Five years of special events and exhibitions examining how Leeds was affected by the First World War seen by millions of people are coming to an end today. Chris Burn reports.
When Lucy Moore was appointed as First World War Projects Curator for the Leeds Museums and Galleries service in 2013, she knew the importance of getting the project right alongside the many other project partners because of her own fascinating family history.
Her great-grandfather Walter Barnsdale had volunteered to fight but ended up as a prisoner of war in Germany, being put to work in the salt mines alongside other captured Allied troops.
“He died when I was four years old but I knew about our family history and his experiences in the war,” she says. “To me, the war wasn’t something that happened a long time ago, it was actually very close.”
She says camp life had not been easy and he had a particularly frightening experience when he injured his hands and was taken for an operation.
“He didn’t speak German and didn’t know what was going to happen or if they were going to cut off his hands. After the operation was finished, he was hugely relieved to still have his hands.”
But the experience also had unexpected positives as prisoners set up educational classes.
“He was an agricultural labourer from Lincolnshire and suddenly had access to teachers and maths lecturers. He said it was like going to university.”
When he came back to the UK after the war ended he used the knowledge he had learned as a foundation to train as an architect.
Such personal stories of the conflict impacted on ordinary people was central to the ‘‘Legacies of War’ project established in Leeds to mark 100 years since the conflict began. In the city, 82,000 men fought in the war and almost 10,000 were killed, while thousands of women and girls were employed to work at munitions factories – with Leeds becoming one of the major industrial centres of war work.
The commemoration programme, which began in 2014 and is ending today with the closure of Goodbye to All That? exhibition exploring the lasting impact of the conflict after it ended, was led by Leeds City Council, with exhibitions and events run by Leeds Museums and Galleries and Leeds Library and Information Service and research projects conducted by the University of Leeds.
Highlights included the In Their Footsteps exhibition exploring the stories of how people from Leeds were affected that was curated by a group of young history enthusiasts called the Preservative Party. Moore says it has been the contribution of ordinary people that has made the projects so meaningful.
More than 260 community groups and more than 17,000 people have been involved in various activities and projects, with the exhibition and display programme having almost 900,000 visitors.
She says one of the most memorable projects involved local dementia groups creating poppies to mark the lives of local people who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The initial aim was to create 200 poppies but the enthusiasm of those involved resulted in about 4,000 being made.
Moore says it is estimated a further two million people have seen a sculpture trail created by artist Ian Kirkpatrick examining different aspects of the war that was located in prominent parts of the city including Trinity Leeds shopping centre and Kirkgate Market. An official report on how the commemoration programme went is due to be published next month but Lucy says it fair to say expectations at the outset of the project have been exceeded.
“There has been an army of people helping across the five years. There is such a thirst for knowledge all around the city. People really felt like part of a family trying to achieve something. As a museum service, we want to carry that forward.”