Friday, 31 October 2014

Bristol and the First World War


As you cannot have failed to have noticed, 2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War and the extensive Bristol 2014 programme has been marking this with a year-long calendar of events all around the city.

Two elements that go hand-in-hand are the Moved By Conflict exhibition at the city’s M Shed museum, and the Bristol and the First World War book that is being distributed free all around the city as part of the Great Reading Adventure 2014.

Moved By Conflict (open until 1 March 2015, £2.95-£3.95) is a fascinating, interactive exhibition detailing the myriad ways in which Bristol’s residents became entwined with the war – whether fighting on the front line, working in mustard gas factories or repurposing landmark buildings to create makeshift hospitals for the wounded. What’s particularly pleasing about this exhibition is that in contrast to many stuffy museums, many Moved By Conflict pieces have notices that actively state ‘Please Touch’ next to them.

While the stories of love stories cut short and young men blown to pieces will be echoed in similar exhibitions in cities all around the country, there are a huge array of elements that root Moved By Conflict firmly in Bristol. One such part is the almost-forgotten White City. This city-within-a-city was Bristol’s contribution to the International Exhibition, designed to celebrate the British Empire, and engineered before war was even on the horizon. Doomed to fail financially, it opened mere months before war was announced, and the area was rapidly repurposed as barracks for the Bristol’s Own regiment. Visit the Bristol’s ‘White City’ exhibition at Bristol Record Office until 27 February, 2015; and read Clive Burlton’s book Bristol’s Lost City (Bristol Books, £14).  

As part of the Great Reading Adventure 2014, Bristol and the First World War is an anthology of short and accessible essays by a range of authors examining all aspects of the city at war, and is the ideal companion to Moved By Conflict. Particular standout pieces for me include the graphic essay ‘From White City To War’ by illustrator Alys Jones, which both sums up the relevance of the White City development to Bristolians as well as the overall futility of the war effort. One of Alys’ illustrations for the story is reproduced in colour on the book’s cover: a depiction of trenches being dug on Brandon Hill.

Other illuminating entries include Clive Burlton’s piece about the barbaric Shirehampton mustard gas factory, Eugene Byrne’s article about women’s voluntary war work, and Lucienne Boyce’s essay about the Bristol tram girls. While Anna Farthing’s piece about the Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert Parties was particularly interesting after seeing her Anna’s new production War, Women and Song (also a part of Bristol 2014) at the city’s Redgrave Theatre in September. You can read an article Anna wrote for The Daily Telegraph here.

Some 20,000 copies of Bristol and the First World War have been produced by the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and they are being distributed free of charge all around the city. For more information, please click here

For further reading on Bristol and the First World War, I also recommend Bravo, Bristol! The City at War 1914-1918, by Eugene Byrne and Clive Burlton (Redcliffe Press, £15), which is a rigorously researched and highly readable account of how the war impacted on Bristol and it’s people. 


For more information on the many forthcoming events in the Bristol 2014 programme, please click here to visit the website.

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