LIZ NICHOLLS finds herself enlightened by Soldiers of Oxfordshire’s latest exhibition and its stories of county and conflict.
AS each and every fallen soldier is borne home to Brize Norton, faces are etched with knife-edge emotions.
Shock, anger and grief ebb and flow among the crowd, assembled after another life is cut short.
These are the raw wounds of war, impossible to decode.
And that’s why Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock will fulfil such a vital role. Its job is to tell the story of county and conflict – something which touches all our lives – in a safe place.
Whether it’s defence (always and forever the first duty of government, shaped by fear), celebration of bravery or remembrance, one or more issues examined here will chime deep within you.
It will shortly be action stations for Soldiers of Oxfordshire, which sits happily within the Oxfordshire Museum in a bright and beautifully curated 16th century merchant’s house in this chocolate-box town.
The museum has an excellent cafe, shop and dinosaur garden which youngsters will love, too.
The hoardings are about to go up for Sofo’s brand new base, ready to open, gleaming, at the end of the year.
In the meantime, the museum’s latest exhibition is Shooting on the Front Line: One Soldier’s War in Afghanistan, photographs taken by Henley’s Major Paul Smyth, a TA reservist and father-of-two, on the front line in Helmand.
Under the sun’s remorseless glare amid a cracked lunar landscape, Afghan children beseech the camera. A soldier crouches in the dust after battle, gun slung low and muscles still pumping with adrenaline. Troops, complete with Santa hats, try to cook a frozen turkey in an ammunitions box on a rare day when they aren’t asked to march on their stomachs.
Despite being at the frontier of history, these are normal men and women in extraordinary circumstances and bring visitors a few steps closer to the truth of these inhospitable borders – whatever your opinion on it.
The approach of the museum – surprisingly – offers much to lift the spirits. A war museum can conjure up school history lessons, dry and bloodless, using jingoistic maps from the days when the British Empire tickled everything pink.
Neither is this a maudlin or depressing tale of death. The real, human story is what the museum has a stab at.
There was a touching moment recently in the Children And War exhibition when a school party were suddenly spellbound by an impromptu visitor’s memories of his evacuee days.
“The whole world came to Oxford” the billboards say, and there’s an image of refugee Grace Rwotlakica, forced to flee Uganda to start a new life here.
More real people, possibly living next door, show the effect war has on ordinary lives and shining a light into those dark corners of ignorance we often box ourselves into.
Touchingly, as our grandfathers’ generation dies away, their colourful memories are collected with the help of the museum, which also offers mobile object-handling sessions in old people’s homes.
It has also assembled a database of 90,000 names of soldiers for those looking to complete a family tree and offers a final resting place to all fragments of history left in its duty of care – from military tourniquets to children’s gas masks. You only have to see the jarring colours of the picture painted by one vulnerable youngster to see the effect history can have.
Thanks to the museum’s educational programme, the exhibition has just scooped a £50,000 Heritage Lottery Fund donation.
And the area boasts its very own war hero in the form of Winston Churchill – born a stone’s throw away at Blenheim Palace, earning his own section at the museum. Among the gentle, yeoman faces of the Oxfordshire Hussars you can have fun picking out this pug-faced bruiser, eager for a scrap.
It shows that personality – not politics or panic – is what really lights our fire when it comes to telling the story of war. And it is a story that demands to be heard.
* The Oxfordshire Museum, which is run by the county council, is free to enter and opens Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and on Sunday from 2pm to 5pm. Volunteers are urgently needed. Call 01993 813832 or visit sofo.org