Friday 4 September 2009

The daily doings of the domestic front

'Outbreak 1939', Imperial War Museum, London

‘I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’ Numerous television documentaries about the Second World War have made us familiar with these words from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s dedaration of war on 3 September 1939, following Germany’s refusal to withdraw her troops from Poland. And we’re familiar with the grainy black-and-white newsreel footage of the declaration’s immediate aftermath; the home-sick, evacuated children, the piles of sandbags. Any exhibition covering this period of history faces the challenge of giving us something new. How well does this one, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war, succeed?

Given the limitation of familiarity, it makes a good - but incomplete (more in a moment) - attempt. But, in doing so, it has another hurdle to overcome. Until the Blitzkrieg in the summer of 1940 - when German forces made their successful push to the French coast and directly threatened Britain – little was done by the British and their allies to carry the war to Germany itself. This period of relative inactivitywas soon dubbed the Phony War. It is the daily doings of the domestic front rather than the drama of the battlefield that this exhibition has to mine for significant material.

So we see the jacket of an admiral of the fleet worn by King George VI when broadcasting to his people on the evening of 3 September. But whilst this martial gesture symbolised - among other things - British naval power, action was needed to deal with the fear of air attack on the British mainland, an expectation heightened by the use of bombing in the recently-ended Spanish CivilWar and the German attack on Warsaw. The Observer Corps was founded to track and report movements of enemy aircraft and we see a Corps armband and communication headset. We also see the painting ‘Observer Corps Hut’, by Eric Ravilious (1939). A stack of boots and a table with a teapot on it give an air of cosy domesticity. Only the open log book on the table hints at the Corps’ more serious purpose.

Air Raid Precautions (ARP) were also a vital part of life on the home front, and we see an ARP warden manual and armband as well as a hand-held rattle for giving warnings of raids, as well as the more familiar siren. There is also a model of an Anderson shelter (named after Sir John Anderson, the minister whose responsibilities included ARP), which could be erected in a garden. A more chilling exhibit is a child’s Mickey Mouse-styled respirator to be used in case of an air-delivered poison gas attack (it was thought the cartoon mouse-themed mask would not be as frightening for a child to use as the adult version). There is also an identity card, a simple document which served its purpose without the useless complexity which would probably feature if such a measure were to be reintroduced today.

Civilians queuing at a gas testing chamber, 1939

Two days before war was declared the blackout was introduced in Britain in order to conceal lighting which might help enemy bombers find their targets at night. We see blackout paper and a blanket used to prevent light shining from windows as well as a special darkened light-bulb and car headlight cover. But, in order to lighten the feelings of gloom that existed in every sense, humour and entertainment were pressed into service. Interestingly, there had been a ban on anti-Hitler humour, but after the declaration of war this was lifted, and we see a Hitler comic dancing figure. (This is an interesting contrast with the behaviour of today’s politicians who seem reluctant to ridicule modern foes.) We also see a film clip of popular songstress Gracie Fields singing the song ‘Wish Me Luck (AsYou Wave Me Goodbye)’ as well as an iconic BBC microphone (the Beeb, as it had yet to be dubbed, was regarded by the public at large as a trustworthy source of information during the conflict).

There was some military action to remind people that the Phony War wasn’t that phony, however. We see the twisted remains of a gun from the first of 14 kills made by the New Zealand Pilot Officer ‘Cobber’ Kain, as well as the service record of Kapitänleutnant Gunther Prien, the U-boat captain responsible for sinking the battle-cruiser HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow on 14 October 1940. Two months later followed the Battle of the River Plate when British and Dominion naval action resulted in the German pocket battleship Graf Spee being scuttled off Montevideo, and we see the binoculars used in this combat by the British naval commander Commodore Henry Harwood. But the feelings of success engendered by this battle would be short-lived: within a few months, German panzer units would be rolling west.

The exhibition gives us a sense of the calm before the storm which would be unleashed in the summer of 1940. But that’s not quite enough. It’s easy now - with hindsight - to look critically at the politics of appeasement which preceded the events commemorated by this exhibition, and the failure of politicians to stop Hitler. But we must remember that their actions were overshadowed by memories of the Somme, Verdun, and other battles of the Great War, blood-Iettings in what was fervently hoped by a generation maimed in mind and body was the war to end wars. The writings of veterans like Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That, 1929) and Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front, also 1929) reinforced these feelings as did Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war film La Grande Illusion (1937).

On a practical level, Royal Air Force bombers were incapable of penetrating German air space, while our army was miniscule and perilously under-equipped. Chamberlain has been pictured as craven in his dealings with Hitler, but he had little choice in his approach. The sacrifice of Czechoslovakia bought us precious time to increase our forces and husband our resources. These are points that the exhibition should, in order to give a fuller political picture, try to make - and doesn’t. It’s also worth remembering that, just as factors related to the Great War encouraged politicians to prevaricate - at first - over defence preparations, so it’s easy to forget that five decades of peace and prosperity - plus the fall of Communism - encouraged political over-optimism in the 1990s about the future shape of the new world order. In both phases of history, politicians should -as they ought, arguably, to do at any time - have hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. The danger of neglecting this approach 70 years ago was illustrated by what followed the Phony War - the fall of France and near-defeat for Britain.

The consequences of the recent neglect of defence are now being experienced daily in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although not strictly within its remit, the exhibition could also have included the coda that - with a firm declaration of war aims by Churchill that did not shrink from attacking Nazi principles - the British were able to hang-on and, ultimately, achieve victory. Because this is something that modern politicians, facing what might be regarded as a more implacable foe than Nazism, might well ponder today.

Till August 2010

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