Brothers in Alms: new exhibition remembers Freemasons at war

Friday, 08 March 2019

Bond of brothers

Featuring Freemasons who led and served on land, sea and air from the Second Boer War to the end of the Second World War, a new exhibition at Freemasons’ Hall showcases a photographic history of extraordinary spirit, humanity and comradeship, both in war and peace

While showing visitors around the Brothers in Alms exhibition of war photographs he’s curated at Freemasons’ Hall, curator Brian Deutsch was stopped in front of an image of No. 1 Squadron by a Freemason. ‘That’s my uncle!’ the man said, pointing to a figure in a group photograph. This is the sort of reaction Deutsch hopes to inspire. ‘You might see relatives or people who were in your lodge.’ 

The exhibition features more than 200 images covering the war and the home front. The masonic element comes through the presence of prominent military masons such as Haig, French, Kitchener, Jellicoe and Churchill, as well as lesser-known war heroes such as Bernard Freyberg VC. There are also female Freemasons, such as Dame Florence Leach, who founded the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and was a member of Golden Rule Lodge, No 1. Many American participants in World War I were Freemasons, including future generals Patton and MacArthur and a young Franklin D Roosevelt. The Duke of Connaught, who was Grand Master of UGLE during the war, is also featured. But the theme of Freemasonry goes beyond the personalities involved.‘

A lot of them have connections to Freemasonry, but the theme of the exhibition is humanity and caring, which is a banner of Freemasonry,’ explains Deutsch. ‘I wanted to show how the spirit of life will ultimately triumph. A lot of that is because the comradeship during the war carried on afterwards. A lot of soldiers actually became Freemasons following the war after seeing what it meant for their officers.’ 

'Lots of soldiers joined Freemasonry following the war after seeing what it meant for their officers'

The exhibition highlights the charitable work of Freemasons, as well as the importance of Freemasonry to leading wartime figures. Lord Haig espoused the principals of Freemasonry throughout his career, devoting his post-war life to improving the welfare of ex-servicemen.

While the connections to Freemasonry of the war’s leading soldiers are well known, others are more obscure. There are three airmen who were the first to down a German airship on British soil. ‘They had the gavel for their RAF lodge, Ad Astra Lodge, No. 3808, made from metal taken from the airship,’ says Deutsch. Another photo shows soldiers home from the front being treated to tea at the Connaught Rooms by the Freemasons. 

Photographs were selected for a variety of reasons. Many are simply excellent pictures, either in terms of composition or because they capture something particularly interesting or unusual. There are photos of elephants ploughing the Surrey fields in place of the horses being used to serve the military; there are 18,000 US soldiers replicating the Statue of Liberty on a field in Iowa to promote the sale of war bonds; there’s a homesick soldier in his trench, painting street signs for King’s Cross, Love Lane and Devil’s Dyke on Scraps of wood; there are four members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps enjoying a day at the beach. There are also cameos from Sir Ernest Shackleton, Douglas Fairbanks and TE Lawrence.

The royals are a significant presence. George V is seen visiting the front, while The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, is shown on a postcard used to raise money for the war effort. As the heir, he was not allowed to serve at the front, whereas his brother Albert – the future George VI – served at the Battle of Jutland. He was the last king to take part in a battle. All three were Freemasons. As Deutsch explains, ‘the Royal Family’s role was transformed by the war.’

The exhibition runs until November 2019 and is on the second-floor corridor of Freemasons’ Hall. It’s open to the public from 10am to 1.30pm, Monday to Friday. Those unable to get to London can visit www.brothersinalms.org.uk to see the entire exhibition online.

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