August marks 100 years since World War I began. Here, Museum Studies intern Connie Eggers provides an insight into Special Collections’ World War I holdings:
Special Collections holds literally hundreds of books, photographs, diaries, letters, and other items connected to World War I. These can all be found on the Special Collections rare books and manuscripts search but you often need to know what you’re searching for or you have to do some pretty good virtual detective work. As a summer placement student, that’s where I come in, since one of the things I was tasked with this summer was to do that detective work for you and compile a list of everything I could find connected to World War I. Wow, the stuff I found!
In 1974 the university was gifted the records of the 6th Battalion Cameron Highlanders Reunion Club. These records include wartime items such as diaries, photographs, postcards, and a souvenir booklet created by some of the officers and men after their first year together as a battalion. There are also reminiscences recorded after the war, press clippings, personal notes, speeches and the roll and minute books for the reunion club, which met every year until 1974. These, along with the letters of Francis MacCunn (donated separately in 1967) , who served with the 6th Battalion, are the subject of a display I created that will be presented in the Special Collections foyer display case in October. More about that in a later blog post! In the meantime you can see photos of some of the items in our Flickr album.
Special Collections also has the letters of another soldier. Alec Lawrence Macfie served with the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders 1917-1918 and he wrote to his mother faithfully from military training and then from the war in France. Macfie survived the war and went on to become a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Glasgow. The letters to his mother are part of a greater collection of his professional papers.
So, those were the easy ones. The Special Collections manuscript search flags those up for you using the search term ‘War’. The rest of the 400 or so items that made it to my final list? Not so easy! Many of them were hiding in amongst other items in collections that would seemingly have little to do with World War I.
As you can imagine, the war was on everyone’s lips between 1914 and 1918. Personal letters written between friends and professional colleagues of the time often held talk of the war. Sometimes it was news of a family member serving in France or an opinion of how the war was being conducted or how it was being supported at home.
D.S. MacColl, a Glasgow born painter and art critic was the keeper of the Wallace Collection in London during the war years. In amongst his extensive papers are many personal letters. I found a series of 5 or 6 letters that really intrigued me. They were from another Glaswegian, Muirhead Bone (what a cool name!). Muirhead Bone was appointed as the first official British war artist in 1916. The appointment, however, was not simply handed to him. He campaigned hard for the position and his enthusiasm can be seen in his letters to MacColl. In one letter he declares this would be “a wiser and more economical use to make of me than to set me to guard the gas works at Slocum-on-Sea. If I’d been a German the German government would certainly have got me to do this sort of work.” (MS MacColl B371). Another artist, Henry Tonks, became an official war artist in 1918.
I also found some very sad letters within the MacColl collection. One was from the author James Granville Legge recommending to MacColl an unknown artist whose career had been devastated by the war. “The war has reduced him to utter want. He is a delicate man and it is idle for him to enlist” (MS MacColl L83). The other two were both from a German man living in Glasgow. He had been a teacher there for years but the “public feeling against all Germans is very strong in Glasgow with the result that getting any boarders into the house or any private teaching is out of the question.” (MS MacColl S86 & S87). The poor man was in such dire straits that he was preparing to sell his most prized possession – a 16th century German bible printed just after the death of Martin Luther!
I found a rather puzzling typed short story titled My German Experiences. It details the experiences of a British teacher living and working in Berlin at the outbreak of war in 1914. The writer gives a fascinating first-person account of the war reports printed in German newspapers, the sudden disruption in travel and mail, the unwavering kindness of some long-time German friends and the suspicion and rejection she experienced from others, along with a description of the growing panic of foreigners trying to leave the country, their treatment by the local authorities and the spreading fear of spies from within. Unfortunately the story ends abruptly in midsentence at the end of page 20! We only know she made it safely back to Britain because she tells us that at the beginning. Were the final pages lost before the story got to Special Collections? Was the story perhaps never finished? The pages were purchased from Sotheby’s in 1986 as part of a greater collection of papers belonging to the Scottish artist and children’s book illustrator, Jessie M. King. Exactly who authored this story is a bit of a mystery, though. The storyteller is called ‘Miss King’ once in the story but King herself lived in Paris from 1910-1915. She then moved to Kirkcudbright where she lived until her death in 1949. If she is the author, it is likely a work of fiction. However, King was the youngest of three daughters. Perhaps the story is the true-life experience of one of her sisters. Either way, it is an interesting and well-written story that gives the reader a glimpse into what it was like to be a foreigner in Berlin at the outbreak of war.
Another item that popped up during my search was a sketcher’s notebook, used as a scrapbook by J.A. Erskine-Murray (Ms Gen 910). The manuscripts search listed item 4 in the sketchbook as ‘Extracts from modified armistice terms, World War I’. While this item is indeed World War I related, I discovered a couple of other items, also in the sketchbook, that have nothing to do with the war but absolutely fascinated me. The first is the telegraph recording tape of the first wireless message sent from France to England on 28 March 1899 with the message written out (in French) under the dots and dashes. A handwritten note above the tape says that the first message from England to France was given to the Queen of Italy. As I sat there I couldn’t help thinking to myself ‘How many people have ever seen this, much less gotten to hold it in their hands!’ The other item was equally as exciting. It is vol. I, no. 1 of the Transatlantic Times published on board the ‘St. Paul’ in November 1899. This was the first use of wireless telegraphy to produce a printed news bulletin at sea. Makes you stop and think about just how far we’ve come in global communications!
Although they have not yet been fully catalogued, Special Collections also holds over 100 items, mostly in the form of flyers, handbills and public notices, from a town in northeast France that was occupied by the German army during WWI. Included in these ephemera is a printed programme from a celebration in recognition of the Kaiser’s birthday, a personal identity card that all residents of the town were required to carry and a handy little vocabulary booklet in French and German, written presumably for both the town citizens and the occupying soldiers. You can view some of these items in our Flickr album titled WWI/Charleville, France.
Last but certainly not least, I want to mention the poetry books. Most were published during the war years and all are compilation books of poems written by soldiers. They are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes hopeful, and sometimes heartbreaking. Some speak of one’s duty to God and country; others lament the waste of human life and the futility of war. Most of the poems are not literary genius but they do offer us a glimpse into the thoughts of ordinary men who felt the need to put pen to paper during extraordinary times.
Connie’s list of WWI items in Special Collections will be available to view on our webpages soon.
Categories: Special Collections