Drawing of barbed wire from the trenches on the Western Front

It’s hard to imagine, a hundred years on, what it was like for the soldiers during the First World War fighting on the Western Front. Cliffe Castle’s exhibition Keighley’s War continues through the summer and August 4th will be First World War Day, a chance to experience some of the day-to-day realities of what it was like for the people of Keighley during those years. (A chance to taste bread from recipes of the time as suggested by the Keighley Food Control Committee will be one of the things I’ll certainly have to try).

But many miles away from home in northern France soldiers were enduring life in the trenches and it wasn’t until I sketched certain objects in the collections that some of the horror of it all came home to me. The barbed wire fragment (German wire, incidentally – all wire is different) is probably for me the most moving and haunting thing of all the objects I’ve drawn. Partly I think because of the shadows cast by the twists and barbs – it seems to say so much and doesn’t need much explanation.

Flechettes, barbed steel darts dropped from biplanes into the trenches on the Western Front

By contrast these things look horrible but it’s not immediately obvious what they are. They’re called flechettes, and they were dropped into the enemy trenches by English pilots flying bi-planes, which must have been dangerous but which the pilots objected to because of the nature of the wounds inflicted, and the fact that they could be dropped without warning and silently, except for the noise of the plane. It’s a measure, I suppose, of how far and how fast things escalated and how quickly attitudes hardened that we are able to be surprised at soldiers expressing dislike at weaponry and tactics that they felt were ‘ungentlemanly’.

Drawing of a brown rat

Life in the trenches must have been awful in so many different ways. Rats were a big problem. At home in Keighley most people would have been accustomed to sharing their lives with rats to some extent as an inevitable thing, but being plagued by hungry rats in the cramped and muddy darkness of the trenches would have been something altogether different. (This Brown Rat is a specimen in the Natural History Gallery; over time it’s faded to the colour of honey.)

Once again, drawing acts like a kind of time-machine. Sketching things like the barbed wire and the flechettes I really do feel like I’m looking through a window into the First World War and feeling myself connected to that time and place. It’s an emotional, disturbing thing, and over and over again I realise what an important role museum collections have to play. I don’t need immersive virtual reality installations; if I take the time to look properly at objects (and drawing takes time, and makes you look) they will quietly tell their story, make history come alive, and unfold a direct, personal understanding of the past.

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