People Power: Fighting for Peace @ The Imperial War Museum 

Fighting for Peace is somewhat of an oxymoron, and today it is seen all too often as the justification for Britain going to war. It is east to forget that the routes of the expression date back to WWI and the conscientious objectors.

People Power: Fighting for Peace is the first exhibition of its kind, you’re taken on a journey through the anti-war movements from WWI to present. Today we live in a world constantly on the brink of war, between North Korea, Trump and Russia the prospect of a hot nuclear war draws ever closer. In light of this the exhibition elicits a more emotive response response than I was expecting!

2017-06-08-17.09.54.jpg.jpegIn 1916, for the first time in the history of the British Army, conscription was introduced. It would last until 1920, and called all men aged 16-41 to join up and fight during the First World War.

Those excluded from conscription included those doing “vital work” on the home front, those with medical conditions or for the sake of their home life. A Military Service Tribunal would determine who got sent to war, and who was saved. There were 16,000 conscientious objectors during the first world war, generally hailing from Quaker families. The Quakers first set up the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in 1914 at the out break of war. Referred to unkindly as “conchies” by other soldiers, they often performed vital work under the new Non-Combatant Corps. William Coltman, a conscientious objector who worked as a stretcher bearer during the war was awarded the Victoria Cross, as well as a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, Military Medal and Bar, and Mentioned in Dispatches, all without firing a single shot.

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CRW Nevinson The Doctor (1916)

The exhibition also looks at the art of war. One of my favourite artists, CRW Nevinson, features heavily throughout the exhibition, including some of his famous works such as Paths of Glory and The Doctor (pictured right). Works by Paul Nash, and handwritten poems by Siegfried Sassoon are also featured.

By the Second World War, pacifism was becoming a recognised movement. When in 1939 the National Services Act was passed around 60,000 conscientious objectors protested. I was surprised to discover Paul Eddington, best known for his roles in The Good Life and Yes Minister was among their number. He hailed from a Quaker family, and spent his war working for with Entertainment National Service Agency, starting his acting career. As with WWI the conscientious objectors were demonised by their fighting comrades. In one of the audio archives in the exhibition, a CO recalls a soldier yelling to others to “throw him into the river” as they were lead past under arrest.

One of the notable pacifists explored by the exhibition is John Bridey, who was a member of RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves). A physics teacher by trade, he refused to fight, but spent his war using his knowledge of physics to diffuse bombs, constantly putting his life on the line to save others.

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The longest, and most moving section of the exhibition focuses on the Cold War, and the Ban the Bomb protests. Seamlessly flowing from the attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki which occurred on the 6/9 August 1945 you’re taken into the 1960s. On the wall is states the death toll of the stated nuclear bombs. 215,000 died instantly, a further 155,000 were injured, not to mention those who died later from radiation poisoning. The number is staggeringly vast, the cruelty incomprehensible. It is so easy to forget the scale of this event, very few people alive remember the moment as it happened, and yet if this was to be repeated today the scale and destruction would be considerably worse. The size of nuclear weapons possessed by so many today could wipe out the whole earth 4 times over.

Fighting for Freedom includes many multimedia components, including a soundscape of audiobytes from protests, recorded accounts from various conscientious objectors from each conflict. My favourite multimedia section was the one within the Cold War area. Having visited the York Cold War Bunker (click here to read the blog) it was fascinating to see it from another point of view. The public service video sent out in 1965 to advise British citizens how to build a nuclear shelter/bunker in their home or garden, which is counterposed with the 1965 film The War Game by Ian Dury, which explores the world if the war had gone hot. It is a stark reminder of what could easily come to pass today!

The final room explores protest art, the posters, banners and photographic art produced including video of artist David Gentleman.

Overall the exhibition is incredibly well curated! It took me just over an hour to complete, only listening to half the audio recordings and only watching a section of the final documentary! I went early afternoon on a weekday, and the exhibition was very quiet, although I expect it’s busier on weekend! A very stimulating, emotive, very reasonably priced exhibition!

N.B. Once you’ve finished the exhibition check out the Syria and Afghanistan exhibition on the same floor! They go very well with Fighting for Peace, and only take an extra 40mins-1hr to do both!

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