This photograph in the Imperial War Museum’s collections caught my eye. It was unexpected. The camera captures a soldier smiling as he puts a cap on a small goat. I imagine that the intention had been to capture a more formal photograph of the regimental mascot. This informal portrait of soldier and goat brings the man closer to us than a formal portrait could.
A few years ago, I did some transcribing and research on some recordings made in the 1970s in which men talked about their experiences of being soldiers in World War I (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn). I found it tough to do. They were so young when they had gone off to war.
I have always found The Response 1914 by Sir William Goscombe John a moving sculpture. On the right hand side, he depicted an ordinary man leaving his wife and children, and then a man in uniform marching away with his son looking up at him.
On the main, long side of the group, Goscombe John placed a girl embracing her father who is marching off to war. Behind the mechanical engineer (with spanner in hand) to her right is a lad apparently younger than her, marching along with the men and starting to take off his jacket to replace his work clothes with uniform. To the left of the girl is a bare-footed lad, also possibly a little younger than she is. He carries a rifle and enthusiastically beckons others to join him.
Finally, the head of the procession of figures on the left hand side shows two drummer boys leading the men forwards. Goscombe John has emphasised their youth. They really are just innocent boys. The artist knew what happened to these men and boys. His placing of children in this war memorial emphasises the youth of many of the soldiers in the First World War.
One of the men whose story is in Northumberland Archives told of how he had lied about his age to join the army. He really was just a boy. When I look at The Response 1914, I think of that teenager being so keen to join alongside the lads he had known all his short life.
The Imperial War Museum’s collection includes photographs of the actual soldiers who were in the Northumberland Fusiliers during the First World War. The men in the sculpture do resemble the real soldiers. Northumberland Archives has recordings of some of the men from Northumberland and Tyneside who survived the First World War. One man told of how time after time, the battalion in which he served was so decimated that they could not replace those lost and had to join the remains of others.
Such archives explain not only how tough such a dreadful war was, they help to explain why people were so driven to create new political solutions, to ensure a better world in which everyone had a chance to be well-educated, skilled, to have good health care and decent living conditions. So much of what we have in the United Kingdom today is the result that bitter determination that future generations would not go through that horror.
The archives and artefacts kept in local and national collections in museums, archives, libraries and galleries throughout the United Kingdom are there to ensure we do not forget those who died and were damaged by war, and to help us to remember that war should be avoided and be the last resort. My great-grandparents’ generation could not talk much about the First World War. I think that they remained too traumatised by it. The digitisation of records has helped to broaden access to the records and objects that tell a little of their stories.
Remember them. They were people like us. Remember them as you use the public services and resources that were created by the survivors to commemorate those who died and to try to create a better, fairer, and more peaceful world.