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.


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.


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!


Communist Sofia ~ A Concrete Jungle 

20161204_124647.jpgArriving in Sofia, it is immediately recognisable as a city with a communist past. Concrete flat blocks rise up before you, and every street boasts Stalinist architecture all along its length. Walking through Sofia however, there are no statues of Lenin, or red stars visible, having been ripped down in 1990 when the Communist state fell.

Having decided to take a 4 hour walking tour exploring the Communist history of the city it was clear that even today opinions vary hugely across the population.

Bulgaria’s military history during the Second World War is a fascinating one, with their allegiance changing multiple times over the course of the war, including a period when they were technically at war with every other fighting country in Europe. By the end of the war they had sided with the Red Army. Thus began their communist era.

Championed by Georgi Dimitrov, The Bulgarian Communist Party took power in 1946. Bulgaria then became known as People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a title which would remain until 1990. Before the war Bulgaria, had been known as the Kingdom of Bulgaria. Their rise to power was preceded by a bloody assault on the monarchy. On 1st February 1945 the Regent Prince Kiril, along with hundred of officials who had been prominent in pre-communist Bulgaria, including an ex Prime Minister were accused of war crimes, and around a quarter were subsequently executed 4 months later.



Busts of the Communist leaders of Bulgaria and Karl Marx

During its early years The Bulgarian Communist Party began to outlaw religions. Whilst not explicitly legislating against citizens rights to practice religions they used scare tactics. Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and Temples were hidden away by new buildings, purposefully built around them to mask the existence of sacred buildings. Members of the police, or uniformed members of the party would hover outside said buildings at the times of services, observing those attending religious ceremonies, never acting with hostile intentions, but instead scaring members of the congregation until few people attended organised religious services. The paranoia still exists today; when we visited The Church of St George (a beautiful redbrick rotunda) I took a photo of the exterior and a lady going to a service asked to check my photo to ensure her face wasn’t in the picture.


Painting of Lenin (Nikola Mirchev)

When Dimitrov passed away in 1949 Vulko Chervenkov suceeded him as leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, whilst not popular within Bulgaria, his main supporter, Stalin had enough influence to allow him to maintain his position for 6 years. After Stalin’s death in 1953 Chervenkov only survived a year before he was replaced by Todor Zhivkov. He stayed on as Prime Minister for another 2 years before Anton Yugov took that position from him too.

Todor Zhivkov had a notably long stay as head of the Bulgarian Communist Party, leading it for 33 years, and in 1962 he also took up the position of Prime Minister, he monopolised control of Bulgaria. One of the biggest controversies of his rule came in the form of the infamous murder of Georgi Markov, a previous friend of Zhivkov, who had been exiled to London following publication of anti-communist works. Markov was murdered in London after a member of the KGB used an umbrella to stab him with a ricin infused pellet on Zhivkov’s birthday in September 1978.

img_20161204_111607.jpgThe Communist government of the Bulgarian people was based near Serdika (now a fantastic site to find Roman ruins) and the party headquarters were adorned with the large red star seen below. This was rumoured to have been made of rubies, however when it was torn down at the end of the Communist era it was found to only be coloured glass. Originally the 12ft statue of Lenin was erected far across the Piazza surveying his Communist Head Quarters, now however this has been replaced by a statue of Saint Sofia. Both the star and the statue can be found at the Museum of Socialist Art which is a little way out of the city center but definitely worth a visit!

By January 15th 1990 the Communist Party was officially no more. It was the end of an era of governing that had cost between 50,000-100,000 lives. Zhivkov’s daughter, Lyudmila Zhivkova, had been responsible for the start of social liberalization in the country and was a force for cultural freedom until her suspicious death in 1981. By Mikhail Gorbachev’s election as President of the Supreme Soviet Union in 1985, the USSR and the Communist movement were losing momentum. In June 1990 Bulgaria held its first multi-party elections in 51 years, The Republic of Bulgaria was born, and the Bulgarian flag no longer included the Communist emblem. The Communist reign in Bulgaria was over.

Pretending to be Lenin

York Cold War Bunker; Observers Underground

On a cold drizzly Sunday afternoon in York, when we’d exhausted all the coffee shops, and seen all the ‘must see’ tourist attractions we decided to check out an English Heritage site, just outside York. It definitely should have been higher on our priority list!!

Hidden away, surrounded by blocks of flats lies the entrance to the York Cold War Bunker,  only visitable by guided tour. As luck had it the next tour was in 5 minutes. Our tour guide, Anna, was clearly incredibly passionate about the Cold War, and her enthusiasm was infectious! We were the only two people on the tour, and she gave us plenty of scope and opportunity to ask questions as we went round.

This Cold War Bunker was the operational HQ for the Yorkshire division of the Royal  Observer Corps (ROC), a civilian branch of the RAF. Originally formed during WWII to identify enemy planes, the group was stood down at the end of the war, before being reformed during the Cold War to take readings of any nuclear bombs that fell. From the base they could take readings of radiation levels, try and identify where the bomb fell, and what size it was.

1st step on the tour was to watch a short video highlighting some of the history of the Cold War, and the provisions the British Government had in the eventuality the war went nuclear. Having visited a couple of Cold War bunkers in Berlin earlier this year, the difference was stark. The German Government made civilian bunkers, and promised the people they all had a place to go. In fact their bunkers could only hold about 1% of the population, and some took a week to be prepared and made operational. The British Government had a different idea. They showed people how to make their own bunkers at home, to stock with them with food, paint windows white and reinforce them with sandbags. With the ever increasing strength of nuclear bombs being developed these ‘bunkers’ or safe rooms would have been just as futile.

The York Cold War bunker could keep 60 people alive for up to 30 days. Over the course of the 30 days all the inhabitants would work in 3 groups of 20 on an 8 hour rota. 20 people would be working in the operations rooms, 20 people would be in the canteen relaxing, and 20 people would be sleeping in the dorms on a delightful ‘hot bed’ system. When 30 days was over they would all have to leave the bunker and go into what was left of the world above them.

20161113_151811.jpgThankfully the bunker was never needed during the war, although the ROS often ran 48 hour training weekends. So many volunteers couldn’t stand the sleeping conditions even for this fraction of time, and went without sleep, instead of braving the bunk-beds. The photo left shows some of the personal effects of an ROS member on one of the thin beds. No reminders of home, family or friends were permitted in the bunker, as the government feared it would cause psychological damage, not knowing whether friends or family were alive.

20161113_150942.jpgThose posted in the operations room would have a busy 8 hours ahead. They had to collate all the data gathered from other ROC groups around Yorkshire, and combine it with their own data. The equipment pictured right was used by all branches of the ROC. The long cylindrical piece of equipment hanging from the ceiling was a form of gieger counter which would measure radiation levels below ground.

The white cylindrical box was installed on the roof of the bunker, and was used to identify the location of the bomb. Holes had been drilled into the metal container, which housed photosensitive paper.

When a bomb dropped, the initial brilliant flash of light 20161113_150851.jpgwould be registered by a dark dot forming on the gridded paper. The data from all the boxes across Yorkshire would be collated, and using a technique similar to triangulation, the location could be estimated using a map (pictured below). In order to collect the paper from the box , a member of the corps would have to venture outside the safety of the bunker. To ‘protect’ him from the deadly radiation the Government issued a cotton boiler suit, more as a psychological protection than a physical one.

20161113_151736.jpgAs the war progressed more sophisticated technology was developed in computing. A.W.D.R.E.Y. (right) essentially did the same job as the volunteers in terms of locating a bomb’s epicentre. She did have a couple of flaws, including thinking every episode of lightening, or firework was a nuclear bomb. For this reason volunteers continued to perform manual analysis of the data.


Volunteers would collect information from other branches. Sitting in rows like this they would write all incoming data onto the screens, which could be flipped around, so those working below could analyse the information.

20161113_151058.jpgThose working in the room below would work to collate information and locations of bombs over a wider area. Working on huge maps of the North of the UK they would also communicate their findings to other branches and the government.

Cold War bunkers can be either bomb proof, or blast proof. Bomb proof shelters can withstand bombs falling directly onto them, or in the area closely surrounding them. Blast proof shelters can only withstand ‘near-misses’. Having been designed in 1955, before the mass up-scaling of nuclear bomb strength, the York bunker could only survive a ‘near-miss’ 8 miles away, from a small bomb. If anything fell closer the shelter would have been flattened, or incinerated.

20161113_155238.jpgIn the wake of recent political events (damn you Trump) the likelihood of a hot war seems to be ever increasing. Unfortunately this bunker would provide very little protection in the event of a nuclear bomb falling on Britain. The increasing payload of modern nuclear bombs makes survival chance much smaller, and if the bunker wasn’t flattened the vital equipment needed to sustain life has probably been decommissioned now. The air-conditioning unit contains materials now banned by the EU, batteries no longer work, and air filtration systems have never been tested. If the government does find itself in a situation where nuclear bunkers become necessary, chances are they’ll just make new ones. That seems to be the 21st century way!

When English Heritage decided to save York Cold War Bunker, they found it in a state of disrepair. The sewage outflow pump had been turned off, and so was no longer pushing water out. Without the positive pressure, water started flowing back in, leaving the bunker flooded, and the task of restoring it that much harder.

Just over a decade ago the bunker opened its doors to the public. Over the past ten years many members of the ROC stationed there have returned and shared their memories of the bunker. Many found love there, some found new extra-marital love there, and one volunteer even went into labour!

The bunker is open by guided tour to the public every weekend, and can be visited during the week for schools or groups. Entry is free for English Heritage members and costs £7.00/£6.30 for adults or £4.20 for children. The price includes an hour long tour, and there are 6 tours a day.

This was one of the best English Heritage sites I’ve visited so far, and I’d highly recommend it! Our tour guide, Anna, brought the whole place to life and was clearly incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about both the bunker and the Cold War, she really made the trip! Thank you Anna!!