|Detail of Charles Sergeant Jagger's "No Man's Land"|
At the beginning of November 2012 I had the opportunity to attend the celebration of Remembrance Day at the English Cemetery in Malaga, the oldest non-Roman Catholic Christian cemetery in mainland Spain, and I must say it was an impressive experience to stand in silence in the middle of the tombs covered with little white crosses and wreaths made with poppies. Not many Spanish people know about this tradition, which has its origin in the very end of World War I. The hostilities ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918. Since 1919, a two-minute silence is held in Britain to pay homage to those who died in that war and in subsequent conflicts. People also wear poppies in their lapels, a tradition that has its origin in the poppies that bloomed in the battlefields and the poem that John McCrae dedicated to them, “In Flanders Fields”.
This year commemorates the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, a tragedy that shaped the future of Modern Britain. Contrary to other historical events, the spirit of this war is still alive and tangible in this country, something that took me by surprise, as I hardly remembered the list of dates and battles I had been fed in high school: le Somme, Ypres, Gallipoli, Passchendaele…
World War I started to take shape in my conscience as something real, lived by real people, when I read this passage in Andrew Marr’s “The Making of Modern Britain”, a description of the salient of Ypres by a journalist, Philip Gibbs:
“a sea of red liquid mud composed of brick dust and bodies, bits of bodies, and clots of blood, and green metallic-looking slime, made by explosive gasses... Human flesh, rotting and stinking, mere pulp, was pasted into the mud-banks. If they dug to get deeper cover, their shovels went into the softness of dead bodies who had been their comrades. Scraps of flesh, booted legs, blackened hands, eyeless heads, came falling over them when the enemy trench-mortared their position.”
I would like to illustrate this passage with a work by Charles Sargeant Jagger, a bronze frieze titled “No Man’s Land” which shows a man hiding among the corpses of his comrades. You can find it at the Tate Britain.
Then I watched the magnificent series of documentaries by Jeremy Paxman “Britain’s Great War”, which gave me a new and more human insight of this conflict: the memory of being shelled by German boats in the middle of the night shared by a one hundred and five year old lady who survived the Hartlepool raid at the age of seven; the posters of Kitcheners’ appeal for volunteers that managed to recruit two and a half million men for the British army; the doctor from New Zealand who restored the facial injuries of disfigured soldiers and created the basis for modern plastic surgery in a hospital in Sidcup, a short bus ride from where I live; how Britain managed to face the shortage of manpower by involving women into the war effort and how many of these women died of poisoning working in munitions; the first conscientious objectors and the increasing gap between those who fought the war and those who sent them to the trenches…
Let’s take a short walk around Central London and find the traces the first modern conflict has left in this city.
Our journey begins at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It’s a key landmark in the commemoration of the dead in the wars since 1919. On the Sunday nearest to the 11th November a service is held, which is attended by the Queen, religious leaders, politicians, and representatives of the armed and auxiliary forces. The poppy wreaths that are deposited at the base of this monument can still be seen months afterwards. The BBC has a very interesting history section about World War I and there I learned that this monument, whose name means “empty tomb” in Greek, was originally built in wood and plaster, as it was intended to be used only at the 1919 Armistice Celebrations, but it became so popular that they had to build a permanent one in 1920.
Today is a lovely day that announces the end of winter and the street is full of colourful characters, like this group of men dressed like ludo counters.
However, as we walk up towards Trafalgar Square, we are reminded of conflict once again.
Not very far from the statue of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, whose strategy led to the death of so many in the Western Front, we can see a group of demonstrators trying to draw attention to the situation in Venezuela.
Next to them there is another group of protestors against the invasion of Ucraine by Russian troops. Our walk cannot be more meaningful today.
Trafalgar square is the next point in our pilgrimage. If you had been here one hundred years ago, you would have seen placards encouraging people to buy war bonds. You would even have seen a tank, one of the main technological advances in British warfare, parked in the middle of the square. And if you had been here during the celebrations after the Armistice, you would have seen the Australian and Canadian troops making a bonfire with these placards. In the final documentary of his series, Jeremy Paxman shows a stone under Nelson’s column where you can still see the effects of this act of patriotic vandalism.
Our next stop is the National Portrait Gallery, where there is a very recommendable exhibition, “The Great War in Portraits”, which allows us to put faces to those who led and fought this war. What impressed me the most was the opening sculpture, Jacob Epstein’s “The Rock Drill”, and a wall covered with a collection of portraits of people involved in the war, famous and anonymous, allies and enemies, men and women. You can read the story behind these faces in a booklet that is provided in the gallery.
This exhibition will be open to the public until 15th June 2014. Whether you are planning to come to London soon or not, even if you have already been to this exhibition, it’s worth listening to the curator’s guided tour: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/curator-tour.php
I have already mentioned Charles Sargeant Jagger. If we carry on walking towards Hyde Park Corner, we will find one of his most famous works: the “Royal Artillery Memorial”, which shows four figures: a driver, an artillery captain, a shell carrier and a dead soldier covered by his own coat. The driver is wearing a cape that is being blown by the wind and when I look at him I often have the feeling of looking at the figure of an angel with its wings extended.
The next stop leads us to the other side of the park, in Marble Arch, where you can visit a monument that pays homage to all the animals that lost their lives in wars. Their role was key in the trenches: pigeons that carried messages, mules used to transport armament and munitions, war horses... Again, I remember a passage from “The Making of Modern Britain” where Andrew Marr describes some of the terrible conditions these animals lived in: mules who had their vocal chords cut for fear that their braying gave away the soldiers’ position, horses who were painted in black for the same reason... On this monument you can read the inscription “They had no choice”.
Our walk ends at the Marquis of Granby, a pub you can find behind Millbank, next to the river Thames. Here there is a corner devoted to one of the most fascinating heroes of this war: the poet Siegfried Sassoon. He was sent to the front in France, was injured and won the Military Cross. However, he decided to throw it into the Mersey estuary and stand against a war he felt pointless. His poetry describes the horrors of this war and denounces the gap between those who fought it and the callous politicians who made the decisions at home. Eventually, Sassoon decided to go back to the front in order not to abandon his comrades and was wounded again. In this corner you can find some photos, together with some original copies of his work.
I would like to finish this entry with an extract of one of Sassoon’s poems, “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still”:
“To-night I smell the battle; miles away
Gun-thunder leaps and thuds along the ridge;
The spouting shells dig pits in fields of death,
And wounded men, are moaning in the woods.”
If you want to find out more about this engaging topic, visit the BBC history website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww1
And finally, if you want to check how much you know about this event, I invite you to do this quiz: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/quiz/2013/jun/11/quiz-first-world-war
I managed to score 7 points. What about you?
Photo: Lorenzo Hernandez www.photolorenzohernandez.com
Photo: Lorenzo Hernandez www.photolorenzohernandez.com