What's on: First World War centenary

Published 25 February 2014

2014 marks 100 years since the outbreak of the Great War. Here we take a look at how museums and galleries around the country are marking the centenary.

The First World War officially began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. During these four years, more than nine million people were killed in combat, while a further seven million were left permanently disabled and 15 million seriously injured. It remains the sixth deadliest conflict in world history.

The War also had a significant effect on the political and geographic structure of Europe, prompting revolutions in many of the nations involved, and leading to the disappearance of four empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian.

In this centenary year we take a look at how museums and galleries across the country are remembering the multifaceted legacy of the Great War.


National Portrait Gallery stages the first national exhibition commemorating the events of 1914, but rather than focusing on the military history of the War, it examines the key characters involved - from soldiers to national leaders, artists and poets, to workers on the home front (The Great War in Portraits, 27 Feb – 5 Jun, free to all). Meanwhile, Stanley Spencer's renowned mural series, produced entirely from memory, are displayed at Pallant House in Sussex while their permanent home is refurbished. Capturing his wartime experiences as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front, the scenes depict daily life rather than the violence of the battlefield - as he put it his 'heaven in a hell of war' (Stanley Spencer Heaven in a Hell of War, until 15 May, reduced price with National Art Pass).


In March, St Barbe Museum will explore the story of the thousands of horses which were put to use by the military during the First World War, with paintings by Lucy Kemp-Welch, Cecil Aldin, Lady Butler and Edwin Noble depicting their journey from peacetime occupations in rural England to active service on the Western Front (Home Lad Home: The War Horse Story, 1 Mar – 26 Apr, free with National Art Pass). Also taking a left-of-centre approach to the centenary are the 35 international artists who have contributed to Monument at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. A cross-cultural exchange between Norwich and Calais, it explores the very question of what constitutes a memorial (Monument: Aftermath of War and Conflict, 29 Mar - 27 Jul, free to all).

Waddesdon combines traditional and contemporary reflections on the War, with parallel exhibitions simultaneously on display. While Waddesdon at War brings together letters, archival records and memorabilia to reveal what life was like for the family and staff who lived at the manor during the First World War, Jan Dunning's Rascal Shadows takes visitors on a photographic treasure trail around the house, featuring surrealistic reimagined images of the evacuees who sought refuge there (both 26 Mar – 26 Oct, free with National Art Pass).


The North West was a major focus for recruitment during the war and many of its young men were called upon to fight. At IWM North, the team's researchers have uncovered previously unpublished accounts from local soldiers, sailors and pilots who fought in the military campaigns that defined the conflict, from Gallipoli in Turkey to the Somme in France and Ypres in Belgium. Also on display is a rare Albert Medal awarded to front line medic Sergeant Victor Brookes, manuscripts detailing war poet Wilfred Owen’s experiences and ephemera exploring the story of Altrincham's Chapel Street. Known as ‘the bravest little street in England’, 161 men from its 60 houses went to serve in the armed forces during the conflict (From Street to Trench: A World War that Shaped a Region, 5 Apr – 31 May, free to all).


Highlighting the British Library's work for Europeana Collections 1914-1918 - an international project to digitise more than 400,000 items from the years of the conflict - Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour brings together posters, poetry, art, books and pamphlets to examine how people coped with life during this period. Individual responses to the war are revealed in letters from Indian soldiers on the Western Front, schoolboys' descriptions of Zeppelin raids over London and the black humour expressed in trench journals (19 Jun – 12 Oct, free to all).

Similarly, the Bodleian Library will also display written material, including letters and diaries of politicians, soldiers and civilians, but here they are all in some way connected with Oxford University - from the alumni who served as junior officers in the trenches to the academics who engaged in fierce public debate about the war (The Great War: Personal Stories From Downing Street to the Trenches, 12 Jun ​– 2 Nov, free to all).


IWM London's grand reopening in July will reveal the brand new First World War galleries that are the star of its year-long refurbishment. Housing the most comprehensive collection of artefacts from the period, the galleries will journey from the home front to the front line in order to explore why the war started, why it continued and how its legacy still affects our lives today. Also, marking the centenary will be the largest exhibition and first major retrospective of British First World War art for almost 100 years, Truth and Memory (Summer 2014 – Mar 2015, 50% off with National Art Pass).

In Kent, The Historic Dockyard shows Valour, Loss & Sacrifice, which reveals what life was like on board Chatham Port Division Ships and explores the military campaigns they were involved in. There is also a chance to learn more about the work that went into supporting the Royal Navy at home in the dockyard (26 Jul – 30 Nov, free with National Art Pass).

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh concentrates its display on the war experiences of the Scottish diaspora living in nations of the Commonwealth during the First World War. While thousands of men enlisted in Scotland, thousands more Scots and people of Scottish descent joined up across the world. This exhibition will reveal how they emphasised, adapted, or in some cases downplayed, their Scottish identities within the armed forces of their home countries (Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War, 11 Jul – 12 Oct, 50% off with National Art Pass).

Meanwhile, Brighton Museum's War Stories will bring to life the experiences of 12 individuals - including soldiers on the Western Front, women on the front line, conscientious objectors and children - whose first hand memories are used to reveal the personal experiences of war (War Stories: Voices from the First World War, 12 Jul – 1 Mar 2015, free to all). A second display along the seafront, Dr Brighton's War, will look at how the coastal resort became known as 'healthy Sussex by the Sea', where wounded soldiers would be sent to recover before being sent back to their regiments or discharged into civilian life (Dr Brighton’s War: Hospitals and Healing in Brighton during WW1, 9 Jul ​– 31 Aug, free to all). Over at the Royal Pavilion, a special display of paintings, archive photographs and film footage remember how its spectacular rooms were once used as a hospital for troops from the Indian Corps (Indian Military Hospital Gallery, free with National Art Pass).


Like its London counterpart, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is remembering the Great War through portraiture, this time drawn from its own collection. Focusing on the key role the Scottish played, it features James Keir Hardie who opposed British involvement in the war, Dr Elsie Ingles who took a team of Scottish nurses to Serbia, artists Sir James Gunn and Sir William Gillies who were wounded in action and J S Haldane who invented the gas mask (Remembering the Great War, 4 Aug – 5 Jul 2015, free admission).

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