History · Travel

Exhibition: The British in Westphalia

Living in Germany as an army wife has been- still is- quite the adventure. In fact, we liked  living in Germany so much that, having left for a two-year posting to the UK, we came back for more. Being part of the British Forces Germany (BFG) community has been a real experience with enough fun times and opportunities to outweigh the frustrations and difficulties. But all good things must come to an end and not only is the end of our posting on the horizon, but also close of business for the British Army in Germany. We are leaving, barracks  being handed back and so will come to a close a unique and over-seventy-year-long chapter in Anglo-German relations.

Things Helen Loves, black ad white image of soldiers parading through a street.
Victory Parades in the early days.

To mark the end of an era, the Stadt Museum in Paderborn has put together the ‘British in Westphalia’ exhibition, exploring the lives of military families who have been part of the BFG community in this part of Germany and the changing relationship between the British and the German people.  The exhibition is a blend of interviews, recollections and exhibits ranging from military equipment to a recreated room of a German Married Quarter, complete with army issue curtains and furniture.

Things Helen Loves, image of brown table set with teapot and teacups.
Recreated room in a Married Quarter complete with issued furniture and goods. A surprising amount of this stuff still in circulation.

The beginning is always a good place to start and so the exhibition starts at the end of WW2. Did British troops come here as liberators or Occupiers? I suppose it depends on where you stood. They certainly set out to make their presence known with victory parades, requisition of homes and actions designed to force the German population to confront the reality of all that had taken place, including forcing adults to watch footage from liberated concentration camps. Images from this period are hard-hitting.

Things Helen Loves, Image of Adults being taken to watch footage of Concentration Camps.
Adults forced to watch footage from the Concentration Camps.

 

As a wife who has accompanied her husband throughout his career, the most surprising thing for me was just how early families were able to join their soldier in post war Germany. The first wives arrived in 1946. I’m sure having endured years of air raids and rationing at home and then joining their husbands in a country rebuilding itself , they knew their share of hardship and challenge. They must have been tough, resourceful women.

Things Helen Loves, woman disembarking boat with children
The first wives arriving to accompany their soldiers n 1946.

Over time the German and British communities became less suspicious of one another and had more opportunities to mix. Inevitably, this led to relationships between local girls and British soldiers. It doesn’t  raise an eyebrow now, but in the early days couples met with resistance, from their own communities and the military chain of command. A German bride recalls being called a ‘Tommy Tart’ when she began courting her now husband. Another exhibit details the story of a soldier who was moved miles away by his bosses to prevent him marrying his German sweetheart. He came back for her, and married her anyway. Happily, both stories had a happy-ever-after. Love conquers all.

Things Helen Loves, Image of mannequins dressed for a military wedding.
Marriages between the German and British communities have cemented the bond between the two.

Military families in Germany found themselves once again living in uncertain times as the Cold War raised tensions within Germany and beyond. Families were issued with evacuation procedures and notes on what they should bring. The list included ‘sandwiches, a radio (battery operated if possible) and an over coat or anorak’. Seems quaint now but I’m sure it was a frightening prospect at the time. Apparently, some wives kept a suitcase packed and under the bed, ready to move if called upon to do so. The Soviet threat was believed to be very real.

That threat may be gone ( possibly debatable but lets not get political) but some themes that run through military life never change. One section of the exhibition deals with the topic of separation and how military families cope with time apart. There were lots of exhibits that struck a chord with me, including a copy of a book called ‘My Daddy’s going Away’. I have read that book many times, so much so I know it off by heart. I still can’t get past page three without running the risk of  leaky eyes, though.

Things Helen Loves, display of books and leaflets aimed at Military families facing separation from their loved ones.
Separation and homecomings can be a challange…a snapshot of how people deal with it and the support available.

Other exhibits deal with the antics, sometimes entertaining and sometimes questionable, of the soldiers themselves. A newspaper clipping details a pub fight that turned into a mass brawl involving nineteen soldiers. Pubs and clubs were great for getting people together but also a place where tensions could boil over.  My sons favourite exhibit was a chamber pot turned into a hat as a leaving gift to an officer from his junior soldiers. Squaddie humour, it seems, is not far of that of a six-year-old. I hope the gift was received in the spirit it was given. Looking at all these snippets and snapshots and thinking of the soldiers I have met (including my own!) it seems that the face of the army might change but a soldier is a soldier, no matter when or where they are.

Things Helen Loves, chamber pots fashioned into hats
Chamber pot hats.

If you have any connection with BFG, or an interest in military history, this exhibition is a must-see. Even if you don’t have a personal connection ,exhibitions like this one are a glimpse into what can be quite an introverted and misunderstood world, that of the military and the military family. This exhibition runs until February 28th, but seems to have enjoyed great success so I do wonder if it will go on the road at some point.

Things Helen Loves, black and white image of a flag flying over a street of German housing.
The British flag raised over street of confiscated houses.

I will be sad to leave Germany and sad to see the end of BFG.  My youngest child was born here. Being forced to adapt to living here, usually minus the husband, has taught me a lot about myself. When the British army arrived in 1945 I don’t think anyone imagined they would stay for over half a century and become friends and neighbours. As time went on, it became unthinkable that they would ever leave. The British in Westphalia exhibition is a tribute to the journey of the British Forces in Germany and all that have played a part in it.

The exhibiton British in Westphalia can be found at the Stadtmuseum in Paderborn. There are limited flights from the UK into Paderborn Airport, but it is easily accessible from Dusseldorf International by train.

Helen x

 

2 thoughts on “Exhibition: The British in Westphalia

  1. I feel really glad that we are able to learn new things from one another. I wasn’t aware of the British Forces in Germany and of this strong British community in Wesphalia. Maybe 28 February will not be the end of it, because I would for sure like to visit it.
    I visit my brother in law each year in Munster, and most likely this year will be no exception so I’ll have a real chance to do a day trip to Padeborn that I have not visited before. Are the BFG retiring from Germany because of the Brexit or this is a date well before established? Anyway, I hope that your next destination will be even more beautiful and meaningful as the one from Germany. Hugs from Romania

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s