mood of betrayal facilitated the growth of protest and labour movements. The National Federation of Women Workers complained of stricter benefit schemes for women, while a reproachful Labour Party election poster asks: “what did you get in the Great War?”
Attempts to alleviate housing problems in Britain led to the 1919 Housing Act, which ordered local authorities to develop “homes fit for heroes”. Planning diagrams and photographs of the Becontree Estate illustrate walls plotting London County Council’s ambitious plan to provide 24,000 houses for 100,000 people.
While societies grappled with peace and disarmament, a British poster from 1919 promising an exotic lifestyle in exchange for soldiering in the empire signals how the end of the war and its settlement also meant the eruption of new conflicts, and the revival of old ones. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the overthrow of the Russian Tsar, ensured conflict continued across great swathes of territory. For Britain, this meant the reassertion of its power globally, from Ireland to India.
As battle raged at Verdun in April 1916, the German Chancellor informed the Reichstag that: “After such dramatic events history knows no status quo.” These remarkable photographs catalogue this changing world for whom the war’s violence had been transformative. Ranging widely, Renewal is sometimes thin on context and connective tissue, but its broad evocation of the war’s aftermath means it forms an enlightening component of Making a New World.
Renewal: Life After the First World War in Photographs is part of Making a New World at the Imperial War Museum in London. It runs until 31 March 2019. Visit here for more information.