Dan Snow and ‘The African Queen’

By Judith Phillips

I know they don’t seem likely companions but I found them both recently in the Radio Times.  You might be forgiven for thinking that I do nothing but watch TV when I’m not at work, especially as I’ve just written about YouTube, but it’s more about suddenly seeing the wealth of material with a connection to the First World War that is available.

I’m sure that many of you will already know about Dan Snow’s short programmes about the First World War on Radio 4.  If you’ve missed them, you can get them on BBC iplayer.  The programmes use the voices of people who were there – who were taking part in the war at all sorts of levels and in so many theatres of war – who were recorded in the 1960s for the BBC TV series ‘The Great War’.  I am sure there must be many of us for whom this series was our first introduction to the war – I can remember the impact of the film and newsreel shown.  I was a young teenager then but it was the first time it dawned on me that men and women of my grandparents’ ages had been through a war that seemed such a long time ago to me then. 

I was flicking through the Radio times that covers the Christmas and New Year period and saw that ‘The African Queen’ is being shown (again) on channel 5 on 30th December.  I’m sorry I will miss it as I’d look forward to seeing it in a new light.  I hadn’t really thought of it as First World War film and I suspect I’m not in a minority!  Actually, the war context is quite obvious, providing the essential background to the story.  I have to confess I’ve never read the book by C.S. Forester on which the film is based but the theme fits in with some of the reading recommended at our monthly WWI bookgroup (see the report from August 2017) and I’d also mention William Boyd’s novel ‘An Ice-Cream War’ which covers the run-up to the war as well as the war period in German and British East Africa.    

We often overlook the fighting that went on in Africa where German colonies were often next to or close to colonies run by the Allied powers.  Do you know of any Teesdale men involved in the fighting there?  Or perhaps a Teesdale woman working as a missionary (like Katherine Hepburn) or as a nurse?  We’d love to hear from you: libraryandarchives@thebowesmuseum.org.uk.

The serendipity of YouTube

By Judith Phillips

As I’m sure many of you know already, you can find some fascinating items on YouTube.  It’s a bit ‘hit and miss’ – well, it is for me, as I’m not that good on using modern technology.  But I recommend this one.

If you search for the Ottoman Empire, you should come across a short series – about four episodes – called ‘The demise of a major power – the Ottoman Empire’.  It’s a German production by deutsche Welle but it’s subtitled where necessary.  Two of the experts speak in English – Mark Mazower and Eugene Rogan.  I found it fascinating and one of the best explanations of the Balkan situation in the run-up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914.

The programmes also covered the problems the Ottoman Empire was having in other areas as well as the difficulties in balancing demands for reform with an autocratic system.  We tend to know about Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia and perhaps the campaign in Palestine but we don’t hear much about the involvement of the Allies in the Balkans or in Mesopotamia.  We’d love to hear of any Teesdale people caught up in these theatres of war.  We’ve identified only a very few.

The end of the war and the peace negotiations saw the end of the Ottoman Empire and the reduction of Turkey to a much smaller area under the new leadership of Kemal Attaturk.  The creation of new countries and kingdoms and of French and British mandates in the Middle East took little notice of what the populations might have wanted.  The new boundaries were drawn up sometimes rather arbitrarily.  The political and religious divisions in the area including Turkey led to one of the greatest mass migration of refugees and terrible slaughter of civilian populations – ethnic cleansing – which had started during the war and continued into the post-war period.

It brought together so many pieces of history I already knew, put them into context and then added some more.  It makes for sad viewing but I found it compelling.

If you have any particular TV programmes or films or books about the First World War that you’d like to share, please let us know. 

Christmas and New Year break

Unlike men and women in 1917 in the armed services or on war work, in families and communities waiting anxiously for information about their loved ones, perhaps struggling to keep a farm or business going with fewer people to help, I know that Christmas 1917 was the last one before the Armistice.  How difficult it must have been for many people to find anything to celebrate that Christmas and how much they must have hoped that the new year would bring better things.

As I am sure we will all be busy for the next few weeks, we are taking a break over Christmas and the New Year holiday period.  This is the last newsletter for 2017 and we’ll be back in mid-January.  If you’d like to send a story, a book or film recommendation, or a notice about a WWI-related event to go into a future newsletter, please email it to libraryandarchives@thebowesmuseum.org.uk.

On behalf of all the staff at the museum who are involved in some way with the project and of the Volunteers’ Committee, I hope you all have an enjoyable Christmas and I wish you all the best for 2018.



Thanks to everyone who has agreed (or, at least, hasn’t declined) to taking part in the evaluation process.  A significant criterion for any HLF-funded project is evaluation.  We are expected to evaluate all aspects of the work associated with the project and HLF also appoints an external evaluator to consider the project while it is in progress.  For this project Sheffield Hallam University is the designated evaluator.

Emma Smith at Sheffield Hallam University has asked for contact information so that she can evaluate the impact of the project on participants.  By ‘participants’ she means volunteers in any aspect of the project and also people who attend events and/or receive any training for or through the project.  Most recently she asked for this information covering the period April-October 2017.  We had the information but we didn’t necessarily have permission to hand it on.

Those of you who have attended any of the talks or events in that time will realise that earlier on we hadn’t specifically asked permission for email addresses to be passed to anyone else.  For the September talk, we did include a column on the record sheet of people attending to indicate if email addresses could be forwarded for evaluation purposes.  I have also emailed everyone we could identify from the earlier record sheets giving a deadline for withholding permission.  I have now sent Emma a list of email addresses and you may be hearing from her.

We have now amended the record sheets to ensure in future it will be easier for people attending events and talks to give or withhold permission.

And don’t forget the internal feedback forms we have for talks and events.  They are very useful to us in assessing and preparing the programmes of events and talks.  The forms are always read and we really appreciate your comments and suggestions, and we try to take them on board.

Food and flowers

By Judith Phillips

I’ve been somewhat remiss in writing about the events and talks in October and November, so here’s a report on two fascinating days that enthused everyone who took part and might well crop up again in the future…

In early October we tried something new.  Jan and Richard Crouch are food historians and, not only do they talk about food at home and in the trenches during the war, they cook too!  We had arranged the day as a ‘drop-in’ from 10.30 to 3.30 with Jan and Richard ‘on duty’ to answer questions, show examples of wartime food and encourage people to taste them, and with Richard giving a short illustrated talk at 11.00 and 2.30.  We soon realised that handing out small samples of Anzac biscuits and trench cake to museum visitors as they passed through the Entrance Hall was a great way to encourage them pop down to the Education vaults to find out more.  The event was a huge success, with over 100 people taking up the offer.

At the same time the Education team encouraged visitors to join them in creating wet-felt flowers in red (poppy), white (marguerites) and blue (cornflowers) to be added to a large canvas.  Most visitors (mainly adults) had never done wet-felting before and you could tell from the noise that everyone was having great fun.  One of the Education volunteers had painted a beautiful field as a background and vivid splashes of paint had been added to give an impression of a battle.  The wet-felt flowers will be added to the canvas and there’ll be more about this piece of community creative art in a later newsletter.

November was also a full-day.  Lee Karen Stow has had a career in documentary photography and she spent the morning running a photography workshop.  She used her own work and experience to demonstrate how photography close to home can be as rewarding as in far-flung places, how the bigger picture can develop from small beginnings and how to set about creating an exhibition.  Several workshop participants stayed on for the afternoon talk when Lee showed how she had developed her exhibition ‘Poppies: Women, War, Peace’.  Her work with women in West Africa who had been displaced and damaged by war in their own country had led her to consider the poppy – that now universal icon of remembrance and yet hope for the future.  American Moina Belle Michael was inspired by John MacCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders fields’ to make poppies for sale for veterans’ charities.  Frenchwoman Anna Guérin also saw the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for the millions lost during the war and she introduced the idea of the cloth poppy to Earl Haig.  As well as introducing us to her new exhibition ‘Torn’ which is currently on display in Hull, Lee wove the story of these women, the war-damaged women she had worked with and a series of beautifully-photographed poppies in a wide range of colours and at different stages of their lives into a fascinating illustrated talk.

Paul Nash and WWI

By Judith Phillips

In our last newsletter there was a piece about the Paul Nash exhibition on at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle.  So it was great to be emailed by someone who had gone to see it and thought it was ‘wonderful’.  I had seen the exhibition when it was in London but I went again last week.  Here are some of my thoughts.

I spent quite a lot of my visit looking very carefully at the First World War paintings.  At the Laing display you can get very close to the paintings and that meant I noticed things I’d not seen before.  ‘The Menin Road’ is one of Nash’s most iconic paintings – I’m sure we’ve all seen reproductions of it in books about the war or on TV documentaries.  But the original is spell-binding, I think.  It’s not the biggest painting of a war scene but it’s certainly one of the most compelling.  Nash’s landscape dwarfs the human figures who are almost only sketched outlines but, for the first time ever, I noticed what is probably a soldier’s corpse lying in a large pool of water at the front bottom edge of the painting.  You can only see the soldier’s coat and cap floating there – there’s no obvious face or hand on display – but somehow I was convinced this was a man who had been killed some time earlier and was now completely separate from the other human beings seen at a distance in the war-torn landscape.  I found it utterly compelling.

And yet, even the war paintings are not all gloomy.  ‘Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917’ depicts ravaged trees but some are showing signs of new growth – a theme we have also come across in some of the books recommended in the book group.  Personally I find some of his later work, particularly those in the surreal and abstract styles, more difficult to get to grips with but the exhibition labels do help to show the connections and developments in his paintings.

But don’t just take my word for it – try and see the exhibition while it’s still on at the Laing (until 14th January 2018).  And there’s a copy of the catalogue in the museum’s WWI reference library, so you can come in and use it when the Reading Room in the museum is open.