The less researched experiences of men, women, and organizations who were irrevocably affected by WW1

By Philip Ahn

On New Year’s Day of 2020, I traveled to London for eleven days with the funds I had received from the Evalyn Clark Scholarship. My purpose was to locate and read much-needed primary sources for my thesis. Prior to London, my primary sources were scanty—some online WWI infantrymen letters, Laurence Housman’s The War Letters of Fallen Englishmen, and a variety of trench journals from the Vassar Library’s archival collection. At that point, I had a feeble idea of what I was going to write about; I wanted to explore some aspect of World War I and highlight a previously undiscussed or minimally discussed topic. When I arrived in London, everything about my thesis was to change.

I arrived in Heathrow International Airport roughly at 5 p.m., London time. it took me about two hours to pass through immigration, locate my bags from the carousel, and travel to my Airbnb in Southwark via the Tube to Peckham and the 124 red double-decker bus. I did not do anything that day but recuperate by eating fast food and lying in bed; I had spent roughly twenty-two hours traveling, from Union Amtrak station in Pittsburgh to John F. Kennedy International, and finally to London.

The next day, I got up at 6 a.m. in the morning and visited ASDA, one of UK’s largest grocery store chains, to buy enough groceries to last a week. I wanted to be frugal with my funds and I was pleasantly surprised by how much cheaper groceries in London were compared to those in the United States. A dozen eggs in ASDA cost one British Stirling Pound, roughly 1.50 USD, which was almost half the price of a dozen eggs in Stop N’ Shop in Poughkeepsie. A whole sourdough, which I obtained from the Blackbird Café about five blocks away from my new residence, was only three pounds fifty pence! The affordable cost of foodstuff in London was remarkable to me. I shared this revelation with many Londoners I encountered, most of whom I found to be very pleasant and fond of chatting with strangers in pubs and even in the streets. Slowly, I began to familiarize myself with English way of life.

On the second day, I visited the Imperial War Museum. It was relatively close to my Airbnb, roughly two miles away. I had the option of taking either the bus or walk there. The grey gothic building, accentuated by its classical architecture, stood behind a gargantuan cannon that was once mounted on a Royal Navy battleship. Admittance was free, and the first thing I did was to inspect the World War I exhibition located in the ground floor. The exhibition was long and extensive, featuring myriad war artifacts of the past that British troops had used to kill or were killed by. It was laid out with countless models of battleships, retired tanks, and field guns. Uniforms of combatting troops, from both Central and Allied forces, war propaganda posters, and essential trench tools and provisional goods were also on display.

I took special care in looking at everything, for my intent was to understand the narrative that the Museum wanted its patrons to hear. By the time I had exhausted the exhibition, I was relatively surprised. After all, I had spent months reading through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which had painted a very specific image of the Great War and the British men and women who participated in it. Based on Fussell’s portrayal of officer-subordinate hostilities, I had expected the Museum to be critical of the British officer class, which had largely alienated subordinate men and recklessly sent them to their deaths. I was wrong. Field Marshall Douglas Haig, whom Fussell so vehemently castigates, was portrayed in a reverent light. His original uniform was on display, and a plaque beneath it enumerated and commended the commander’s accomplishments. Not a single criticism was there.

There was a strong narrative that portrayed trench life as miserable and demoralizing. Descriptions beneath trench biscuits and “bully beef,” or canned beef rations, remarked that trench biscuits would break soldiers’ teeth if not soaked with water and bully beef was borderline “disgusting”. The surprisingly heavy interactive replicas of the standard-issue Lee Enfield rifle, reinforced steel helmets, and backpacks used and worn by army infantrymen demonstrated that troops were heavily burdened by the equipment they had to carry. Without mentioning troops dying by the thousands, images of grievous wounds and models of hideous 20th-century prosthetics attested to how injured soldiers struggled physically and psychologically to reingratiate themselves into British society after the war had ended.

There was a little mention of religion in the war. The extensive role of the chaplains was reduced to a mere sentence: “chaplains served the men and assisted officers in censorship of all outgoing mail.” Few trench Bibles on display attested to the fact that religion did play some sort of role in the war but did little to elaborate on how, when, and why it mattered.

These observations, although missed by the casual patrons of the museum, made striking impressions on me. Is it not the duty of the national institution commemorating Britain’s wartime deeds and participants to tell a holistic story? To tell faithfully, the experiences of men, women, and organizations who were irrevocably affected by war? My goal was to highlight what was not extensively researched; I could not find fulfillment in reiterating what others had said. Slowly, I began to piece my observations together.

Over the next six days, I spent much of my time touring the city. After all, I was in London, the first European city I had the opportunity to visit, and I did not want to miss anything. Because the Fellowship did not cover more than my immediate expenses, I paid out of my pocket. I paid for an Airbnb-sponsored bicycle and walking tours of the city. I checked out the Buckingham Palace and witnessed the changing of the guards. I socialized with my amiable and eccentric tour guide, Whiskey Mick, and a fellow Australian tourist, Eliza, in a bar called The Walrus while drinking beers Guinness and the London Pride. I visited the infamous Tower of London and the nearby Tower Bridge. I walked around central London, roaming the Trafalgar Square and observing the tall memorial commemorating the exploits of Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar. I checked out the National Gallery and the Cenotaph, London’s WWI memorial. I patronized the Big Ben, which, at the time, was, unfortunately, undergoing renovation. I visited the esteemed fast-food chains Gregg’s and Pret a Manager to try out the iconic sausage roll and indulge in the rarely price-friendly meals of London. On a dare, I traveled an hour and twenty minutes via train and bus to visit the Hampton Court Palace, the famed former residence of King Henry VIII. As my most ambitious move, I arranged an exorbitantly expensive day trip to the Stonehenge and the town of Bath, home to the fabled Roman Baths and the rare architecture built during the Roman occupation of England.

During my last three days in London, I revisited the Imperial War Museum for my three-day appointments to the Research Room. In this spotlessly white room, I finally had a chance to work with the long-waited archival documents with roughly ten other researchers from all backgrounds of life. Here, I made a significant breakthrough in my thesis research. Looking into diaries, letters, journals, and memoirs of various British infantrymen, I discovered the cathartic role that Christianity had played in the lives of combatting troops. Reading into works of Anglican Chaplains, I understood their motives and their roles during the Great War. Inspecting the publications of Peace News and other works by members of the Peace Pledge Union, I gained insights into the organization’s roots and its priorities. Finally, I had a concrete idea of what I wanted my thesis to be, and I owe it entirely to the invaluable opportunity granted to me by the Evalyn Clark Fellowship.