The impact of war – The Imperial War Museum, London

I have been to many attractions and museums in my life, especially those in London but for some reason I had never gone to the Imperial War Museum London. That was until recently when a friend recommended I go. I am, not sure, why I had never been before but I strongly recommend everyone to go. Not only do they have a great range of exhibits, which uses a variety of ways to tell their stories, but also it really gives an insight in to the impact of war on society. Their holocaust exhibition is a real eye opener and I would be surprised to find anyone who does not come away from it moved. It is not for the fainthearted, but is a story, which needs to be told, to remind us of what happened.

Photo credit Laura Adkins

The imperial war museum itself was first created during the First World War to make sure we never forget what life was like in a world torn apart by conflict. It records the way the First World War and subsequent conflicts have affected the lives of civilians and military personnel. It was first opened at Crystal Palace on 9th June 1920.

The Imperial War museum London current site sits on the site of what was once London’s Bedlam hospital, which was founded by Henry VIII. Hospital surveyor James Lewis designed the currently building originally and was completed in October 1814. It had a number of buildings, which were three stories in height, and was 580 foot long. It has since gone through many alterations by Sydney Smirke in 1835 where it was enlarged and by Lord Rothermere in 1930 when e brought the site. He left the original central portion of the building with the one and some later additions by Smirke. In 1972, the building was given a Grade II listed building status. The Duke of York opened the Museum on this site on 7th July 1936.

When approaching the museum you can see two large guns outside. Both these guns have seen active service in the Second World War. One was on HMS Ramillies and HMS Resolution. The gun to the left was on the HMS Ramilies and as mounted in 1916. It first saw action in 1920 and was not to be used again until 1940 in the Second World War. It was removed from the ship in 1941 and placed into storage. The second gun was mounted on the resolution in 1915 and served until 1938. Again, it first saw action in 1920 and as not used again until the Second World War, this time in 1944 during the D-Day landings.

Inside the museum, there are many exhibits to see and enjoy all using a variety of interpretation to tell the story of the war and those who lived it. This includes static displays with information boards, images, audio and video. One of my favourite pieces in the spitfire on display. It saw 57 combat missions and had 13 pilots. Unfortunately, only six of its pilots would survive the war.

Photo credit Laura Adkins
Photo credit Laura Adkins

Another of my favourite exhibits is that of the uniform of William Williams who was a company sergeant from Bolton and was in the Worcestershire regiment. He would join the army in 1896 at the age of 19 years and was only 5ft 5 ½ inches. We would be part of the British exhibitionary forces in the war. When war first broke out the British army was small when compared to the rest of the world’s forces. As the war developed, we lost many of our experience soldiers and a call had to be put out for more people to enlist. William Williams unfortunately would not survive the war. He was wounded on 31/10/1914 in the battle of Ypres and would die of his wounds on 8th November that same year.

When the call was sent out or soldiers to enlist it led to the formation of Pals battalions. These were groups of men who had enlisted together in local recruitment drives, were friends, neighbours, and even work colleagues. It was decided to let them stay in battalions rather than allocating them all too different ones.  It was the idea of General Sir Henry Rawlinson to suggest the army allow the men to serve alongside one another and felt they would be more inclined to enlist.  He managed to get a battalion of men from London’s stockbrokers in the City, sixteen hundred in fact all singing up within a week. The Earl of Darby did something similar in Liverpool a few days later and this in turn prompted Lord Kitchener to promote the idea of more Pals battalions. By the end of September 1914 at last 50 towns had formed pals battalions.

Tragically, many of the pal’s battalions however would suffer heavy casualties, in some cases whole towns losing the majority of their men who had signed up. The Somme was a horrific battle with serve death toll. The Accrington Pals – the 11th Battalion, east Lancashire regiment lost 235 men with another 350 wounded of 700 soldiers in the first 20 minutes alone. Such tragic losses led to the disbandment of many of the pal’s battalions at the end of the summer in 1916. Any that were still in existence were in title alone with many men being drafted in rather than being local groups of men. One Pal would say of the Pals Battalions ‘Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.’

Photo credit Laura Adkins

It was not only the forming of pals battalions, which made developments in the war. Weapon development would also have an impact on the outcome of the war also. Within the Museum, you can see a British 9.2 inch howitzer – 132 kg shells at targets 10km away. It has a High angle of fire, and required a Crew of 14 to operate and was fired from a fixed position. This type of gun and the later 12 and 15 inch proved key to eventual victory on the western front.

The museum is not all about life and impact on the soldiers during the world wars. It also holds an exhibitions highlighting what life was life for families living in Britain during the second would war in their family in wartime exhibition. The permanent exhibition follows the Allpress family and shows how they coped with rationing, evacuation, work and event during the London Blitz. There are reconstructions of 1940s rooms to explore along with the change to explore the different roles of both male and females during this time.

Another permanent exhibition in the museum is the Holocaust. It tells the story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews and other groups before and during the war. On display are photographs, documents artefacts posters and films showing the evidence of what happened. It is not recommended for children under the age of 14. There is also a scale model of Auschwitz with a breakdown of what happened when people arrived. It is an exhibition, which really opens one’s eyes to something so terrible, which happened in our history.

On the top floor of the museum is the Lord Ashcroft gallery and in it shows photography of 250 extraordinary heroes. All those feature in the gallery have been awarded either the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. In addition, all those featured have shown acts of great bravery. They have been broken down into a number of qualities – boldness, aggression, leadership, skill, sacrifice, initiative and endurance. It is the world’s largest collection of Victoria crosses alongside George Crosses and the stories of what these men and women did makes amazing reading. 

The display also explores what bravery is and what motivates a person to undertake such an act even if it could mean death for them. Accompanying the information boards in the gallery are also photographs, films, objects and of course the medals.

Here is an example of one act of Heroism hat you can read in the gallery: 

French-born Odette Sansom worked undercover in France during the Second World War, serving as a courier on behalf of the British Government, for Special Operations Executive (SOE).

In April 1943 she was captured and interrogated. Despite brutal torture by the Gestapo, she told them nothing, her silence saving the lives of many agents.

Sansom was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in July 1944. She was treated harshly, once kept in the dark on her own for over three months. She survived the camp, later giving evidence against several of Ravensbrück’s staff.

In 1946 she was awarded the George Cross (GC) for refusing to betray her fellow secret agents under torture. She became a national heroine and in 1950, a film was made about her. Sansom accepted her GC on behalf of all her comrades who did not survive the war

Finally, the Imperial War museum, London holds the most important and extensive collection of British war art in the world. When first established in 1917 it immediately began to commission artist in the field. By 1920, it already had a collection of over 3000. Currently there are over 85000 in the museum’s collection.

The museum is free to enter but does ask for a suggested donation to help assist in the upkeep of the museum. There are a number of gift shops and a cafe onsite. It is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Along with the number of permanent exhibitions I have already mentioned it also has a number of temporary exhibitions. Please visit their website for more information:


Imperial War museums. 2008.    Imperial war museum London guidebook. Imprerial War Museum: London

Wikipedia. 2018. Pals Battalion. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 July 2018].

Bruce Robinson. 2010. The Pals Battalions in World War One. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 July 2018

Imperial War Museum. 2018. [Accessed 1 July 2018]

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