Dig in for WWI trench warfare at London museum

Fri Aug 14, 2009 12:12pm EDT
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By Robert Leadbetter

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Smell a German latrine, fight off the effects of a mustard gas attack and discover how soldiers in the trenches of World War One rid themselves of lice at a new exhibition in London's Imperial War Museum.

"Terrible Trenches," based on the "Horrible Histories" book series for children, gives an educational and slightly humorous insight into the life of a soldier in the trenches at the Western Front during the 1914-1918 "war to end all wars."

The show is one of the best ways in London to find out about life in the trenches after Harry Patch -- the last Briton to have survived them -- died in July, taking his terrifying personal insights with him to the grave.

"We can provide the real things and the real experiences which the books can't do," said Ann Carter, Head of Exhibitions at the London museum. "We can bring it to life."

Visitors can dress in British or German uniforms, lie in a dugout bunk, and ring the "gas gong" used to warn of incoming mustard, phosgene or chlorine gas attacks as well as discover how whale oil and newspapers were used to prevent frostbite and mend broken limbs.

The exhibition also makes full use of the black humor of the trenches, where jokes were one of the few ways of relieving the tension for young soldiers who faced death at every turn while enduring the lice, rats, corpses, artillery barrages, snipers and the dread of an imminent offensive.

"We want to encourage more family visitors," Carter told Reuters this week. "Humor is a part of war, and it engages people more."

The show ends on a somber note, with video footage taken from the museum's archive showing soldiers going over the top. As you watch, the sound of the gas gong filters back from the trench as a haunting accompaniment to the harsh realities of trench warfare.   Continued...