100 years ago today

 

19240-shrouds-of-the-somme

From 2014 to 2018 there have been and will be a number of different moments when people remember and commemorate the tragedy that was the First World War. For military historians the 15th September 1916 saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. Tanks were deployed and active in the fighting at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette. This battle was part of the long and infamous Battle of the Somme that had begun over two months before. It is hard for us to appreciate 100 years later the desperation of those times. Nobody could have imagined in 1914, at the beginning of the war, that two years later 19,240 British soldiers would lose their lives on the fist day of any battle, but that is what happened at the Somme on the 1st July 1916.

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Remembering heroes, battles and wars is part of human culture. How we commemorate various aspects of World War One says as much about how we view war, violence and sacrifice today as it does about how we think about the horror and carnage of the past. Perhaps somewhere an artist is marking the arrival of the tank into warfare, but it is a tricky subject. Today we don’t want glorification. National memorials are seldom hard, enduring sculptures instead they are fleeting events or services, or, ephemeral installations attempting to capture the vast, incomprehensible loss of life. Such an art project was the ‘19240 Shrouds of the Somme’ by Rob Heard that was set out in the Northernhay Gardens in Exeter, Devon.

The work showed 19,240 figurines each laid out in its own handmade shroud. The artist obtained the seven volumes of the War Graves Commission’s lists of those who died on the 1st July 1916 and recited each soldier’s name as he wrapped a figurine in its shroud and crossed that name off the list.

The overall work has a desperate, poignant appearance and the scale allows the observer to see each discrete form, each individual death, repeated over and over again. It isn’t remotely pretty – why should it be. It is marking a terrible event. The work looks wretched, pitiful and sorrowful without being sentimental. It works in all the ways that the over-hyped, simplistic and incredibly sentimental ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ did not. That was the poppy installation that filled the Tower of London moat with gaudy, ceramic poppies in a trite representation of the carnage of war.

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Sentimental – how to make the blood of war acceptable. Not 21st century art’s finest hour.

 

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21st April 2016 – 90 not out, but let’s remember . . .

Look-up-to-the-skiesThere might be a few corners of the world where a certain birthday is going unnoticed, but that wouldn’t be Britain. Apparently, it’s a good news story and folk like a good news story. This morning I heard a radio clip of the Queen when she was very young speaking of the time when, incognito, she and Princess Margaret had joined the celebrating crowds on the Mall during VE Day, May 1945. She would have been 19 years old and it reminded me of a notice I’d recently read when visiting the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London.

More than 125,000 men flew in Bomber Command and all were volunteers. Of this number, nearly half lost their lives (55,573). Most who flew were very young, the great majority still in their late teens.

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The RAF Badge inscribed on Portland stone of the Bomber Command Memorial. The badge has been used since 1918 with the RAF motto ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’ – ‘Through Adversity To The Stars’.

It has taken 70 years for this memorial to be erected and it was unveiled by the Queen on 28th June 2012. The memorial was designed by the architect Liam O’Connor and is made of Portland stone and echoes the nearby 19th-century Ionic Screen gate by Decimus Burton at the entrance to Hyde Park.

Bomber Command Memorial
Bomber Command Memorial, Green Park, London

Within the central part of the design, raised on a plinth, stands a bronze sculpture of seven statues. These statues represent the aircrew of a World War Two bomber and were created by the sculptor Philip Jackson.

Bomber Command Memorial
Bomber Command Memorial inside the open Portland stone structure stands the bronze statues. Philip Jackson, bronze, 2012
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From the left navigator, flight engineer, mid-upper gunner, pilot, bomb aimer, rear gunner and wireless operator.

There is a dedication inscription on an internal wall:

This Memorial is dedicated to the 55,573 airmen from the United Kingdom, British Commonwealth and Allied nations who served in RAF Bomber Command and lost their lives over the course of the Second World War.

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But also inscribed on one of the other walls is a message of reconciliation:

This Memorial also commemorates those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of the 1939-1945.

My Great Uncle Rich was a Pilot Officer who flew Lancasters in 57 Squadron. It was incredible that he survived the war.

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I remember him as a quiet, gentle man who perhaps never recovered from his 80+ active flights. He did receive the Distinguish Flying Cross, but I never heard that he talked about his war experience. And, there are no stories if he joined the celebrating crowds in the Mall on 8th May 1945.

Bronze-Bomber-boots copy