The IWM Experience

Having been on a family road trip to Normandy a few years ago, the experience has remained a vivid remembrance of the horrors of a war that was fought mostly in France. Well, that is not entirely fair since the Eastern Front in Poland, Ukraine and Russia had far more casualties, and World War II did also involve battles in East and Southeast Asia as well as Northern Africa.

Scene from Normandy 2013

But nonetheless, it is just one example of how the horrors of war are entrenched in the land of this country and in the psyche of its people.  In this “musing”, I build on earlier reflections about the lingering effects of World War II on the Riviera with my impressions of a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London.

As an American, I grew up knowing that my father had served as a physician with the US Army in the final days of World War II, and later I learned that my father-in-law had a formative experience supporting the American advances in Italy. My own generation was caught up with the US war in Vietnam – more as protesters of the war, though, than as soldiers, although one brother-in-law did serve in Vietnam and one of my high school classmates was among the thousands of American soldiers who died there.  And in the next generation, mostly nephews in this case were caught up in the Persian Gulf War(s).  But all of these are different from living in a war zone. The memorials, as one finds along the National Mall in Washington, DC, or in Richmond, Virginia, are not the same as the localized history of a daily presence of conflict in one’s own community.

And now, as a recently ensconced resident of southern France, I have experienced a growing awareness of the immediacy of war in time and place, stimulated by the chance discovery in my wanderings here and there, from village to  village, of quiet and unobtrusive memorials made of stone with names hewn into them of each village’s progeny lost in war.

The Significance of Operation Dragoon

It is somewhat ironic that my interest in what happened during World War II here in southern France was influenced in large part by what the Americans did in this area. One of my earlier “musings” featured the colorful but solemn ceremony last August at a memorial (on a traffic circle near our home) to honor the Americans, Brits and Canadians who fought and, yes, many did lose their lives, in this part of the world. We had been vaguely aware of the German occupation of this area from neighbors who still remembered a cannon placement here and an encampment there. But it was only at this August event that we heard the details of “Operation Dragoon”, as a back-up to the Norman invasions, which also liberated the region from the German occupation.

Not knowing much about Operation Dragoon before this event, but with a growing awareness of its relevance to the very community we had chosen to live in, we were intrigued some weeks later to encounter a blurb on the Anglo-Info website about an American author who had just published a book on this very subject. So we made a special effort to attend his book-signing reception in Antibes, and I eventually got around to reading the entirety of the book – The Riviera at War: World War II on the Cote d’Azur by Geroge. G. Kundahl.

Such books, about who fought what battle and who aligned with whom and where military strategies worked and where they didn’t, are not my usual literary fare. And much of this one did still have a MEGO effect on me.  My own record of considerable interest in history has usually encompassed learning about the causes of wars, but then ignoring the war games completely since history already tells us who won and who lost, and simply picking up after the conclusions to focus on the aftermaths of these wars.

I do thank the author for writing the book – the first for an English version of what actually happened in the Riviera during World War II. Above and beyond the ho-hum reaction to the detailed battle descriptions, I did learn from the book that (a) the French resistance in the region was considerable; (b) the French resistance was nonetheless very divided; and (c) the liberation of the Riviera by Americans was a very mixed blessing since few Americans spoke French and since MANY Americans behaved very ungraciously, as though they were occupying enemy German territory but also as though they had the right to misbehave.

There isn’t a whole lot in the book about the political aftermath of the end to World War II in the region – other than the immediate effects of coping with retribution against German collaborators. That in itself was pretty bad, but the motivation is there to learn more about the region’s role in the post-war establishment of the Fourth Republic. Of course, there was the early triumverate of Communists, Socialists and Christian Democrats, the “retirement” of General Charles de Gaulle, the beginnings of the Cold War, saving France from communism, the Marshall Plan, tense demands of decolonization….Well, the dynamic quickly shifts from “aftermath” to “what next”.

Connecting to the Imperial War Museum

Anyway, to return to the experience of an evolving awareness of wartime horrors, I had a recent trip to London for an unrelated social event that included some extra time to explore London sites. Having already “been to London” several times, I had no interest in repeat visits to Buckingham Palace, Parliament, the Tower of London, the London Eye, or any of the obvious and excellent museums of London fame. Been there, done that. But I had been impressed by the recent media attention to two films with a World War II setting, Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour. So why not, I proposed to myself, get a sense of the London approach to this war – a war that clearly had a lot to do with France as one of the major battlegrounds of that war.

Sure enough, the Imperial War Museum was a good candidate for a different look at London – and for a look at wartime in general since it is ranked by many as the best wartime museum in the world.  The IWM, however, is unique because it specializes in the social history of armed conflict and has quite an emphasis on the opposition to war. So the itinerary was to start with this survey of wartime memories in London. (I did include a second priority – a Picasso exhibit at the Tate Modern – but that is for another “musing”.) It was a cold and rainy morning as I took the Tube to the appointed station and walked to the main site for the IWM, which is in a modest partk along Lambeth Street in the Southwark section of London.  (That means nothing to me but does help to situate the museum somewhere near the Thames riverfront and Tate Modern.)

The Tibetan Peace Garden

Much to my surprise, the first thing I saw upon entering the park was a Tibetan Peace Garden! What a contrast! As it turned out upon a tour of the main exhibits inside the museum, of course, this was not really the case. But the first impression was that a small Tibetan-inspired peace garden was quite the pass-through from a quiet corner of the park to the imposing entrance of the museum itself, where one is immediately struck by two huge naval cannons on display! The museum itself was established in 1917 to capture the memories of the first World War, and indeed it still does this with powerful effect. It has since grown to a network of museums (a naval battleship, for one, another museum in the north of England and the now popularized Churchill War Rooms, to name a few). But the Tibetan Peace Garden was a fulfilling start to the day.

Dedicated in 1999 by the XIV Dalai Lama, the Peace Garden is based on a “dharma wheel” and features the Kalarchakra Mandela, a circular piece cast in bronze with an overlay of black limestone and four sculptures representing earth, wind, fire and water.  In addition, there are eight benches to symbolize the eight paths of meditation. A pillar stands next to this configuration with a writing from the Dalai Lama engraved in four different languages – Tibetan, Chinese, Hindi and English. The message reads:

We human beings are passing through a crucial period in our development. Conflict and mistrust have plagued the past century which has brought immeasurable human suffering and environmental destruction. It is in the interest of all of us on this planet that we make a joint effort to turn the next century into an era of peace and harmony. May this peace garden become a monument to the courage of the Tibetan people and their commitment to peace. May it remain as a symbol to remind us that human survival depends on living in harmony and on always choosing the path of non-violence in resolving our differences.

Initial Impressions from the IWM

This chance discovery of the Peace Garden served very effectively to set the tone for the rest of the visit.

Naval Cannons at the Imperial War Museum

Even with the daunting presence of the two naval cannons at the entrance, the atmosphere of the museum was welcoming. The main lobby area was teeming with student groups on their field trips to the museum, many of them chattering away in languages other than English. The displays were not exactly militaristic but rather examples of how violent conflict affects us all – a Reuters Land Rover that had been hit by an Israeli air-borne rocket in Palestine, a mangled Iraqi civilian vehicle destroyed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad.


The most striking for me was a slide show next to a German V-2 rocket that had been used to bomb London. It depicted the story of Wernher von Braun, the chief designer of the German V-1 bomb and V-2 missile for hitting the UK. My camera did  not capture it well, but the slide show lists the numbers of people killed by the V-weapons. It also points out that more people died making the V-weapons in slave labour conditions in underground factories than were ever killed by them. At the end of the war, von Braun was tried and found guilty of war crimes, but he still ended up working for the US on missile development during the Cold War. He was instrumental in designing the missile that launched the manned-flight to the moon in 1969.  As described in the slide show, we have the “deeply ambiguous” tale of a war criminal transformed into an American hero. We even see a closing shot of him in the slide show, waving to crowds in New York City, celebrating this 1969 success.

The impact of the IWM portrayal of World War I

This certainly set the stage for entering the main exhibit here at the IWM on the social history of World War I.  I was immediately struck by the IWM message that World War I marked another significant transformation in wars, with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution producing massive destruction of both soldiers in trench warfare and civilians indiscriminately unable to escape the weapons of war. This proved to be the main message and lesson learned from visiting the museum, the message that armed conflicts have become so comprehensively devastating that there should indeed be an end to war for all time. How ironic, then, that the war to end all wars merely led to another world war!

To be fair, the IWM exhibit does not specifically lead to that conclusion, although it does touch on the burdensome reparations mentality that weighed against the fledgling German democracy of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. What struck me even more was the reminder that the war involved two major battles, not just the Battle of the Somme with some 1 million casualties, which is seen in the UK as the leading example of the dreadful nature of modern warfare, but also the Battle of Verdun, which also produced some 700,000 casualties and came to be the main focal point of French wartime remembrances.  In the midst of youthful student groups surging through the displays, I paused to reflect on the depiction of these two battles and absorbed the stunning awareness of how the two major battles of World War I differed in their relevance to the national psyches of France and Britain.

The rest of the museum was less of an overview of subsequent conflicts than this focus on World War I, but I am not bothered by this. In fact, I have to say that the most important lesson of my IWM visit was to appreciate the horrible phenemona of World War I, in spite of the more recent relevance of the horrors of World War II. The poppy symbol of remembrance of World War I is pervasive in the UK but not in France or elsewhere, but it acquired additional meaning for me as a result of this visit.

Further into the IWM Experience

Elsewhere in the museum, there was no comparable exhibit laying out the horrors of World War II, although there was a powerfully presented special exhibit on the Holocaust during World War II. Having been twice to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, this was a welcome parallel, and it is an important contribution for the IWM to link the devastating power of ethnic hatred and genocide so directly to the horrors of war. Similarly, the IWM had three other special exhibits, one on life for the citizenry in the UK during World War II, another one on conflict in the Cold War and yet another entitled “The Age of Terror”.

The first was a poignant display of wartime endurance but essentially very localized to the British experience. The second was a useful trip down memory lane but not necessarily unique. And the third was a strikingly anti-war display of artworks to symbolize the changing perception of conflict as a result of the 9/11 and subsequent acts of terror. Oddly, and probably because the rest of the museum was free while this exhibit had an entry fee, this exhibit was almost empty – no chattering student groups or other crowds to disrupt the viewing experience.

The Impact of Churchill as an Orator

Before leaving, I stopped in the museum shop and appreciated all of the poppy-decorated memorabilia (coffee mugs, decorative pins, pillow covers,  T shirts) but did not buy any. (In France, one chooses the blue cornflower, the “bleuet”, as a symbol of remembrance,) The shop was abundantly supplied with the new book on The Darkest Hour, and I did opt to buy a copy of that, in anticipation of a visit to the underground Churchill War Rooms before my departure from London on the next day. How odd, I thought. I did not know that this film about Churchill was based on a book. Subsequently, upon reading the book, I was disappointed to learn that it had been written after the film, by the screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, and was essentially an explanation of why he wrote the script for the film. Well, he is a reputable screenwriter. So it wasn’t all that bad.

It was interesting to learn that it was through his initiative that the film was made, inspired primarily by his interest in oratory and the role of Winston Churchill’s oratory in mobilizing British resolve to resist Hitler. But I was a bit bothered by his glib remark, albeit somewhat in passing, that all famous orators are men. Ouch! Is that fair? It is not easy to come up with any historical examples of women orators – perhaps Elizabeth I? Sojourner Truth? Maybe there are more current examples.  Maya Angelou comes to mind, as does Malala Yousafzai. Maybe some in French? Joan of Arc? Simone Weil, perhaps? Oh well. Oh well. The author, however, is more widely criticized for his premise and his efforts to document proof that Churchill almost caved in to making an offer to negotiate peace with Hitler before coming around to his determined stance against surrender.

The mild disappointment over the book should not be overstated. It was useful to read it and to have some insights into how much effort was put into successful oratory. And the film has certainly been well received as a further study of the iconic Winston Churchill. The real disappointment, in my case, was to miss the wrap-up of my London wartime tour, the underground Churchill War Rooms. Imagine my dismay as I walked from the Westminster Tube Station to the Treasury buildings to discover a LONG LINE of tourists waiting to enter! It took me a while to realize that I was not going to have enough time to wait in that line and still get to the airport for my flight.

An Aside on Ticket Purchases in London

I would add a few comments here unrelated to the wartime survey but relevant to anyone wanting to be better prepared as a tourist in London. The website for the Churchill War Rooms does have the option of advance purchase of tickets at a reasonable price – somewhere around 10 pounds, as I recall. I didn’t bother with this because I didn’t think I needed to do an advance purchase. Upon discovering the long line, I also learned from a museum official standing outside that anyone with a pre-purchased ticket could just show it on their phone and skip the line.

So I went “on line” while waiting “in the line”, came upon a listing of several websites, clicked on the first one, saw that the entry ticket was a minimum of some 23 pounds, gulped a bit but bought it and took my phone up to the museum official. Wrong! He explained that I had booked the ticket through a tourist agency and not directly with the museum’s website and that it was only if I had a ticket from the museum’s website that I could show it on my phone. For all other pre-purchased tickets, I had to have a printed copy. He explained that there was a print shop some distance away but did not specify how to find it. And in any case, that was out of the question for me in terms of the time I had available for the visit. I tried to cancel the ticket with the tourist agency, but no such luck.

I report this here, not so much because I missed out on the tour, but because tourist agencies obviously raise the price of tickets that can be purchased directly from this museum – by more than double! Be warned!


World wars are horrible. Local wars are horrible. Conflict may be part of our lives wherever we may be, but we can and must find paths to the prevention of violent conflict, even where this may require managing conflict, with or without a happy ending. The main purpose for my trip to London was to attend a reception for the new president of Oberlin College, who came to Europe to meet with Oberlin alumni. Oberlin has a unique history of inclusiveness – the first coeducational college in the US, founded in 1833 and in the forefront of the Underground Railroad and civil rights. She spoke of contemporary challenges of tolerating different points of view, especially where they are in conflict with one’s own views. The approach that Oberlin is embracing, she explained, is a listening dialogue for all – not a dialogue to persuade or advocate one’s position – but rather a dialogue to hear and understand all points of view.

The IWM experience did not specifically articulate this concept, but it was filled with examples of statements against violent conflict and especially about its effect on dividing people from each other. Observing the expressions of individuals and groups who are suffering, even where their positions and values may differ from one’s own, does speak out for compassion, for listening and for starting down the path of a search for non-violent solutions.

This may take us beyond the immediacy of time and place regarding the Riviera and World War II. In fact, the insights garnered from the IWM exhibit regarding World War I and the Battle of Verdun do suggest the greater presence of wartime remembrances in northern France than here on the Riviera. And this does set the stage for another road trip, to be sure. As for the two recent films (Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour), the focus clearly is on the British experience, with French critics even suggesting that this was an unfortunate missing of the mark of the French role, especially in the first of these.

On the other hand, we do know that there was the physical presence of a wartime occupation back here in the Riviera  – in Grasse, in Peymeinade, in Provence, in the Alpes-Maritimes, and throughout the Riviera. We will continue to explore this as we seek to learn more about the history of this region. Our next road trip, meanwhile, will take us to nearby Draguignan, a military base for the French, to be sure, but also, as we have recently learned, the location of the American cemetery for the soldiers who lost their lives in Operation Dragoon.  It is not as well known as the cemeteries in Normandy, but we are on a learning curve and will continue to explore these local features.

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