Harry Ransom Center exhibit gives a personal look into WWI

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Exhibit curators Christina Jones (left) and Elizabeth Garver go over the final steps of setting up "The World At War, 1914-1918" on Monday morning. Jones and Garver have been preparing the exhibit - which will open today - for the past two years. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

For soldiers during World War I, diary entries, poetry, photos and drawings served as an escape from the horrific events around them. Today, these personal accounts allow insight into the reality of life on the front. 

The Harry Ransom Center’s exhibit “The World at War, 1914-1918” gives the public a chance to view these documents up close. 

Rather than showcasing common World War I memorabilia, such as weapons, “The World at War, 1914-1918” juxtaposes these personal documents with mass-produced propaganda and recruitment posters. 

“[The Ransom center is] not a military museum,” said Elizabeth Garver, a curator for “The World at War, 1914-1918.” “We are basically a literary repository, so that’s what we collect: people’s letters and their manuscripts to themselves. It’s really a personal view, and some of it is quite atrocious. We’ve got letters where [the soldiers] tell you about the front lines and the trenches and seeing people get killed.”

“The World at War, 1914-1918” covers the different people and countries involved in World War I. The museum is divided into sections, with each space showcasing a different area of involvement in the war. There is a display for each country involved, as well as various groups of people involved in the war efforts, such as women, children, African-Americans and spies. 

“When doing an exhibition like this in the gallery that’s broadly themed, you can pull from all of the collections,” said Jean Cannon, a curator for the exhibit. “We have some exhibitions that are maybe just one collection or one topic or one medium, but this is a little bit more challenging.”

By attending this exhibit, Cannon said students have the opportunity to learn about the lesser-known history of World War I through the Ransom center’s one-of-a-kind archives. 

“American audiences in general do not have the best understanding of this war,” Cannon said. “A lot of that is because America entered the war late. We entered in 1917, so, by that time, the French army was almost liquidated. The British and German armies were also exhausted.” 

James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam poster that has been duplicated throughout history can also be found at the exhibit. 

“It just blows your mind to see the original because it’s something that we’re so familiar with,” Garver said.  

Cannon and Garver also took donations from the family members of World War I veterans to use in the exhibit.

Christina Jones loaned the Ransom center letters, pictures and awards from her father, Heinrich Lerche, who served in the German Military.
Lerche enlisted when he was 19 years old and fought on both the Eastern and Western front. Jones also noted that since her father worked for the German government as a legal clerk, he was required to join the Nazi regime in World War II. After the war finished, however, he did not participate in the party. 

“It’s important for people to know history and remember it and possibly learn from it,” Jones said. “Maybe at this point they’ll look at it and say, ‘We were enemies and now the Germans are one America’s best friends, one of our allies,’ and see how things change over the decades.” 

Jones’ favorite item she put on file with the Ransom center is Lerche’s letter to her son about his time during the war. 

“My son is his only grandson, and, when he was a little boy, he liked to look at the war picture, so I told my dad about it,” Jones said. “He wrote a letter back to [my son] in German about how horrible war was and how we should all be peaceful and never again have any bad wars like that.”

These personal stories, such as the one Jones shared, make “The World at War, 1914-1918” more than just a compilation of facts and dates. 

“It gives the historical perspective of the war, but it also gives the personal viewpoints of people who actually lived through these years,” Cannon said.