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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Visual Culture and Public Commemoration – Stained Glass

The First World War Village Memorial, Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, Norfolk, UK Photo - 28 July 2014
The First World War Village Memorial,
Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, Norfolk, UK
Photo – 28 July 2014
I know I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last to comment on the nature of public commemoration during this year, 2014, that marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. A public, ritualised remembrance for the dead has long been available to the powerful elite, but the terrible carnage of World War One brought widespread change to how the death’s of ordinary folk dying for their country was remembered. The sheer numbers of the fallen from virtually every town and village of the United Kingdom instilled a need in the general populace to act together within their communities and communally mark their losses. This was done through the village memorial, a stone cross bearing the names of the fallen.

Names of the fallen 1914 -  1916.
Names of the fallen
1914 – 1916.
Names of the fallen 1917 - 1918.
Names of the fallen
1917 – 1918.













WW I Memorial - North Gallery Window St Pancras Church, Euston Rd, London.
WW I Memorial – North Gallery Window
St Pancras Church, Euston Rd, London.
Although the stone cross memorial is the most frequent site of commemoration stained glass windows were also commissioned and installed in churches and public buildings. Similar lists of names of the fallen can be seen written on stained glass panels. Commemorative stained glass filling the windows of churches across Great Britain has been traditional for hundreds of years. Most were sponsored by prominent families or religious bodies and depicted Christian imagery. Often a discrete biblical quotation accompanied by the patrons name reminded the congregation to offer up prayers’ for the departed soul.

At the end of World War 1 with the large loss of life many institutions also chose to collectively mark the loss of their colleagues and friends. Not only were the dead from specific regiments commemorated, but companies, wealthy organisations and even schools commissioned large stained glass windows listing all their fallen.

Memorial window in original architecture at 30 St Mary Axe, London.
Memorial window in original architecture at 30 St Mary Axe, London.

The Baltic Exchange in the City of London commissioned a set of memorial windows for its semi-circular apse when it was based at 30 St Mary Axe. These windows by the stained glass artist John Dudley Forsyth were severely damaged by an IRA bomb which exploded on the 10 April 1992. Since then they have been restored and are now installed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. As this set of windows is now at standing height if you look carefully you can spot depictions of various WW1 war machines.
Part of Baltic Exchange memorial windows now at   the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
Part of Baltic Exchange memorial windows now at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

In Southwark Cathedral, London, two three light windows by Hardman & Co were installed in memory of those who had died during the conflict. One window commemorates the 386 employees of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the other window the staff from the Oxo company who also lost their lives.

Three light memorial window by Hardman & Co  in remembrance of the 386 employees of the South Metropolitan Gas Co who died in WW1.  Southwark Cathedral, London.
Three light memorial window by Hardman & Co in remembrance of the 386 employees of the South Metropolitan Gas Co who died in WW1.
Southwark Cathedral, London.

Detail of the window commemorating the Oxo workers who died in the 1914-18 war.
Detail of the window commemorating the Oxo workers who died in the 1914-18 war.

Of course regiments commissioned memorial windows and the King’s Own Regiment has a large, three-light window in the north nave aisle of Norwich Cathedral. It shows a central image of St George, but it has paintings of soldiers in the trenches in the panels either side. One is shown cleaning a rifle and the other shows a stretcher-bearer waiting for casualties.

'The Path of Duty is the Way to Glory', King's Own Regiment Memorial window. Norwich Cathedral.
‘The Path of Duty is the Way to Glory’, King’s Own Regiment Memorial window.
Norwich Cathedral.

It hasn’t been just fighters and machinery that have been depicted in these First World War memorial windows. In the small village of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire, their local church, St Mary the Virgin, has a light that shows women working in an armaments factory.

Women working in the armaments factories. St Mary the Virgin, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire, UK
Women working in the armaments factories.
St Mary the Virgin, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire, UK

But despite all these long lists and large community windows every now and then a simple, small single light dedicated to two brothers can be found in a tiny village church – reminding us that each name on a long list had been an individual life extinguished by war.

The tiny parish church of St Lawrence, Brundall, Norfolk.
The tiny parish church of St Lawrence, Brundall, Norfolk.

Brundall-two-inscript

St George by Morris & Co dedicated to the memory of Percy and Leslie Dandridge. St Lawrence, Brundall
St George by Morris & Co dedicated to the memory of Percy and Leslie Dandridge.
St Lawrence, Brundall