A SMALL batch of letters written by a mother in Aberdeen to her son serving on the front line in the First World War is among the items to be displayed at Edinburgh’s National Library of Scotland as part of its centenary exhibition marking the First World War.
The letters have remained unopened since the day they were posted because George Buchanan Smith never lived to be able to read them. The Gordon Highlander was among the 60,000 British soldiers who died in the Battle of Loos in September 1915 and his letters were subsequently returned to the family marked “killed in action.”
This is just one of many remarkable, but largely forgotten, stories told in a major exhibition at NLS that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the war by looking at what happened through the eyes of the people who experienced it.
“Behind the Lines: personal stories from the First World War” tells the story of the war through treasured letters, diaries, journals, postcards, recruiting posters, contemporary films, photographs, maps, official reports and propaganda material. It looks far beyond the familiar images of the war to show there was no typical experience.
Manuscripts curator Alison Metcalfe, who put the exhibition together with Social Sciences curator Jan Usher, said: “It is impossible to tell the full story of the war in a single exhibition. What we have tried to do is to understand it through the records that people left behind of their experiences, be that fighting at the front or waiting for news back at home.”
One of the most important historical documents of the war is the daily diary kept by Field Marshal Earl Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army for most of the war. It is a key part of the Library’s WW1 collection and excerpts from the diary, along with a selection of other items from the Haig papers, including letters to his wife, will appear throughout the exhibition.
The items in the collection also tell the story of other soldiers, including brothers in arms Archie and Bertie Dickson, who both served in the Royal Navy and fought at the Battle of Jutland where Archie was killed at the age of only 16. Bertie survived the war and carried a photograph of his brother with him for the rest of his life. The photograph will feature in the exhibition as will a censored letter he wrote to his parents, describing the battle and his anxious wait for news of his brother.
Mairi Chisholm, an 18-year-old nurse posted to the Western Front in Belgium, also features in the exhibition. Despite having no nursing training, she learned the necessary procedures by copying others.
Conscientious objectors, including two who were jailed and then went on to become Labour MPs, and the stigma they faced by choosing not to fight also feature in the museum’s story.
• Behind the Lines: personal stories from the First World War runs from 27 June to Armistice Day, 11 November at the National Library of Scotland, George 1V Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.