'You hold in your hands the future of the world.'
French President Raymond Poincaré, to the Paris Peace Conference, 18 January 1919
In Paris, delegates from over 30 countries gathered for a conference to create a lasting peace.
Britain, France and America played the largest part in forming the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty forced the Germans to disarm, pay reparations and surrender territory.
Other treaties forced Germany’s wartime allies to accept similar terms.
Was the Peace Conference a failure?
The Conference failed to meet high expectations. The treaties were an uneasy compromise and the peace terms proved difficult to enforce. Many people felt that the Germans were not punished enough. In Germany, the Versailles Treaty lasting resentment.
But the creation of the League of Nations, designed to prevent future wars and to promote peace, gave cause for hope.
This oil painting ‘The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919’ is by William Orpen. The fighting over, Orpen stayed in France to document the Peace Conference in Paris. His confidence in the peace process faded as the diplomatic wrangling dragged on over six months, ‘In spite of all these eminent men, I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France for ever’.
Big Three at Versailles LG, Clemenceau, Wilson
The photograph shows British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French premier Georges Clemenceau and US President Woodrow Wilson. Lloyd George’s agenda was to safeguard Britain’s empire, Clemenceau’s to protect France. The idealistic Wilson wanted a world where people could ‘live their own lives under governments which they themselves choose’. Lloyd George thought him like a ‘missionary’ come to ‘rescue the poor European heathen’.
Photograph of captured German weapons
This photograph shows captured German weapons triumphantly displayed in Paris. Winston Churchill believed that, ‘the hatred of France for Germany was something more than human’. Lloyd George later wrote that he never wanted the peace conference held in Clemenceau’s ‘bloody capital’. He and the Americans would have preferred somewhere neutral, but Clemenceau’ wept and protested so much that we gave way’.
This German medallion, ‘The Hour of Reckoning’ was designed by Karl Goetz and shows German delegates receiving the draft Versailles Treaty terms. Having believed that President Wilson would win Germany a favourable settlement, the Treaty’s terms shocked them. At dinner in their hotel that evening, one delegate announced, ‘Gentlemen, I am drunk.... This shameful treaty has broken me, for I had believed in Wilson until today’.
German guns displayed on the Champs Elysées, Paris
Goetz Medallion Protest meeting at dismemberment of Germany
A protest in Berlin at the loss of German territory to a newly independent nation, Poland
‘We cannot say with what eyes posterity will regard this Museum nor what ideas it will rouse in their minds’.
King George V, opening of IWM, 9 June 1920
The First World War shaped the modern world.
Some of the ideas which motivated people to fight seem strange to us now. Others seem familiar.
Different generations have taken different standpoints as to what the war meant and we still grapple with its meaning today.
What was its impact?
What did it achieve?
Is it still important?
Why do we remember it in the way that we do?
In this final area, you can look at some of the ways in which the war changed people’s lives. Their words and the objects they gave to this museum show us that then, as now, these questions did not – and do not – have a simple answer.
The Open Road
Claude Friese-Greene’s ‘The Open Road’, a series of short films, took cinema-goers on a journey through Britain. This edit lasts for seven minutes. ‘The Open Road’ was completed in 1926. That year a nine-day General Strike gripped Britain. Cabinet minister Winston Churchill proposed using troops if ‘the situation threatens to go out of control’. But the revolutionary fervour the government so feared after the war never materialised.
Britain became more democratic after the war. The government extended the parliamentary vote from 8 million men in 1914 to over 21 million people, including, for the first time, women. The state now also had more control over people’s lives, not least in the area of taxation. The rate of income tax - around five times that of 1914 and paid by twice as many people - would never again fall to the pre-war level.
‘Make the Huns pay’ Election poster, Essex Times Office, December 1918
In December 1918 Lloyd George called a general election. His coalition of Liberals and Conservatives vowed to make Britain ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’. With the Treaty of Versailles yet to be signed, the ‘German question’ was high on everyone’s agenda. This campaign poster is for a Liberal candidate who won his seat comfortably. The coalition was returned to power.
How to vote leaflet
This leaflet advised first-time voters how to exercise their democratic right. In February 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over 21 years of age and to women over 30. Ten years later, it was extended to women over 21. The increase in the working class vote would contribute, in time, to the rise of the Labour Party.
A woman voting for the first time, December 1918
Photo of Lady Astor
In December 1919 Lady Astor, shown in this photograph, became the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. War had opened doors for women. But with the return of servicemen to their jobs, many of these doors were closed again. Hundreds of thousands of women went back to rearing families or to traditional women’s work such as domestic service.
A woman voting for the first time, December 1918
Lady Astor is proclaimed Conservative MP for Plymouth
Women and children going to vote
The 4 million war veterans who returned to Britain hoped for the promised ‘Land Fit For Heroes’. But economic boom was followed by a depression. Industries that had powered the war economy went into decline. There was a shocking rise in unemployment. In 1922 85 million days were lost to strikes. By the late 1920s many war veterans were questioning what they had actually fought for. But government fears that disaffected ex-soldiers might foster revolution proved groundless.
Most of Britain’s veterans were proud of their achievements. The service medals shown here were worn at reunions and remembrance events. They are the 1914-1915 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal, known as ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’ after cartoon characters in the ‘Daily Mirror’. The combination of the Victory Medal and British War Medal, worn by men who served from 1916, mainly conscripts, was known as ‘Mutt and Jeff’.
Out of work donation policy and lavender sachet
The out-of-work donation policy offered temporary relief to unemployed ex-servicemen. But many veterans were reduced to selling goods like this lavender sachet on the streets. From 1920, the government, fearing political unrest, brought in a new unemployment benefit scheme. The ‘dole’ paid more generously and could be claimed by most workers if made unemployed. Two million people were jobless by 1922, half a million of them ex-servicemen.
Veterans of 302 Battery Royal Field Artillery at a reunion dinner
Armistice Balls, as on this poster, were a feature of British life for some years after 1918. The coming of peace coincided with the Jazz Age, with its new styles, rhythms and sense of fun. The early anniversaries of the Armistice were often marked by riotous ‘booze ups’ and ‘knees ups’. But in the late 1920s celebrations were seen as inappropriate and were quietly dropped in favour of more sedate commemorations.
Badges and menus
These badges represent some of the many old comrades’ associations formed during and after the war. The British Legion, a national association run by former officers, was founded in 1921. Reunion dinners like those shown on the menus here gave men a chance to relive their army experience. Veterans’ organisations in Britain offered comradeship and support, but did not become political hotbeds as in Germany and Italy.
Britain, like most other nations which had suffered dreadful loss, memorialised its war dead in terms of ‘sacrifice’. Yet the First World War saw the creation of a language of remembrance unique to Britain. It is with us to this day. We it in war memorials in our cities, towns, schools, places of worship and workplaces, as well as in rituals such as Remembrance Sunday and the two-minute silence at 11am each 11 November.
The first poppy appeal took place in 1921. The poppy had become a symbol of remembrance during the war. Anna Guérin, a French woman, originally had the idea of selling artificial poppies for charity. The idea was taken up by the British Legion and veterans’ organisations throughout the Empire. The poppies were made then, as they still are today, by disabled ex-service personnel at the Legion’s factory in Richmond, Surrey.
Memorial bookmark and book
Schools, colleges, businesses and families all found ways to remember their dead. A memorial silk bookmark was often given out to friends and relatives of a dead soldier. The memorial book is for Harrow School, one of the public schools attended by the sons of Britain’s privileged classes. Many young officers had been drawn from public schools and their losses had been disproportionately high.
Next of kin memorial plaque and scroll
All families in Britain and the Empire who had lost a loved one on active service during the war received the official Next of Kin Memorial Plaque and scroll. The symbolic figure of Britannia on the plaque also appeared on the bronze one penny coin and so it was nicknamed the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’. Relatives of 600 servicewomen who had died were among those who received these plaques.
These are original drawings by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Cenotaph on Whitehall, London. Most of Britain’s war dead were buried overseas and the Cenotaph or ‘empty tomb’, became, and remains, the focus for national remembrance. First made in wood for Victory Day in July 1919, the permanent stone structure was unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day 1920. That same day the remains of the Unknown Warrior were buried in Westminster Abbey.
This diary records a 1928 pilgrimage by ex-servicemen and women to the Western Front battlefields and cemeteries. With the war over, travel firms and ex-officers advertised tours of the battlefields. Charitable organisations like the British Legion subsidised or conducted their own tours for the less well-off.
This photograph shows a staff member at the new Imperial War Museum, London, with photographs and documents sent in by donors. Conceived in 1917, the Museum first opened its doors in June 1920, at Crystal Palace. According to one of its founders, Sir Alfred Mond, it was not to be ‘a monument of military glory’ but rather ‘a record of toil and sacrifice’. Within nine months it had nearly 1.5 million visitors.
The end of war did not bring peace to Ireland. Having won the majority of Irish seats in the 1918 general election, republicans declared independence. This led to guerrilla war between British forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Following the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland was partitioned into a southern Free State and Northern Ireland. Many republicans still wanted independence for all Ireland and fought a civil war with former comrades who were content with the compromise.
The Irish Republican Army was among the first to use the American Thompson sub-machine gun. From summer 1921, the IRA smuggled Thompsons into Ireland and used them against British forces. This weapon’s serial number has been struck out so that its provenance cannot be traced. Many Irishmen who fought in the 1922-1923 civil war – on both sides – were former soldiers. The Provisional IRA used Thompsons well into the 1970s.
IRA mugshot album
These are British photographs of Irish Republican Army suspects. The men have been made to show their hands for distinguishing marks such as tattoos. The IRA targeted British soldiers, Royal Irish Constabulary policemen and the infamously brutal ‘Auxiliaries’. In one incident, the IRA killed 11 unarmed British officers in Dublin. On ‘Bloody Sunday’, 21 November 1920, the Auxiliaries retaliated, shooting into a football crowd and killing 12 spectators.
Sinn Fein banner
This is a banner of Na Fianna Éireann (‘Soldiers of Ireland’), a boys’ organisation founded by republican activist Countess Markievicz. Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British parliament in the December 1918 general election. Like other republican MPs, she refused to take her seat in the House of Commons. British troops found the banner in her home after the Easter Rising.
Banner lent by Her Majesty The Queen.
Photo of negotiators
This photograph shows republican leaders Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. De Valera continued to fight for a united Ireland. Anti-Treaty forces murdered Collins in 1922 for helping negotiate the treaty which had partitioned Ireland. Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland welcomed continued British rule, but there was hostility between them and the significant minority of mainly Catholic republicans.
Irish republican leaders Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera
Irish Republican Army members during the 1922-1923 civil war
Pro-Treaty Irish National Army soldiers during the 1922-1923 civil war
Victory not only secured the British Empire: it expanded the territory under British control. But in the white Dominions, especially Australia and Canada, war had fostered a heightened sense of national identity. Their peoples expected the Empire to evolve into a more equal Commonwealth. In the non-white Empire, especially India, demands for self-rule became more vocal. Britain had to exert control and maintain its rule. The British Empire of Queen Victoria’s days was gone forever.
Empire poster and jigsaw
This poster and jigsaw are souvenirs from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Wembley Stadium was built for the Exhibition, which attracted 27 million visitors. The displays there were meant to ‘strengthen bonds that bind Mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters’. But the war had loosened some of those bonds.
This book commemorates Edward, Prince of Wales’ 1921 tour of India. India’s huge contribution to the war effort intensified demands for independence. The Prince sensed the tension, writing that people ‘think my tour is a success, and I must reluctantly tell you it is no such thing’. In 1919, at Amritsar, British-led troops had killed hundreds of unarmed protestors. Mahatma Gandhi later denounced British rule as ‘wholly evil’.
Photo of Australian Sapper Arthur Dunbar
The scene in this photograph is a family reception for Australian Sapper Arthur Dunbar following his return to home to Adelaide from France. Australia fought for the first time as a nation during the Great War. To this day Australians and New Zealanders commemorate their war dead on 25 April - Anzac Day - the date of the first landings at Gallipoli. The fighting there established Australia as a nation not only in name but also in spirit.
Family reception for Sapper Arthur Dunbar
Canada (on jigsaw)
This photograph shows people gathering at the Cenotaph in Vancouver, Canada, 1926. The Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge nine years previously is seen as marking the real birth of Canada as a nation. ‘We are no longer humble colonials, we’ve made armies’, said Canadian artist Alexander Young Jackson in 1919. But at the same time, most English-speaking Canadians still had great attachment to their British heritage.
The Cenotaph in Vancouver, Canada, 11 November 1926 City of Vancouver Archives – CVA 99-1561
New Zealand (on jigsaw)
The photograph here shows Armistice celebrations in Levin, New Zealand, November 1918. Historian and former soldier Ormond Burton wrote that ‘somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme, New Zealand very definitely became a nation’. While many New Zealanders began to identify themselves as ‘Kiwis’, indigenous Maori were divided as to whether they were part of a New Zealand nation.
Armistice celebrations, Levin, New Zealand, November 1918
South Africa (on jigsaw)
This photograph is of a crowd in Pretoria, South Africa, on 11 November 1918. White and black South Africans had served in the war, the latter almost exclusively as labourers. War had brought little change to South Africa. The white minority still ruled this least ‘British’ of Dominions, which now governed what had been German South West Africa (Namibia). Former Boer War general Jan Smuts emerged from the war as the Empire’s leading statesman.
Pretoria, South Africa, 11 November 1918
Britain’s wartime campaigns in the Middle East meant that it would play a major part in determining the region’s troubled future. During the war, Britain and France secretly planned to carve up the Ottoman Empire. Britain took for itself Palestine, Transjordan (now Jordan) and Mesopotamia (Iraq). Arab rulers had been encouraged to support Britain in return for independence. But the Anglo-French agreement meant the Arabs now found that they had exchanged one colonial master for another.
Plane over Mosul
This photograph shows a Royal Air Force plane patrolling over Mosul, Iraq. The city was originally to fall within French-controlled Syria. But the British negotiated with the French to obtain Mosul, with its rich oil resources. The Kurds who inhabited the region had been given assurances that they would receive their own state and staged revolts against British rule throughout the 1920s.
A Royal Air Force Westland Wapiti over Mosul, Iraq
The Imperial War Museum commissioned Richard Carline, who painted Baghdad, 1919, to record air operations in Palestine and Mesopotamia.
In 1920 British forces crushed an Arab insurgency in Mesopotamia. A pro-British Arab leader, Feisal, was made ‘ruler’ and the new state re-named Iraq. At any sign of further unrest, British planes dropped warning leaflets then bombed villages. This ‘air control’ was cheap but increased hatred of the British.
Gaza Seen From the Air, Over British Lines on Ali Muntar Hill Looking Towards the Sea was painted by former army flier Richard Carline.
In 1917, in the Declaration, Britain had pledged to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which included Gaza. But it had also promised Arab self-rule. There were riots and violence between Arabs and Jewish settlers throughout the 1920s. The see-sawing of British policy only worsened tensions.
Our pioneering sound archive recorded these interviews in the 1960s and 1970s. They feature men and women who served in the First World War, on the home and fighting fronts, who tell us what the war meant for them.