A bible pierced with a bullet hole. A wooden cross that marked a Hampshire soldier’s grave in France. A doll a sailor gave to his daughter before leaving on his last fateful voyage.
Every object in Portsmouth City Museum’s new Lest We Forget exhibition tells a poignant and personal story about the First World War.
City museums project co-ordinator Sue Wright said the hundreds of items on display all contained a story that was still being told.
She said a key part of the exhibition was to encourage Portsmouth people to add their own families’ stories about the war.
‘It’s very much a living exhibition,’ Ms Wright said.
‘We want to have Portsmouth people add to our knowledge of the sacrifice of the city in the First World War.
‘Within the collection there are 300 individuals who are named in different contexts – on a letter, a diary, on a photograph or on a war memorial. We have a lot of information about some of them, but with others, all we have is an object and a name that it’s connected to.
‘We’d like people to come and help us fill in those stories and uncover those missing personal experiences.
The exhibition is spread across two main rooms.
The first reflects the hopes for a short conflict when war was declared, while the second takes a more sombre tone as the harsh reality of war set in.
As well as the objects on display, the exhibition includes interactive games and recordings to listen to.
Ms Wright said: ‘For example, there’s an interactive race game, where the winner is the first one to get on a troop ship.
‘It takes you through the decision-making process people would have gone through when deciding if they were going to join up.’
She said the exhibition included things people could connect to in different ways.
‘It’s important that people realise that there’s something for everybody,’ she said.
‘It’s an opportunity for families to come and experience something about the First World War that is interesting and relevant for them. This exhibition is not only about the past – it’s also about the future and the legacy that we hand over to future generations.’
Dr Brad Beaven is a reader in social and cultural history at the University of Portsmouth and guest curator on the exhibition.
He said he had the idea for Lest We Forget when he was writing a book about the First World War.
He said: ‘That was start of the exhibition, and it snowballed from there.
‘It became about all aspects of Portsmouth people in the First World War.
‘I was able to use the gallery collection as a starting point, so I had the pleasure of selecting from a vast array of objects and archives.’
Dr Beaven said Portsmouth’s naval heritage meant the city was especially touched by the First World War.
He said: ‘Portsmouth was badly hit by events like the Battle of Jutland because there were so many men from our area on the ships.
‘So many men were lost at sea and Portsmouth became a town in mourning.’
Dr Beaven said Portsmouth was one of the few cities in Britain’s south to have raised its own battalion – known as the Portsmouth Pals.
‘That was effectively when workmates and friends came together under the banner of Portsmouth, so it gave Portsmouth a civic identity.
‘The Pals battalions were usually associated with the midlands and the north, so Portsmouth is quite special in that way.’
The exhibition is a joint venture between the museum and the university, and is funded by the National Lottery. Lest We Forget is free to visit, and runs until January 25.
HE took a meticulous record of his experiences in the war until the day an enemy bomb claimed his life.
The diary of Dudley Heynes, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Horse Artillery and Royal Field Artillery, is a fascinating part of the Lest We Forget exhibition.
Curator Dr Brad Beaven said the diary offered a poignant insight into one soldier’s experiences.
He said: ‘His last entry says “Tinker does my washing”, and then the diary goes blank.
‘So we know something happened to Dudley Heynes in 1918.
‘In fact, he was killed a day after he wrote that.’
2LT Heynes’s last entry was made on May 15, 1918, just before was killed by a bomb dropped from a German plane at Villers-Bretonneux in France.
He left behind a wife and two children, who lived in Winter Road, Southsea.
WAR graves today are mostly sturdy, white marble structures, but it wasn’t always so.
A wooden cross which marked the grave of a soldier who died in France is also part of the exhibition.
Ms Wright said little was known about the cross aside from the name of the man it was put up for.
She said: ‘I was at St Wilfrid’s Church in Portsmouth, where I saw this cross.
‘This is the only one in Portsmouth, and in fact the only one in Hampshire.
‘It was a marker brought back from France, we presume after the war.
‘It marks the grave of a gentleman called Lance Corporal Cooley of the First Hampshire Regiment.’
Ms Wright said she hoped someone might be able to fill in more details of the cross and the man it stood for, along with the hundreds of other objects in the exhibition.
A last gift
BEFORE leaving for war, William Hendy gave his daughter a gift - a doll in a cloth dress done up with a purple ribbon.
It turned out to be the last thing he would ever be able to give her - the Royal Navy sailor was killed in the Dardanelles when his ship, the HMS Wolverine, came under attack.
City Museums project co-ordinator Sue Wright said the doll had been lovingly cared for through the decades to eventually make its way into the Lest We Forget exhibition.
She said: ‘It was a keepsake passed down through one family in Portsmouth.
‘A lady came to the museum called Chris Lavis, and bought this doll in a box wrapped up in cloth.
‘It was a special item and I was intrigued.
‘She said the doll was a gift to her mother from her mother’s father.’
Ms Wright said objects such as the doll brought home the closeness of the First World War. She said: ‘It brings a lump to your throat.
‘This is a very personal story and it’s actually immediate.
‘We think of the First World War as being a long time ago but for many people it’s not.
‘They’re still talking about their fathers and their grandfathers.
‘It’s all about living history.’