From Street to Trench at IWM North: The long road back

Polly Checkland Harding

The world’s bloodiest war was so big it can be hard to get a handle on – but this new exhibition about WWI manages to make it personal.

For many of the men who fought in it, World War One was not just their first experience of war. It was also the first time they’d left home. Now that the globe is so much smaller, this seems astonishing – and it’s precisely the difference between then and now that a new exhibition at IWM North, timed to mark the centenary of the start of the war, sets out.

From Street to Trench (5 April – 31 May 2015) begins at Stockport Market on the eve of war. The route through the exhibition is geographical, leading from the towns and factories of the north to the trenches that gouged their way for hundreds of miles across Belgium and France. But while it documents military life, it also looks at how the war affected those left at home, and how we have since commemorated and memorialised what became the world’s deadliest conflict.

You can discover exactly what part you would have played, if you had lived during the war

It is an astonishingly rich exhibition; over 200 objects, film clips, sound recordings, photos, art works and letters have been collected, including never before seen items donated by the public. The museum has commissioned artists to create a series of new works for the Centenary, while the stories that From Street to Trench tells range from letters between two Liverpudlian sisters, which span the entire duration of the war, to rarely-seen documents and manuscripts by Wilfred Owen, who served with the Manchester Regiment.

Perhaps the most compelling aspects of From Street to Trench, though, are those that get the public directly involved. You can crawl through a frontline tunnel, or use interactive screens to discover exactly what part you would have played, if you had been living as a woman, man or child in the years of the war. In an interconnected world that seems smaller than ever, it’s a way of closing the more difficult distance that the past can seem to be at.

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