Although the Great War is usually referred to as the First World War, there is a tendency, in this country at least, to only think about it from the British perspective, instead of thinking about the ‘World’ bit.
We grow up with the mentality that because we were on the winning side, ours is the only version of the story.
Thinking back to history lessons at school, the only time we talked about the German perspective was in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles.
It’s a strange thing, because the German and British (and French and the other soldiers who fought in the trenches) faced very similar conditions,
Lice, rats, barbed wire entanglements, fles, grenades, bombs, caves, corpses, blood, schnapps, mice, cats, gases, cannons, filth, bullets, machine-guns, fire, steel, that’s what war is! Nothing but the devil’s work!”
From the diary of Otto Dix, circa 1915 or 1916
As we gear up for the Centenary remembrances, museums are looking at the years 1914-1918 and telling the stories and some of them are re-dressing this imbalance. Like this one at the British Museum – The Other Side of the Medal: How Germany saw the First World War
This exhibition was a bit of a surprise to me. Usually I’m all up to date with what’s going on there, but this came rather out of the blue. It’s not a blockbuster by the museum’s usual standard (think Vikings, Pompeii and Shakespeare) but the little exhibitions in room 69a are often an unexpected treat, such as this one and often deserve more attention than what they currently get.
One of the things that makes this exhibition so powerful is how clear the link between the war and the medals is made from the start. Look at how the positioning of the helmet is reflected by the coin positioned directly underneath. I found it both aesthetically pleasing as well as a way to tie the two objects and themes together.
Another powerful aspect of the exhibition was the way it subverts expectations. Usually when we think of war medals, we think of badges of honour, not the medals the British Museum presents us with here.
Far from reveling in the glories of war, these medals show what war really is about: death.
I found this one particularly moving:
It humanises a group of people that are not only removed from us by a century, but also have been portrayed for a hundred years as The Enemy.
Even the medal struck to mark the peace is melancholic, as you can see:
This Peace is not a triumphant Peace, she looks in the British Museum’s words, “devastated.” I don’t see this Peace as being “devastated” by the defeat in war, but by the cost of the war, by the lives lost. The museum interprets her devastation as a reflection on the high costs imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on Germany.
The Allied medals (not displayed) are, according to the British Museum, ‘in marked contrast’ to this one. Although the Allies celebrated in struck gold, you just have to look at some of the poetry produced from the period to see the truth of it.
As Wilfred Owen put it: “The old lie; Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It’s true for both sides of the coin