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Exhibition explores the First World War through letters, poems, diaries and fiction
"Flanders Field" poster. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

AUSTIN, TX.- In conjunction with the centenary of the start of the First World War, the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, presents the exhibition "The World at War, 1914–1918." The exhibition runs from Feb. 11 through Aug. 3.

Triggered by the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian-Serb student, the First World War began a month later when Austria-Hungary invaded the Kingdom of Serbia in retaliation. Within weeks, nearly all of the nation-states of Europe were drawn into a war that lasted four long years, drew in the United States and killed 10 million servicemen. Tens of millions of civilians died from military action, famine and disease.

Co-curated by Literary Collections Research Associate Jean M. Cannon and French Collections Research Associate Elizabeth L. Garver, the exhibition draws on the Ransom Center's collections to explore the personal experiences of the First World War from the point of view of its participants and observers through letters, drafts and diaries of soldier poets; memoirs and novels; photographic documentation and works produced by battlefield artists; and propaganda posters.

"Even a century after its end, we have much to learn about an event that touched the lives of nearly every citizen then alive," said Cannon. "I hope visitors will be fully immersed in what must have been one of the most conflicted and demanding moments in human history."

The history of the war is told through the archives of men and women who witnessed watershed events that ushered in the modern world as we know it. The literature of the famed trench poets of the conflict are highlighted by drafts and journals composed on the actual front lines of battle. Letters and diaries written by women and children on the home front capture the anxiety of waiting for news from loved ones and bear witness to changes in society brought forward by mass mobilization.

Photographs of battles, evacuations and the care of the wounded—many of which were censored during wartime—illuminate the realities of the soldiers, nurses, medics and ambulance drivers closest to combat. Finally, the Ransom Center's extensive collection of propaganda posters from the era sheds light on the war aims of almost every major nation-state engaged in the conflict.

"I'm struck by how many forms of censorship influenced the lives of the men and women who experienced this period: army censorship of letters to and from the front, government censorship of news reports and photographs taken during battles and even families' censorship of fallen soldiers' letters in the years after their sons and brothers died," said Cannon. "It seems as if the surviving population did not have a firm understanding of the war until nearly a decade after its end, when information was released largely due to the fact that a second global war was in the making. By putting wartime artifacts on display in the gallery, we hope to contribute to this unfolding process of revealing the individual's experience of the war."

The exhibition is organized thematically, and its layout mirrors the eastern and western fronts of the war. Sections include "The War Begins," "A Lost Generation," "For Ever England," "Ireland and the Easter Uprising," "Women and Children in Wartime," "Opposing the War," "The Weapons of War," "Animals," "Treating the Wounded," "Over There," "African-American Soldiers," "The Italian Front," "The Lost," "Reporting the War" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

A fully illustrated companion catalog will complement the exhibition. "The World at War, 1914–1918" (University of Texas Press and the Harry Ransom Center), written by exhibition curators Cannon and Garver and with a foreword by author Stephen Harrigan, features images, diaries, letters, propaganda posters, maps and photographs from the exhibition.

"The World at War, 1914–1918" will be on view in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

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