Five years ago, Harry Patch died. Aged 111, he had the distinction, briefly, of being the last man alive to have experienced life in the trenches. Today there are still centenarians for whom World War I is a personal memory. But soon there will be no one left who recalls the conflict at first-hand. As the WWI commemorations begin in earnest (the barrage will continue until the centenary of the armistice in 2018), there’s a concerted push to ensure that the causes, the impact and personal stories of the war are properly recorded and its artefacts safeguarded.
At the forefront of these efforts is the Imperial War Museum, which was established while WWI was still being fought. Its London flagship will reopen on Saturday after a six-month revamp that includes a IWM Imperial War Museum reopening Foster + Partners reconfiguration of the central atrium plus three new shops and a café opening on to the park. New First World War galleries draw on the voices of those who experienced the conflict to explore what happened on the front line, the home front and across the Empire.
Also launching on Saturday is ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’. A new display of letters, diaries, photos and keepsakes in the permanent collections will supply background and context for this major retrospective of British WWI art. And along with large-scale exhibits including a Sopwith Camel fighter plane and a Mark V tank, there’s a recreation of a WWI trench to explore.
For Harry Patch, conscripted at 18, the mud and noise, the rats and lice, the sleeplessness, boredom and fear of the trenches were not optional. Though he survived it when so many didn’t, the experience was something he kept buried for most of his life. He didn’t mention the war until he was 100.
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By Sara O’Reilly