Last night, 11 November - Armistice Day - we hosted the official launch of our new World War I exhibition, 'For King and Country'. We were joined by around 35 invited guests representing a host of organisations including South Yorkshire Police, the Ambulance Heritage Society and the Royal College of Nursing. We also had the honour of welcoming South Yorkshire's Chief Fire Officer, Alex Johnson, who performed the ribbon cutting.
There was also a very poignant moment during the evening when representatives from South Yorkshire Police laid a wreath for Armistice Day, giving us all a chance to pause and remember those who lost their lives in conflicts around the world.
After all the hard work that's gone into getting the exhibition up and running it was great to finally unveil it and to see so many people enjoying and engaging with what we have achieved. And the feedback from our guests was fantastic. Cue a huge sigh of relief from us all!
‘For King and Country’ is our opportunity to tell some of the lesser-known stories of World War I. It explores the role police, fire, ambulance and lifeboat personnel played during the conflict, both on the front line and at home, and reveal the lasting impact the war had on the development of the emergency services.
The Great War was a time of massive upheaval and social change across Britain and the emergency services couldn't escape being caught up in it. From the impact on the services of the millions of men who left the police or fire service to ‘do their bit’ as ordinary soldiers - often displaying the most extreme bravery - to the women who took the opportunities war presented to prove themselves in a man’s world, there are so many stories to be discovered when you delve into the history of the emergency services during World War I.
One of most fascinating aspects of the period - and something that is explored in the exhibition - is how some of the earliest opportunities for women to take an official role in the emergency services came during World War I.
Despite a huge degree of reluctance on the part of the authorities to allow women at the front, many joined organisations such as the Red Cross or other volunteer units like the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corp. Travelling to France and Belgium as volunteers, pioneering women like Lady Dorothie Feilding, Elsie Knocker and Marie Chisholm showed tremendous courage – winning medals for bravery - and proved to those in charge that women could play an active role in the emergency services.
Taking it one step further was the incredible Flora Murray, whose story features in the exhibition. A trained doctor, on the outbreak of war she and her partner Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson founded the Women’s Hospital Corps. They opened military hospitals in Paris and the Pas-De-Calais, staffed almost entirely by women, and were later invited by the War Office to open the Endell Street Military Hospital in London, under the Royal Army Medical Corps. In just over four years, from 1915, it treated more than 50,000 casualties.
While the war opened up new opportunities for women at the front, the same was true at home as females stepped in to fill the gaps left by men who had joined up. ‘For King and Country’ examines how necessity led the emergency services to officially recruit women into their ranks for the first time including, in 1916, Edith Smith; the first ‘official’ women police constable in England with full powers of arrest.
Included in the new exhibition, and helping to tell these stories, is a collection of historic and unique objects, many of them on display at NESM for the first time. One of the most striking of these – and certainly the largest object that the museum has acquired for the exhibition – is a World War I era horse drawn Lingfield horse ambulance. Used to transport dead or injured animals on the front line, this historic vehicle has been loaned to the museum by a private collector.
Other objects include a scrapbook created by World War I nurse Jessie Akehurst, on loan from the Royal College of Nursing, diaries and personal memoirs, personal artefacts such as dog tags and a razor, postcards, a litter used at the front and an original wartime surgical kit.
The exhibition is housed in a recreated trench dugout and first aid post, built by the museum's amazing team of staff and volunteers (I'm allowed to say that, even if I am one of them!) It certainly provides a very atmospheric gallery space to tell this story. As well as the stories and objects on display, 'For King and Country' also uses sounds and smells to bring the Western Front to life, and includes interactive stations that will allow even the youngest visitor to engage with this fascinating bit of history.
We're really proud of our newest installation and we can't wait to see what our visitors think. 'For King and Country' is open to the public from today. For more information go to visitnesm.org.uk/kingandcountry