Should we always remember the First World War? Simon Donohue visited a new Imperial War Museum North exhibition posing that controversial question.

Is one hundred years long enough for us to have commemorated an event that shook the world and cost millions of lives, many of them young men and women from right here in Greater Manchester? It is now time for society to forgive, forget and move on?

That’s the controversial question posed by Lest We Forget?, a thought-provoking new exhibition at Imperial War Museum North, marking the centenary of the First World War and running until 24 February 2019.

It begins with a video containing interviews conducted on the streets of contemporary Greater Manchester, in which people are asked: “Should we always remember the First World War?”, and concludes with an opportunity for visitors to cast their own vote on the subject.

What lies between might help visitors to decide. Whatever their verdict, Lest We Forget? won’t fail to move them.

Visit Manchester was part of an excellent preview tour led by the museum’s Senior Curator Laura Clouting, who explained that the purpose of the exhibition is to examine the extraordinary ways in which ordinary people responded to extraordinary loss a century ago.

It’s a story of personal remembrance but also politics and place, she said.

Clouting said that the loss of life between 1914 and 1918 was unprecedented and unfathomable, then made all the crueller by a Government decision that the remains of those who died in the Great War would not be brought home

Split into five sections, Lest We Forget? begins with the horrific blood and guts of war.

Clouting told us how the blunt force of artillery bombardments vaporised the bodies of some of the brave. Often, there were no remains. The shattered bodies of those who could be retrieved were buried on foreign soil in a manner dictated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

A single anonymous soldier, interred in London and known as The Unknown Warrior, came to represent the millions who would never return home.

Passing into the second section of the exhibition, Clouting explained how the decision not to bring home Britain’s war dead led to their repatriated belongings becoming sacred relics for loved ones with no local graves to tend.

There are spectacles, cigarette cases, apologetic letters home revealing that sons would not be returning.

Seances and Ouija boards became more commonplace, some of the earliest known memorial tattoos were inked, intensely personal mantelpiece memorials were created.

Section three deals with more formal community attempts to acknowledge and commemorate their war dead. It examines community remembrance and the way that local clubs and organisations marked the passing of their fallen, leading to the unique plaques and memorial stones we still see today.

Section four is a rare chance to see striking works of war art by Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis and John Singer Sargent, whose graphic painting, Gassed, has returned home from its two-year international tour for the exhibition. It’s well worth a visit to see these paintings alone.

Wyndham Lewis’s work was particularly controversial, Clouting explained, portraying soldiers as twisted metal parts of the machinery of war.

Commissioned by the state, the pictures on display were intended for a First World War memorial gallery – the Hall of Remembrance – which was never built, for reasons the exhibition reveals.

The final part of the exhibition brings ‘remembrance’ up to date, showing how perceptions of the First World War, and its human cost, have become so familiar to us through popular culture, with poppies appearing on football shirts, war poets, and even the comedy of Blackadder.

Illustrating that point, the exhibition concludes with an opportunity to see Joey, mechanical star of the stage production of War Horse, perhaps the most vivid reminder of the First World War in recent times.

Then it’s time to cast your vote.

Lest We Forget? Pay a visit and decide for yourself.

Lest We Forget? Imperial War Museum North until 24 February 2019. Free. Opening Hours: 10am – 5pm every day, last admission 4.30pm.




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