Lest We Forget: Take a tour of the World War One Remembrance Centre
Tucked underground in a corner of Fort Widley on Portsdown Hill is a network of corridors adorned with flags, photographs and documents from the First World War.
The World War One Remembrance Centre offers something new to discover with every visit.
There must be no other place that pays as much of a personal and heartfelt tribute to those who fought and died for their country.
With yesterday’s commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday tomorrow, museum director Charles Haskell is more enthusiastic than ever about preserving the story of the First World War.
A whistle-stop tour of the centre doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of its snaking timelines, which have provided many hours of insight and entertainment since they were first put on display in 2012.
Before explaining the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 – what many believe to have been the critical trigger of events that led to the start of the war – the centre takes an extensive look at British culture and how some of the country’s entertainment figures are tied to the war.
One example of this is beloved music hall singer and comedian Sir Harry Lauder, whose only son, Captain John Lauder, was killed in the Battle of the Somme and buried in Argyll.
Charles recalls: ‘Harry went to visit his son’s grave and laid belly-down with his arms around it, and in his memoirs he wrote ‘‘All I wanted to do was give my lad one last hug’’.
‘We’re not into politics or tactics, it’s more about personal bits and bobs. That usually is what grabs the youngsters and helps the teachers because it shows a bigger picture.
‘Anyone can look up facts about how the such-and-such division manoeuvred in such-and-such place, but we’re not into that.’
From there, Charles runs through a startling account of events and individuals you would never think to associate with one another. From how the sons of prime minister Herbert Asquith and Alice Hargreaves – the woman who inspired Alice In Wonderland’s eponymous character – are buried next to each other, to how British soldiers named exploding German shells after the black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, the attention to detail by Charles and his team of volunteers has left visitors in awe.
‘The research process into finding how all of these stories link up is so extensive that we’re still learning about it’, Charles admits.
‘We’re still finding out titbits of information about each story that we’ve been talking about for ages.’
Although the centre has been running for four years, its layout is never a constant. As families discover their ancestry through online genealogy services, donations of documents, photographs and even some artefacts come through Fort Widley’s doors for inclusion at the centre.
‘The 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme has not had such a big effect on us’, Charles argues.
‘The catch is that most people are using the internet to trace their family history. As soon as they discover that they had a relative who served and maybe even died during the Great War, they get interested in it. The 100th anniversary is almost like the icing on the cake.’
Tomorrow Charles is opening the doors of the centre for free, inviting families to come and experience some of the more personal stories behind the war.
Relatives of those who served during the war, and their kind donations, are vital to the growth of the museum.
He says: ‘We give people the choice of how to donate their items. We love just having a copy of a photograph or document if they wish to keep the original.
‘Sometimes we get very elderly people who have no remaining family, and they can donate artefacts, books, photographs and all sorts of things.’
The corridors of the museum are bursting with photographs and stories, all of which are translated into a number of languages to help the popularity of the museum amongst foreign visitors.
This is why the centre is in the process of moving to a new, bigger location near the Hilsea Lines – a decision which, Charles says, has been backed by the ‘tremendous moral support’ of Portsmouth City Council and Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt.
Halfway through my tour, I spot a large mural depicting Charles Dickens and other aspects of Portsmouth’s history.
Charles explains how he and his volunteers were forced to build around the mural.
He says: ‘The mural was a present to the trustees of the fort by a school, but we were still able to tie what we do in with it.
‘Because we couldn’t move it, I decided ‘‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’’ and so after some research I found details on one of Dickens’ grandchildren, Cedric Dickens, and how he was eventually killed on the battlefield of the Somme.’
What now surrounds the mural are authentic communications between Major Dickens and his battalion headquarters, detailing frankly terrifying calls for help in the trenches.
The centre has become a project of such passion to Charles that he admits frequently getting emotional when guiding guests around stories such as that of young scientist Henry Moseley, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1916 who died the year before in Gallipoli, Turkey.
‘He didn’t have to sign up, he was a scientist who was allowed to continue his research, but he decided to do his bit for the country.
‘There’s all these weird angles that we take and things that you don’t really consider to be part of the history surrounding the First World War.
Charles says: ‘We’ve received details and bits of information from people whose grandfathers were part of the concert parties which entertained soldiers during the First World War, and that’s also an unusual angle.’
It’s not just the unusual that Charles has a penchant for, it’s the international. As many museums only care for Queen and country and offer coverage of the British effort during the war, this centre serves as remembrance for all countries.
It seems that word of the centre has spread further than Europe, as exemplified by a significant donation from across the Atlantic.
In a glass case in one of the side rooms are dozens of postcards collected from around Europe by soldier Charles Kelly, sent by one of his relatives all the way from Florida.
Charles says: ‘It was quite a delightful result when we received the postcards. I now speak with the woman almost every day on social media, and she keeps a close eye on what we get up to from the States.’
Even to the uninitiated, the centre’s sense of personality gives it a vitality seldom seen in your average war museum.
The international relations that Charles has had the gift of developing through putting a face to the facts has made the centre a draw for both local residents and visitors from overseas.
Charles says: ‘We had some Turkish students here the other week looking at our exhibit on the Australians on their way to fighting the Turks.
‘We also had a group of about 20 French students come in the other week, so we got them standing underneath their flag and singing their national anthem. It was brilliant.’
‘We get lots of visitors from Germany and all around Europe, and they just love this place.
‘Everyone can just relate to it.’
TAKE A TRIP TO THE TRENCHES
Although the bulk of the WW1 Remembrance Centre is based around photographs, documents and artefacts from the Great War, one of the visitors’ favourite features is the life-size re-enactment of a trench on the Western Front.
It is a stunning but frightfully claustrophic labyrinth of narrow walkways, complete with sandbags, that was yet another passion project for centre director Charles Haskell.
Charles says: ‘It took us a fair few months to put it together, and we based it on bits and pieces from photographs of the trenches.
‘We’ve also installed light effects in here and when people walk through the trenches we turn up the sound of distant gunfire and explosions so people can get a real feel for what it was like in the trenches.’
Charles decided to spare his visitors trenchfoot and opted for floorboards as opposed to muddy ground, but he has gone some way to representing the trenches’ abundance of unwelcome vermin.
He says: ‘We’ve got these mechanical rats that are light-activated, and when we set them off they run around and often they’ve had people jumping up in the air or letting out a scream!’
THE FAMILY CONNECTION
Like many of the visitors and contributors to the WW1 Remembrance Centre, director Charles Haskell has a very personal connection to the war which has inspired his career spanning 40 years in historical research.
Charles’ great-uncle, Edward Jackson, served as a rifleman in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, but was killed in September 1916 in a network of German trenches.
Although he has no known grave, Edward is remembered on the huge memorial to the missing at Thiepval, France.
Charles explains: ‘As a coincidence, the area that Edward was killed in is a preserved memorial park, so I can actually get in the trench where he was when he got killed.
‘I learnt about Edward in the 1960s when I was asking my gran, Eva, to tell me about the family, and I knew nothing about World War One. A pal of mine took me out to the battlefield in the 1970s and I thought we were going to see a few fields and some woods, and we were just flabbergasted.
‘There was a mixture of human and horse bones lying around, there were live shells everywhere, we couldn’t believe it.’
Charles explains how a few car trips to the site became a regular minibus trip and then a coach excursion, which formed the foundation for his business.
Now Charles is on a mission to get every British person out to visit the trenches at least once.