Messages and Meanings: Words of War

In this theme you can explore the private evidence of letters and cards, diaries, memoirs and poems - as well the messages conveyed by official documents such as army forms, government propaganda and recruiting posters.

What did people know and feel about the First World War as it unfolded? What did they not know? How did they make sense of their own experiences both during and after the war? A century later, how can we begin to understand the complexity of an event that affected the lives of almost everyone in the world?

Use this evidence to help you answer some key questions: How was information about the war communicated? How and why did these messages change over time? What limits on communication were imposed by government censorship? And what special insights do private letters and other memorabilia offer us into what people thought of the war? And how did these thoughts change as the war continued from 1914 to 1918?

image credits: Vesta Tilley, published by The Philco Publishing Co bromide postcard print, NPG x138214, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Siegfried Loraine Sassoon by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1926, NPG Ax142432, © National Portrait Gallery, London. First World War propaganda poster. 'Food - don't waste it'. (League of National Safety Poster No.23), © National Museums Northern Ireland. First World War Recruitment poster: ' Do you Understand Horses?', © National Museums Northern Ireland. Christmas card of the 38th Welsh Division, 1917. Sent by Albert Richards to Annie, © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. Postcard commemorating the poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (Hedd Wyn) who died in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was posthumously awarded the bard's chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod, © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. New Testament, belonging to Private James Scouller, from Paisley, Renfrewshire, © National Museums Scotland. First World War Recruitment Poster, © National Museums Scotland. Sgt William White 4th Essex Regiment, in a front line trench, Gaza, Palestine, July 1917, © Courtesy of Alice White/Redbridge Museum. Field post card sent from Pte Cyril Page, 1/23rd London Regiment (The East Surrey Regiment), to his mother on 23 August 1918. Official Field postcards were often written in periods of heavy fighting. They were designed to save officers' time in having to read and censor letters, © Redbridge Museum/Information & Heritage. Wiltshire Regiment, three wounded soldiers selling flags, © The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum. Butterfly enclosed with a letter from Lt Col Graham to his son, September 1914, © The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum.