Behind the Lines – new First World War poetry exhibition

Explore behind-the-scenes of the First World War Poetry exhibition with placement student Laura Varley.

I love war poetry, from Wilfred Owen to Rupert Brooke, so when I was given the chance to put together a small, portable exhibition on war poetry from the Leeds Museums & Galleries collections, I jumped at the chance. From deciding which poems to include to receiving the final proofs from the designer, it has been an extremely valuable experience that I have truly enjoyed and one that would not have been possible without Leeds Museums.

A poster for an exhibition called behind the lines. It has a black and white photograph of soldiers on it.
Behind the Lines poetry exhibition

There are a variety of authors from different walks of life and backgrounds within the Leeds collection and it was difficult to narrow the selection down to just four pieces. I settled upon a poem written by an unknown author which details the rigours of training to become a soldier, two poems written by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson who was a Captain in the West Yorkshire Regiment and one written by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe who was the Lady Mayoress during the First World War.

A book of war poetry open on the title page called sunrise dreams, with a black and white photograph of a soldier who is the author.
A book of war poetry by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson

A wealth of war poetry: 
Poets from the home front to the trenches

I chose four poems because I wanted to look at the difference in tone and content from the start of the war through to its end, as well as considering the view of those on the home front and those in the trenches. The first poem written by an unknown author provides a comedic look at the process of training, but this is contrasted by the evocative descriptions of the realities of warfare, written by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson in his pieces Twentieth Century Civilisation and To Glory. Both of these pieces are entirely different to the work of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. She looks at the war as it comes to an end, what the aftermath is and how the women who were left behind can cope with the loss.

Of course there is so much more poetry to explore in the collections, and there are several pieces which I could not fit into the exhibition that I wish I could have done, such as Division Forty-Nine which was written by Pte. Alfred Calton who worked with the West Yorkshire Field Ambulance during the war. His poem describes the first time the Germans used phosgene gas against the Allies.

A panel from the exhibition with recommended further reading

Hopefully the poems in this exhibition will give everyone a glimpse into what the mood was like for different people in Leeds from 1914 all the way to 1919, the changes in attitude and the varied experiences among the population.

Borrow the portable exhibition

If you would be interested in borrowing these panels and displaying them free of charge, or if you would like to know when and where they will be displayed, please get in touch with us at

By Laura Varley, First World War Project Placement Student.

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