Courage on home front remembered in first world war centenary events

Imperial War Museum in London to host what promises to be the largest retrospective of British art of the war

Courage away from the notorious first world war front lines is to be commemorated alongside battlefield images and accounts during a four-year cultural programme of events to mark the conflict's centenary.

Stories of lifeboat crews rescuing survivors from storm-lashed seas, and of Quakers risking ostracism, mockery and prison for their faith-based opposition to fighting, feature alongside what promises to be the largest retrospective of British art of the war opening at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London next summer.

Works by Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis will be among paintings, sculptures and drawings in a show assessing the immediate shock of the war and its enduring legacy.

The RNLI's touring exhibition, starting in February in Cromer, Norfolk, includes the story of an October 1914 rescue in which nearly 150 people were saved by six lifeboat crews and the people of Whitby over two days, though dozens of others died. The hospital ship Rohilla, which was carrying medical staff to Dunkirk to pick up casualties, had hit Whitby Rock, 600m offshore. Survivors included Mary Roberts, a nurse who had been on the Titanic's last voyage.

"The gale was terrible and after the ship had struck the submerged rocks all went into darkness. Only those who experienced it can realise the horror of it all," Sarah Waterworth, wife of Anthony, an ambulanceman, later wrote.

"[Anthony] had turned in fully clothed and before he could get out of the cabin he was waist-deep in water. He was lifted bodily up a flight of stairs by the gale and landed in [sic] the deck there to cling for hours. Eventually the lifeboat was carried over land a long way and put down to the sea and after many setbacks reached the vessel and brought a load of men to safety … amongst them … Anthony.

"The people of Whitby were really wonderful, every few steps the rescued men had to have a drink of something, coffee, brandy, tea etc … and blankets were brought to the shore and the men wrapped into them."

The Whitby coxswain Thomas Langlands, on the rowing boat lifeboat first to the wreck, was among three people awarded the RNLI's gold medal for gallantry, its equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Four silver medals, the Empire Gallantry Medal and the bronze medal of the RSPCA (the Rohilla's captain saved the ship's cat) were also awarded.

Elsewhere, Quakers plan an online project in which blogged accounts of four real young people living 100 years ago will run alongside those of a fictional present-day writer in the White Feather Diaries, a title reflecting the symbol of cowardice handed to those not volunteering to fight.

It will discuss too the effects of the 1916 Military Service Act, which introduced conscription but also, for the first time, enshrined the right to be a conscientious objector because of one's faith.

With documents, letters, diary entries and photographs from the period, Twitter and other social media will be used to compare historic attitudes with those towards current conflicts.

"We want people to understand choosing to be a pacifist is never easy in a culture of war. It is always a brave and difficult decision," said Jane Dawson, of Quakers in Britain. "Some people suffered, some were imprisoned and died there."

Though tribunals hearing the cases of those wishing to be recognised as conscientious objectors were "not necessarily as fair as they could be … we as British people should be incredibly proud [of establishing the right]. This is a fascinating part of our record as a liberal-minded country."

Some Quakers did fight and others served in the Friends Ambulance Unit, Dawson pointed out. "They lived in appalling conditions with no equipment and in the mud like everyone else. Everyone was ill-prepared."

The war artists' exhibition coincides with the London IWM's full reopening in July following a £40m revamp, but in February it launches Lives of the First World War, a digital memorial to more than 8 million people from across the Commonwealth.

"The first world war centenary really matters to a huge amount of people," said Diana Lees, director-general of the IWM. "It may be because of a personal connection, the effect the war had on their home town, how it changed our wider society or because of their beliefs about war and the importance of peace."

Tate Modern and the National Portrait Gallery in London, IWM North in Manchester, the National Museum, Cardiff, the Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds and the Bradford Peace Museum are among others planning first world war‑related projects.


James Meikle

The GuardianTramp

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