May 1st, 2014
Stories from the First World War are being revealed for the first time at a University exhibition commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict.
All Quiet in the Weston Gallery, which opens at Lakeside next month, draws on material drawn from the University’s collections.
It is the first exhibition Hayley Cotterill, Assistant Archivist with Manuscripts and Special Collections, has curated for the University. She says a highlight had been uncovering the stories of local people behind the photographs, letters, postcards and diaries going on display.
One such story is that of William Lees, a Nottingham lace merchant based in the French town of Lille, who gives a rare written account of life for a British civilian under German occupation.
Another highlight for Hayley is the detective work she undertook to uncover the story behind a letter sent from the front line by a former Nottingham student who signs himself only as Bill and mentions his University pals and fellow servicemen Bob and George. Sadly, Bill’s obituary appeared shortly afterwards in a University magazine.
“Working on the exhibition has been brilliant,” she says. “It’s a chance to do in-depth research – normally we would have catalogued such a letter but we would never had had the time to find out about the lives of these three men or their stories. At the time these were ordinary men going off to their duty and now they get some recognition.”
Hayley is also responsible for organising a series of public talks at Lakeside, including an exploration by Professor Roger Woods of the German Department into how German autobiographical accounts of the war written in the Weimar years by nationalists, communists, pacifists and deserters reveal surprisingly similar mentalities. Professor Woods also gave advice on a diary written in a form of coded shorthand by Austrian soldier Bernard Steinitz, who was held in a Russian prisoner of war camp. After the First World War, Bernard and his family were classified as ‘non-Aryan’ by the Nazis and they later fled to England. Like much of the private material held in the archives, it was donated to the University for safekeeping.
In another of the lunchtime talks, Emeritus Professor Malcolm Jones of the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies will add a personal insight into the story of the three Vince brothers, who all went off to war and survived. Professor Jones is a descendant of one of the brothers and he will look at the impact of the war on the Vince family – and why men continued to fight amid such appalling slaughter.
Hayley hopes that an exhibition based on such a landmark event as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will encourage more people to use the University’s archive, which has three million items going back to the 12th century.
“People are aware of the county records office and that they can use their archive, but may think our archive here at King’s Meadow Campus is only for the use of academics and students. We are open to absolutely everyone. The talks are for the public — again, it’s letting people know we are here to be used.”
She adds: “Sometimes you get so used to the job you’re doing and you forget – but you are actually holding something that was written in Russian prisoner of war camp, you’ve got letters sent back from the front line, and that soldier went on to die. It is amazing.
“These are not just pieces of paper. There are stories behind every letter and every photo. You can read about it in a book but to have an actual letter from the time and knowing what they are thinking brings it to life.”
All Quiet in the Weston Gallery: The First World War in The University of Nottingham’s Historic Collections is at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, University Park, from Friday 9 May to Sunday 17 August.
Lunchtime talks take place at the Djanogly Theatre between 1pm and 2pm from Tuesday 20 May.
Admission is free but places are limited: please book with Lakeside Box Office on 0115 846 7777.
More on the exhibition: www.nottingham.ac.uk/mss
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