• Trenches
  • Age 9 to 11 (KS2)
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)

What can you uncover by looking at a photograph?

Join IWM expert Ngaire this week as she helps us reveal fascinating stories that the objects in our museums hold. Discover personal stories from the First World War, from the trenches to the home front. 

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Trench Tales: Part One

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.  

Ahoy! Welcome onboard, it's great to see you. My name is Ngaire, and I work at the Imperial War Museums. For now, the museum's doors are closed and you're at home and I'm at home so here we are aboard my boat and today I thought we would explore some of the museum's objects and stories that reveal a bit about the trenches in the First World War. Now this boat is pretty old and sometimes I find objects aboard and I don't know their story... ah this looks like a plug I hope it's not supposed to be doing something important below decks. 

Luckily, when you go to the museum all the objects on display have been chosen because of the stories that they tell. And the Imperial War Museum actually started collecting those stories before the First World War had even finished. I find it amazing that in 1917, before the war had an end in sight, a decision was made that because it had affected so many people, a museum should be started to tell the stories of everyone who had sacrificed so much since 1914. Now you may already know quite a lot about the First World War, mud or names of important battles and although it affected millions of people, we're going to zoom in today on just a few individual stories and objects to help us in this Adventure in History and in the next one, because it's a pretty big story the First World War. Just looking at its geography would take us from the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic to East Africa, the coastline of China, Turkey through Belgium through France - it's huge. So, I wanted to share with you just two of my favourite objects that help us to understand a bit of this big story.  

And here's our first object - it is a photograph. It's one of over 10 million photographs in the IWM collections and if we look carefully at It, well what can you see? Are there any people in the photograph? How many people? What are they wearing? What equipment are they holding that might give us a clue to their job? And where are they standing when this photograph has been taken? What we've just done there is start to unlock some of this object's story - those words where, why, what, how are like the numbers on a pin code or on the combination of a safe and by using those questions, what can we unlock about this object story? You might have seen soil, bags or sacks that been piled up, corrugated iron that's been strewn across and those people, how many were there, is it three, four, or are there maybe six people in the photograph? If I was to say that those men were soldiers, what evidence can we see to prove that that would be an accurate description? When the museum collects photographs, they are given to our experts, curators who write captions or labels for them so that you and I can have a little bit of extra information. The caption with this photograph tells us that these soldiers are from the Lancashire Fusiliers, and they are dug in in a place in France called Messines. Digging in is what created the trench that they are stood in. So, we now have unlocked quite a lot of this object story and we now know that those men looking back at us were a long way from home when their picture was taken. And being a long way from home is something that was common to many of the people who were involved in the First World War. 

When Britain declared war in 1914 it meant that her empire was now also at war as well. Countries like Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa that today are independent were governed by Britain. If you want to find out more about the former British Empire and the big part that it played in Britain's history and of those countries in the First World War, please do look at the Imperial War Museum's website. This really is a very global story. You might have noticed that my name has a bit of a funny spelling. Its origins lie in New Zealand because that's where my dad is from originally. New Zealand was part of the British Empire and along with Australia, both countries asked their citizens for volunteers to go and fight alongside the British Army. This gave rise to a new corps, an Army Corps, which was called Australia and New Zealand Army Corps or ANZAC for short. The first time that they went into battle was very far from home in a place called Gallipoli in Turkey. 

So being far from home brings us to our second object. It's a small box with a very beautiful lid. Looking at that lid, what details do you notice? Are there letters, words, what date is shown on the lid, who might the lady be in the middle of the box? Why are countries like France and Russia named on this lid? And this is why I love this object. The more you look, the more you see. There are even flags, a sword, even warship on this lid. Shall we start maybe with the lady in the middle? She's been given that central position so she must be quite important and there are two M's either side of her. Her name was Mary, and the box was her idea.  

She's Princess Mary - her mum and dad were the King and Queen of Britain - and that's probably why the box came to exist. And the date underneath Mary gives us a clue as to why she had this idea. It says Christmas 1914 and that Christmas was going to be very tough for lots of families. Their loved ones were far away and as they were fighting, they were unlikely to get any presents. So, Mary sits at Buckingham Palace and writes a letter to the British people, and she writes 'I want you to help me now to send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and soldier at the front. Please will you help me.' And the response was extraordinary. So much money was raised that over 2 million of these tins were made. You might have one in your family perhaps. Now, the reason I love this object is that when they were received, inside would be a slightly different present according to who the recipient was.  

So, the majority of soldiers were smokers, they didn't understand the risks of smoking in those days and so soldiers would open up their tin, there would be some cigarettes, a Christmas card from Princess Mary and mum and dad, King George and Queen Mary. But what if you're not a smoker? That wouldn't be a very appropriate gift – was there something better? They thought about this to. So, if you're a non-smoker you would open up the gift box and inside, you'd find a pencil and some writing material and tiny envelopes along with the Christmas cards. The effort that was put into the contents of this tin is really rather extraordinary, it took account of people's habits, religious needs, dietary needs. So Sikh soldiers were sent tins that when they opened them, they found the Christmas card but also sugar candy and spices. Other Indian soldiers fighting alongside the British would have received the tin with the cigarettes the sugar candy and the Christmas cards and women that were serving overseas as nurses, when they opened their tin, inside was a packet of chocolate. 

That's what we do at the Imperial War Museum, we look for individual stories to unlock the bigger picture of the complicated story. So, the final person we're going to meet today was an Indian soldier. So, can you remember what he would have found when he opened up his Princess Mary gift box? Don't worry I am NOT just introducing you to Khudadad Khan to make sure you're paying attention. It's also because his story is one of bravery and determination. Khudadad Khan was born in Punjab, which is in modern Pakistan but in the era, we're thinking about, was part of India. And he was actually an Indian soldier, he was part of the professional Indian army that was formed before the First World War. So as a fully trained soldier, he is one of the first Indian troops to sail from India to support the British Army. It's late autumn 1914 and the attacks are really, really fierce. Khudadad's unit are in a small Belgium village called Hollebeke and they are under fierce attack. Khudadad is wounded yet he still continues to do his job, operating his machine gun even when the five fellow members of his unit are killed. The enemy pushed forward, and they capture his position. Khudadad has to lie still and pretend to be dead and wait for nightfall. At which point he begins a slow and painful crawl back to the British base. To treat his wounds, he's actually brought to Britain. While he's there, he is recommended for the Victoria Cross. Now this is the highest award for courage that can be given in the British Army and Khudadad Khan becomes the very first Indian soldier to receive this very rare medal. He recovers from his wounds, and he returns to India until 1956 when he's invited back to Britain to meet the Queen, our Queen, where she gathers together the living Victoria Cross winners to meet in a very special ceremony in Hyde Park. 

Thank you for joining me on this week's Adventure in History when we looked at that Princess Mary gift box which told us about how families wanted their loved ones to know that they were thought of, that they were loved, even though they were far from home on that very first Christmas in 1914. Next week, we'll think a little bit more about how those fighting far from home kept in touch with their loved ones. So now let's return to those Anzac soldiers because something they received from home in New Zealand and Australia there was a special type a biscuit made, which was without egg and mostly made of oats that would travel well but tastes delicious when it was unwrapped, and it became known as an Anzac cookie. Join Ben Shires on Friday for this week's Family Mission to learn how to make your very own delicious Anzac cookies. Imperial War Museums is a charity and if you feel you're able to donate to help us bring history alive, please do go to our website to find out more. Thank you very much for joining me this week and until next time, farewell! 


Curriculum Links and Learning Objectives

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world, 1901-present.   

  • GCSE - Warfare and British society, c1250-Present.      

  • To explore the experiences of soldiers on the front line during the First World War. 

Brilliant Biscuits

Hello, I'm Ben Shires and I’m here to tell you all about this week's IWM Family Mission.  

If you've been watching ‘Adventures in History’ with Ngaire over on the IWM YouTube channel (and if you haven't seen it yet, it's still available so why not go watch it now?), you’ll have heard all about a very special type of biscuit. So, let's see what you've learnt. 

[On screen: fridge magnets spelling out “Australia and New Zealand Army Corps”] 

The special biscuit is called an ‘Anzac cookie’, but what on earth does Anzac mean? Yes, that's right, it stands for the ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’. My goodness! You're good at this!  

[On screen: a board with the words ANZAC DAY = 25 APRIL] 

Ok, let's try another one then. In Australia and New Zealand, they have a special day where they celebrate and remember their Anzac soldiers. But what date is Anzac Day? Yes, that's right! It's the 25th of April. Very well done, I am super impressed.  

And Anzac soldiers would have received these cookies from their friends and family back home, primarily because they could be made without egg, they travelled well, and they were always delicious!  

Your family mission this week is to make your own Anzac cookies, so now I'll hand over to Olivia for the demo... 

[On Screen:  

1 cup oats 

1 cup plain flour 

¾ cup coconut 

1 cup sugar 

125g melted butter 

1 tbsp of golden syrup 

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda 

2 tbsp of boiling water 

Bake for 20 mins at Gas Mark 2 (150c/280f) 

Go to IWM’s website for full instructions 

Don’t forget to tell us how you get on or even better show us your biscuits on IWM’s Facebook and Twitter feeds 

Enjoy your Anzac Cookies!] 

Your mission is to go back in time to 1914 Australia and New Zealand and bake a First World War recipe.

What do you think it would be like to receive these homemade biscuits when you’re a long way from home?

Watch the mission briefing

More on life in the trenches

An officer of the 9th Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) leads the way out of a sap during the spring battles of 1917.
IWM Q 5100

Find out more life in the trenches by examining objects from IWM's collections, from a shovel to a special helmet. 



Explore Further

Adventures in History: Trench Tales - Part Two graphic
Home Learning

Trench Tales - Part Two

Discover the story of the nine year old with a plan, a soldier who shared his experiences with his parents and a young woman who was proud to do her bit for the war effort. 

Poster image for episode of Adventures in History: Carers Part One
Home Learning

Carers - Part One

Discover how people cared for the wounded in the First World War, how they used their skills and resourcefulness to make sure the injured were cared for.

Book A Visit to IWM

IWM London Exterior shot
IWM London

School visits to IWM London

Discover the stories of lives shaped by war and conflict from 1914 until the present day. Step into the iconic atrium, explore the brand new Second World War Galleries and experience our new learning facilities.

IWM North landscape view
IWM North

School visits to IWM North

Purpose-built to tell the powerful stories of over a century of war, IWM North makes full use of its extraordinary exhibition space to deliver an award-winning immersive experience.

IWM Duxford Showcase
IWM Duxford

School visits to IWM Duxford

Walk through the same hangars and buildings as those who served at RAF Duxford. See aircraft take to the skies from the airfield that Spitfires first flew. And get up close to over a century of aviation with hundreds of aircraft and objects on display.