Sometimes one reads a book that you cannot put down until it is finished. Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey is one such volume. Subtitled ‘Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South’, it tells the fascinating story of Robert Bunch, the British Consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853 to 1863.
Now one might not think of this as the subject matter for a gripping page-tuner, in which case one would be wrong. The narrative follows Bunch’s ten year stay in Charleston during the lead up to, and the first two years of, the American Civil War, some of the most turbulent times in American history. Indeed as the author says:
“…an assignment in Charleston was a treacherous one for a British envoy. It was the epicenter of all the contradictions that London, whatever its passions, found difficult to face. England hated slavery but loved the cotton the slaves raised, and British industry depended upon.”
Bunch’s role as the consul was multifaceted. He was expected to look after a whole range of British interests in the busy port, and his duties ranged from making sure local authorities observed treaty obligations regarding British shipping, liaising with US customs and representing the interests of British sailors and citizens if they got into trouble, to issuing passports and recording the births, marriages and deaths of British residents within his fairly extensive area of responsibility. Indeed, as is quoted in the book, Bunch once wrote to a colleague that:
“With the exception of the administration of the sacrament of baptism and exercising the business of executioner, it would be difficult to say what duties I cannot be called on to perform.”
However, as the book’s subtitle alludes, the most important role that Bunch performed during his tenure, as was common for diplomats at that time, was to act as the eyes and ears of the British government in what was rapidly becoming the centre of unrest in the United States. As such Bunch was in a precarious position in which, as the United States slid towards Civil War, he found himself having to lead a double life. On the one hand he was the friendly and engaging consul whose social circle included many of his slave owning neighbours, whilst on the other hand, fuelled by his personal revulsion of slavery, he made every effort possible to make sure that Great Britain did not recognise the emerging Confederacy. The central narrative of the book charts Bunch’s work in this respect, as he produced an almost constant stream of dispatches to his boss, Lord Lyons the British Minister in Washington, and ultimately to the Foreign Secretary in London. The story of Bunch, his work and tribulations is superbly executed and provides an incisive and illuminating insight into the international political machinations of the period.
In addition to Bunch’s story Dickey also paints a vivid picture of Charleston at this critical moment. The book is alive with descriptions of the place and its people; and it was a colourful place with an eclectic and interesting cast. From this one gains an excellent picture of the environment in which Bunch was working, the challenges he faced and the intrigue and politicking that was going on.
It should be noted that whilst an engaging and entertaining read, this book is also a very professionally produced and argued history. As the endnotes and bibliography highlight, Dicky has done a great deal of research, accessing hitherto largely untapped sources, including Bunch’s own unpublished private correspondence.
In short this is a great read and an important contribution to the vast library of literature on the American Civil War and its causes. Its content will certainly appeal to American Civil War aficionados, but its style and pace make it very accessible to the more general reader too. Highly recommended.
Even when you are as fascinated by the American Civil War as I am, one sometimes wonders if there is much more that can be written about this momentous conflict. It seems that almost every aspect of the War has been covered in great depth. In my own modest library for example, books on the Battle of Gettysburg alone take up almost three shelves, whilst visiting the bookshops at any of the well-preserved Civil War battlefields maintained by the US National Parks Service one is presented with a vast array of Civil War books to choose from. It is therefore against this background that one can be somewhat sceptical when picking up another new book, particularly one that claims to examine ‘Civil War Controversies’.
“…revisits eleven episodes of the Civil War era—some lesser known than others—that, upon reexamination, may challenge our received understanding of the course of that conflict. It is hoped that this small volume will promote discussion and debate among those who enjoy Civil War history and contemplating alternatives to conventional conclusions and analyses.”
And it does exactly this, covering episodes that are both diverse and interesting.
The book opens with two examinations of what the author terms ‘The Greatest Confederate and the Greatest Federal’ errors respectively. In these opening chapters he lays out his approach, which is essentially to challenges some of the prevailing, and in cases, long-held ideas about the Civil War. Thus in these chapters he highlights the Confederacy’s mistaken reliance upon the power of ‘King Cotton’ to create international influence, and the Union’s failure to invest in breech-loading and repeating rifles early enough which, had it done so, might have helped shorten the War. In the subsequent chapters the author considers subjects as diverse as how banking in America was transformed under the leadership of Salmon Chase in order to finance the Union War effort; the responsibility for the burning of Atlanta; the relative merits of George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman as successful Union generals, and the relationship between McClellan and Lincoln. And of course the eponymous ‘Lost Dispatch’ receives its own chapter in which Leigh explores how the famous set of orders from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters in September 1862 fell into Union hands and should have gifted George McClellan the means to beat Lee. He considers the various theories as to how this situation occurred and concludes:
“Only the ghosts of those involved know the truth of how the Lost Dispatch came to be misplaced. But give the burgeoning access to historical information enabled by the Internet, more theories are surfacing. They range from the bizarre to the thought provoking. Perhaps you, dear reader, shall discover the answer.”
In all these and other subjects covered, the book provides thought provoking insights and observations on the American Civil War.
This is not a book that the average reader will pick up. As the author alludes to in the quote above, this book “revisits episodes” in the Civil War and a degree of prior knowledge is necessary to appreciate the discussion. However, this book is one that Civil War buffs will wish to read in order to have norms challenged and interest reinvigorated, and it will be retaining a place on the shelves in my library, despite the fact that they already bowing under the weight of Civil War literature!
Paperback Pages: 224 Westholme Publishing Published: 21 May 2015
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to Poland, and to visit two of its flagship museums. Both located in the country’s capital city, they address some of the major themes in Poland’s traumatic and turbulent history.
The first was POLIN:Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Its subject matter is exactly what one would expect from its title and the scope and scale of its content is vast. It was awarded European Museum of the Year 2016 and it is easy to understand why. It follows the story of Poland’s Jewish population and explains how Jews have been an integral part of the country for a thousand years.
The challenge facing the designers of this museum was to create a meaningful and engaging place with very few original artefacts. The harsh reality of Poland’s history is that successive invasions and occupations have taken a toll on its physical history. It is conservatively estimated that a quarter of a million works of art, a huge proportion of Poland’s cultural heritage, were looted by the occupying forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War and few have ever been recovered. However, once inside POLIN it is very clear that this challenge has been met and overcome very effectively,with clever and innovative interpretation filling the gap.
The museum’s core exhibitions are succinctly described on the museum’s website as follows:
The exhibition is made up of eight galleries, spread over an area of 4000 sq.m., presenting the heritage and culture of Polish Jews, which still remains a source of inspiration for Poland and for the world. The galleries portray successive phases of history, beginning with legends of arrival, the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland and the development of Jewish culture. We show the social, religious and political diversity of Polish Jews, highlighting dramatic events from the past, the Holocaust, and concluding with contemporary times.
Each of these eight galleries has its own style and method of storytelling, and a wide range of techniques are used. From a beautifully animated 3D map of Krakow and Kazimierz in the 16th Century, through a stunning recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, the galleries are a feast for the eyes. But of course the Jewish story has a much more traumatic side to it, as indeed does that of Poland. The fourth of the eight galleries reflects on how at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned Poland and how during the next century Poland’s Jews, and for that matter the rest of the Polish population, were divided to live dispersed under each of the three powers.
This is followed by ‘the Jewish Street’ a reconstruction of a scene from the Jewish district of Warsaw in the 1920/30s and tells the story of the brief post-First World War resurgence of Jewish nationalism in Poland during this period, before the savage repression of the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War. The museum itself stands in the centre of what was Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, opposite the memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising which was erected in 1948. The museum therefore unsurprisingly covers in detail the impact of the Holocaust. It chronicles its cruel consequences for Poland’s Jewish population and is told with no ‘punches pulled’. The visual impression of the Holocaust gallery is dark and oppressive as one would expect given that more than three million Polish Jews were eventually murdered during this period. The galleries finish with the opportunity to reflect on the thousand years of Poland’s Jewish history and what that memory means for Polish Jews today.
POLIN is a monumental museum in more than one way. As a pure museum it is enormous in its scope, making it the sort of place one would need to visit time and again to really appreciate the depth of content. But it is also a memorial to the human spirit and its ability to survive through adversity and emerge, battered and brutalised, despite the most awful of conditions. And it is this human spirit that is also celebrated in the second of the museums I wish to consider.
The Warsaw Rising Museum, in contrast to POLIN, tells the story of a much shorter, but equally emotive, period of Polish history, the Warsaw Rising of 1 August to 2 October 1944. Housed in a building that formerly served as the power station for the Warsaw tram system, its exterior is imposing, and topped with a modern observation tower affording views over the city.
The Museum was opened on 31 July 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the fighting in the city that marked the start of the Rising. The exhibitions within chart the hardships of everyday life before and during the Rising, and the appalling conditions the people of Warsaw lived under during the occupation. It is also a tribute and memorial to those who fought and died for a free Poland. The interpretation is excellent with great use of images and sound, as well as film that was amazingly recorded during the Rising. At the very heart of the Museum is a steel monument which stretches from bottom to top linking all floors of the building. Inside the memorial one can hear the sound of a heartbeat which symbolises the beating heart of fighting Warsaw in 1944 and is a rather eerie presence throughout the museum.
The collection of artefacts dispersed within the museum includes uniforms worn by the combatants, the weapons they were armed with and, very evocatively, the original named red and white armbands worn by some of the fighters. There are also sections that look at many different and more unusual aspects of the occupation and Rising. These include the cultural activities that continued despite the fighting and the role of young boys and girls who carried out the very dangerous role of postmen and women for the Field Postal Service by carrying messages around the city.
Like POLIN the execution of this museum is excellent. The story is told using a wide range of interpretation methods, the scope of the content is huge, and again a single visit does not do the content justice. It is also very clear how important to the story of modern Poland the Rising is, and how revered its veterans are held within the country.
Before I visited Warsaw I had a rudimentary understanding of Polish history and its place, by virtue of its geography, as a ‘buffer nation’ between two much more powerful, and at times aggressive, neighbours. I knew of its Jewish past and the appalling atrocities inflicted on its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust, and I was aware of the wartime Rising. What I was not aware of was the detail, in particular the myriad personal stories and tragedies therein. Both these museums help the visitor to access and understand these stories and I came away from my visits much better informed. I am now also much better able to understand the huge national pride that Poland as a nation and its people display, and the important role these museums are playing in immortalising its turbulent history.
June was a busy month with a great deal of travel that kept me from my computer. The highlight of this travelling was attending the Civil War Trust Annual Conference held in the evocative surroundings of Gettysburg. For three and a half days I was able to immerse myself, alongside five hundred like-minded enthusiasts, in the fascinating and inspiring history of America’s greatest battle. Superbly organised and executed, the conference also brought together a veritable ‘Whose Who’ of American Civil War historians and authors who delivered talks and conducted a whole range of very illuminating battlefield tours.
I participated in two tours both of which proved fascinating and educational. The first was led by lawyer and author Eric J. Wittenberg and followed the route of JEB Stuart’s ill-fated ride round the Union Army in the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Picking up the ride in Westminster, Maryland, we followed Stuart’s ride northwards via Union Mills, Hanover, Carlisle and Hunterstown during which Eric’s understanding of this oft misunderstood part of the Gettysburg Campaign became very clear. The debate about Stuart’s conduct during that period quickly developed. Did Stuart neglect, or exceed his orders, and deprive Lee of his ‘yes and ears’? Or did he interpret his orders correctly and take the initiative to cause disruption in the Union rear and gather important supplies? These questions and many more will undoubtedly continue to be discussed for years to come, but Eric Wittenberg’s tour shed light and insight on the whole affair and certainly provided participants with plenty of food for thought.
The second tour was, for me, the highlight of the conference. Entitled ‘Walking the Union Fishhook’, it took the form of an eight-mile hike right around the Union defensive position that had developed by the morning of 2 July 1863. The map below show this position very well and how it fitted into the overall narrative and flow of the battle.
Guided by two qualified Gettysburg Licensed Guides – the Civil War Trust’s own Director of History and Education, Gary Adelman, and serving US Marine Corps Colonel, Doug Douds – we started the tour on the summit of Little Round Top at the southern tip of the Union line. It was immediately clear that we were in for an informative and entertaining day as both guides launched into their delivery with gusto. Readers may recall that I sung the praises of the Gettysburg Licenced Guides programme in a previous blog post, and these two gentlemen certainly lived up to my previous billing. This programme produces guides with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg, its terrain, its history and its participants, as a result their ability to engage an audience is without exception outstanding.
The actions of Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren in highlighting the Union’s exposed flank on 2 July 1863, and the actions of Colonel Strong Vincent’s Brigade to hold Little Round Top were explained by Gary and Doug, and with these fresh in our minds we started on the hike. Moving off the top of the hill and we transversed the close country of the Western slopes of Little Round Top, passing through a little known, nor visited, rocky feature know as the ‘Devil’s Kitchen’ before arriving in the better known ‘Devil’s Den’. Here the complementary skills and interests of our two guides came to the fore. Doug regaled us with the story of the battlefield actions in this part of the field, whilst Gary talked about the photography that was conducted shortly after the battle to record the event and the rise of the battlefield as a tourist attraction, including the facilities, such as a railway, put in place during the nineteenth century to facilitate this trade.
The next stage of the tour took us to the infamous Wheatfield the site of some of the bloodiest fighting on the battlefield and a location that changed hands six times during the course of 2 July 1863. As we moved through the terrain from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den and on to the Wheatfield our guides flagged up a truism that can be easily missed on this battlefield, and many others, if one explores them in the traditional manner. All too often tours will take one, in a car or a coach, from location to location and each stop or stand is treated as an isolated action on the battlefield. What is often missing is the narrative or interpretation of how that action fitted with action happening in adjacent locations geographically or with that happening at the same time elsewhere on the field. Walking the whole Union position quickly highlighted how all the actIons and activities were inextricably interrelated and how something happening in one location often had a knock on effect elsewhere.
This cause and effect inter-relationship was nowhere clearer that when we reached the Trostle Farm and discussed the actions of Major General Dan Sickles and the Union Third Corps. As Sickles moved his corps forward to occupy what he felt was better ground, he created a gap in the Union position that then require others, in particular Winfield Scott Hancock and his Second Corps, to fill. Walking from the Trostle Farm to the heart of Cemetery Ridge it became very clear just how big a gap was created and problems it produced elsewhere in the Union lines.
The tour continued along the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge where we stopped to discuss the awesome Pennsylvania State Memorial and the action at the famous Angle which has become known as the ‘High Watermark of the Confederacy‘. From there we moved on through the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the resting place for more than 3,500 Union dead and where at the cemetery’s dedication Abraham Lincoln delivered ‘…a few appropriate remarks…’ which turned out to be one of the greatest speeches of all time, and is now referred to as the Gettysburg Address. The tour concluded with the eastern most portions of the Union line and took us over the wooded Culp’s Hill finishing at Spangler’s Spring. Again throughout we were able to appreciate the terrain from less well-visited viewpoints and to continue to build our understanding of the inter-relationship between the various parts of the battle.
At the conclusion of this walk I, and many of my fellow participants, commented and reflected on the new and different perspective we all had gained. Whilst most of us had been to the battlefield, many on numerous occasions, and had toured in many different ways, be it by coach, by car or even walking parts of it, few if any had completed such a complete and in-depth study of the Union position. The insights gained and understanding enhanced by doing so was marked. The lesson learned here, and that I for one took away was relatively simple. It is dangerous to attempt to understand history, particularly of such a complex event as a battle, by picking a few salient points in isolation and it is crucial tolook at new perspectives and appreciate the often complex interplay of activities in order to build a full and accurate picture. And that is my excuse when my wife enquires as to why I need to need to spend yet more time on a particular battlefield!
This week the military history world has been focused on the centenary commemorations for the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. Less well commemorated, or as well-known I suspect, is the fact that 3 July 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), itself an important and significant event, and the culmination of the short Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a war that would have a crucial role in shaping the Europe we know today.
The Austro-Prussian War, which was also known as the Seven Weeks’ War, was fought between the Austrian Empire and its German allies, and Kingdom of Prussia with its own German allies. At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the German states were grouped in a loose confederation known as the ‘Deutscher Bund‘ and operating under Austrian leadership. As the nineteenth century progressed the conditions developed for a unification of the German states into a single Germany. Two different views emerged as to what that unification might look like. The first was a ‘Grossdeutschland’ or greater Germany that would see a multi-national empire including Austria. The alternative a ‘Kleindeutschland’ or lesser Germany would exclude Austria and as a result would be dominated by Prussia, the largest and most powerful of the German states, unsurprisingly the latter was the preferred option in Prussia.
When Otto von Bismarck became Minister President of Prussia in 1862 he immediately began to develop a strategy for uniting Germany as a ‘Kleindeutschland’ under Prussian rule. He first raised German national consciousness by convincing Austria to join Prussia in the Second Schleswig War. This swift and brutal conflict put the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein under joint Austrian and Prussian rule. But very quickly after the conclusion of that war Bismarck provoked a further conflict over the administration of the conquered provinces, which resulted in Austria declaring war on Prussia and calling on the armies of the minor German states to join them, in what was ostensibly action by the German Confederation against Prussia to restore Prussia’s obedience to the Confederation.
The main campaign of the war took place in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). The Prussian Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, had decided that the key to success was to ignore the minor German states allied with Austria, and instead concentrate on decisively defeating Austria itself. He planned the war in meticulous detail, rapidly mobilising the Prussian Army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia in June 1866 to confront the Austrian Army, which was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. Moving rapidly, the Prussian forces were divided into three armies: The Army of the Elbe under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld, the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl, and the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. All were under the nominal command of Prussia’s King Wilhelm I, but in reality operational command sat with von Moltke. As the armies advanced, each on their own axis, they overcame Austrian attempts to stop them and by 2 July the main Austria Army had been sighted, encamped on high ground between the towns of Königgrätz and Sadowa.
Von Moltke immediately saw the opportunity to encircle the Austrians. He gave orders for Prince Friedrich Karl and the First Army to move forward and in conjunction with the Army of the Elbe to attack the Austrian positions across the Bistritz River the following day, 3 July 1866. He also ordered the Second Army, at this time some way off to the North East, to move in support with the aim of surrounding the Austrian forces.
Moltke had intended the battle to be a textbook ‘pocket battle’ in which he would encircle and destroy the Austrian Army, but the weather on 3 July almost ruined his plans. As the First Army and the Army of the Elbe approached they were caught in the heavy rain and arrived wet and exhausted. Meanwhile the Second Army did not reach the ﬁeld until late afternoon. The Austria commander, Ludwig von Benedek, therefore had the advantage of numerical superiority for much of the day with his 240,000 troops actually only facing 135,000 Prussians. Unfortunately for Austria he did not exploit this advantage.
The initial Prussian attacks came from the Army of the Elbe in the West and the First Army in the North West. In the West the early attacks were successful and the Saxon Army Corps holding this portion of the Austrian defensive line were pushed back. They withdrew to new defensive positions and once there started to pour heavy fire on the Prussians bringing them to a standstill. Further north the Prussian forces started well and made good progress and an hour into the battle the town of Sadowa was taken, but soon afterwards the advance began to slow down under heavy Austrian fire. A considerable amount of this was coming from a wooded area called the Sweipwald in which Austrian troops were concealed. The Prussians attacked and the wood was cleared. The Austrians counter-attacked but their efforts were uncoordinated and confused allowing the Prussians to decimate the disorientated columns of Austrian infantry moving in and out of the wood. The Austrian position was not helped by paralysis, indecision and confusion amongst the Austrian command. Benedek stopped an attempt by a subordinate (General Anton von Mollinary) to swing the Austrian Army’s right wing forward to encircle the two Prussian armies at Sadowa before the arrival of the third, losing a valuable opportunity and creating chaos in the field.
Aided by Benedek’s inaction, Moltke had time to wait for the arrival of the Prussian Second Army which he was finally able to commit late in the afternoon and it struck Benedek’s weak right ﬂank. With the assault now on all sides the Austrian Army began to disintegrate. Gallant but futile rearguard actions took place to slow the Prussian advance. One lone horse artillery battery, under the command of Captain August von der Groeben, tried to stem the Prussian advance. Its desperate salvos were answered with crippling Prussian fire from all sides and within five minutes Groeben, 53 men and 68 horses were all dead. This was followed by the Austrian cavalry which charged into the pursuing Prussians. For half an hour the they succeeded in holding the Prussian cavalry and pushing their infantry back, which, combined with the continuing Austrian artillery fire, convinced Von Moltke that he may had underestimated Benedek. With his reserves of infantry and cavalry stuck on muddy approach roads behind the lines, Moltke did not have the resources to complete the encirclement at Königgrätz and stopped the pursuit. The Austrian cavalry broke off at this point and the battle ended at 9pm.
Most of Benedek’s army escaped across the Elbe in the night, but the Austrian losses were high – 44,000 men in the course of the day, compared with Prussian losses of just 9,000. The Austrian Army that retreated to Vienna was very weakened and the Austrian emperor had no option but to agree to an armistice on 22 July 1866, and three weeks later sued for peace. Bismarck used the victory to further his ambitions, abolishing the German Confederation and forming the North German Federation that excluded Austria and her allies in Germany. Its position as the dominant power in continental Europe was confirmed five years later with an emphatic victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the resulting unification into a united Germany.
Today Königgrätz is a fascinating battlefield to visit. Situated 125km to the East of Prague in the Czech Republic, it is about an hour and a half drive from the centre of the Czech capital. The battlefield is relatively undeveloped and one can very quickly gain an understanding of the terrain and the flow of the battle. There is a small museum and visitor centre that provides useful orientation and an observation tower. These are both located together just outside the village of Chlum, right at the heart of the battlefield and on its highest spot. The tower affords panoramic views of the area and from which one can appreciate the scale of the battle and the influence of the terrain.
The actions of many regiments and individuals are marked with memorials across the battlefield. These include a monument erected at the location where Captain August von der Groeben and his ‘Battery of the Dead‘ conducted their heroic but doomed rearguard action.
The Sweipwald is full of memorials to both sides, placed here both by regiments in memory of fallen comrades and families for loved one. As one walks through the woods it is easy to envisage how this part of the field became a bloody killing ground as the combat ebbed and flowed. But today it is peaceful and serene, and judging by my experience very little visited, as we were the only people in the woods on a fine July afternoon last year!
The impact of this battle was felt long after it finished. Bismarck’s vision of a dominant and imperial Germany of course came to fruition, and ultimately led to Germany’s role in helping to start the First World War, the legacy of which had a continuing impact throughout the subsequent history of the twentieth century. It is perhaps worth reflecting on what might have happened had there been an Austrian victory on 3 July 1866. Would it have resulted in a ‘Grossdeutschland’ that would have joined the German states in a less aggressive and less martial multi-national Empire, leading to a more peaceful Europe and avoiding the two world wars of the twentieth century? This is of course speculation but what is very clear is how important this short war, and the little known battle of Königgrätz were in actually shaping the European history we know today.
The First World War, like many wars, inspired a plethora of artistic creativity. Books such as Robert Graves ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ are well-known, indeed often studied in schools. Likewise Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and other war poets have, even today, a disproportionate influence in shaping our collective thinking about the First World War. To my mind the ‘Cinderella’ in these artistic influences is the field of painting and sculpture. A whole raft of work of this genre of visual arts did appear during and after the War, some privately and some produced by official war artists, yet I suspect many people would struggle to name even one artist, although they would probably recognise their work.
A couple of weekends ago I visited an exhibition at the York Art Gallery which is playing its part in redressing this situation. Entitled ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ it brings together a collection of more than sixty works of art, both paintings and sculptures, in order to celebrate and reflect on the artistic output the War produced. It includes works by Paul Nash, John Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, CRW Nevinson, William Orpen, Anna Airy, Dorothy Coke and sculptors Jacob Epstein and Charles Sargeant Jagger. The exhibition is summarised in the accompanying blurb as follows:
‘Working either privately or as official war artists, they wanted to give a true sense of the horror, human sacrifice and tragic consequences of ‘total war’.
They reflected this in their fragmented depictions of soldiers, trenches, artillery, and in images of a torn and violated landscape. Modern artistic movements stressed the mechanised nature of the war and the new destruction this brought.
These artists searched for reason and meaning in the conflict, finding ways to capture and commemorate the events of the First World War both at home and on the front lines and helped form a collective memory that remains with us a century later.’
Advertised as the largest exhibition of First World War art for almost one hundred years, it was first shown in the Imperial War Museum in London, but is now on display in York in a revised form which includes pieces from York’s own collections to give it a unique flavour.
Arranged over three rooms on the ground floor of the gallery, the exhibition is beautifully presented and very engaging. The mix of paintings and sculpture is well-balanced and is a superb showcase of the art of the period. There are some items with which even those with only a passing knowledge of the art of the period will be familiar, such as John Nash’s ‘Over The Top’ (seen above). Others will, I expect, be unknown to most visitors but the mix of familiar and new makes for a fascinating visit.
There are three pieces that I would highlight and which to me capture the spirit of this collection. First, shown at the top of this blog post, is a bronze bust by Jacob Epstein entitled ‘The Tin Hat’ (1916). It is a simple piece crafted in Epstein’s recognisable style. It depicts a British soldier of the First World War his face an encapsulation of the stoic determination displayed by those who served on the Western Front. His steel helmet is worn at a jaunty angle and to me he is the epitome of the British First World War ‘Tommy’, although in many respects he could represent the British soldier of almost any era. Displayed alone on a plinth in the centre of the central room of this exhibition, it is a powerful and evocative piece.
The second item I would highlight is ‘The Menin Road’ (1919) by Paul Nash (older brother of John Nash mentioned above.) Paul Nash was an official war artist and in April 1918 was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to paint a picture for a proposed National Hall of Remembrance. He chose as his subject the Ypres Salient, and between June 1918 and February 1919 completed this large 60 foot square picture. He used striking imagery to create a vivid picture of the battlefield. Water-filled shell holes, tree stumps and battlefield debris set against a dark brooding sky, capture for me the appalling conditions the soldiers on the Western Front had to endure. The image is iconic and to see it ‘in the flesh’ is very moving.
The final work that I would highlight is one of a set by the artist Anna Airy and is entitled ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’ (1918). Airy was an established painter before the War and was one of the first women to be officially commissioned as a war artist. She was given a number of commissions to capture the conditions in, and work of, the factories making war machinery and munitions. The exhibition includes a number of her works but this one stood out. It very effectively pictures the working conditions inside a factory forging shell cases. Her depiction of the red hot shells being forged is so lifelike one can almost feel the heat radiating from them as you stand before the painting.
In summary this is a tremendous exhibition. To get such a rich collection of First World War art together outside London is a great coup for York Art Gallery, for which they are to be commended, and has probably contributed to the gallery being shortlisted in the annual Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. As a collection it provides a fascinating and engaging insight, and as I alluded to at the start of this blog post, an interesting contrast to the books and poetry that we perhaps more commonly associate with the First World War. The exhibition is currently running in the York Art Gallery until 4 September 2016, and I urge everyone to pay a visit. You will not be disappointed!
The First World War saw some 8.7 million men serve in the British Army at some point during the conflict. Of those, 5.4 million served on the Western Front (France and Flanders), which is where I suspect most people think of these men spending their time. But of course before they even got across the Channel a huge effort was necessary to recruit, mobilise and train such an army. Today the British Army is heading for a regular strength of 80,000, a tiny proportion of that First World organisation, yet I suspect that we all know of a military barracks in our local area and are aware of military activity. Thus imagine a one-hundred fold increase to the number of men under arms and the impact on the country’s infrastructure and landscape. Military camps and training areas grew up all over the country to cope with this expansion, and I will return to these shortly.
The First World War saw a step change in the manner in which war was conducted. Many will argue that it was the first industrial war; I might counter that by suggesting that the roots of the industrialisation of warfare were planted some fifty years earlier with the American Civil War, but that is a different debate. What is clear from the First World War is that many of the technologies that had been emerging over the previous fifty years came together with deadly efficiency during the conflict. The trench stalemate on the Western Front is usually put down to a combination of three things. First, the very effective defensive technology and techniques employed to create the trenches, and the use of barbed wire to make No Man’s Land impossible to cross safely. Second, the wholesale availability of tinned rations which meant that soldiers could occupy these defensive positions for weeks and month without having to forage off the land as they had in previous campaigns. And finally the rise of rapid firing weaponry making venturing into No Man’s Land a perilous activity. Crucial amongst this weaponry was the machine gun.
The first self-powered (recoil operated) machine gun had been invented in 1883 by Hiram Maxim (an American who moved to Britain in 1881). He conducted practical demonstrations in 1884, and his Maxim Gun was used by the British Army on colonial operations from 1893. In 1912 an improved version of his gun was produced by the Vickers Company and adopted by the British Army. It would remain in use through both World Wars finally being withdrawn from service in 1968.
Although having been around for some years, the machine gun really came to the fore in the First World War. At the start of the War all British Army infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns and this was increased to four in February 1915, as a result of the experience of combat in the early battles. But this experience also highlighted the need for bespoke tactics and organisation in order to make the most effective use of the weapon. As a result, in November 1914 a Machine Gun School at established in Wisques in France to train officers and machine gunners. This served two immediate purposes. First, to replace those personnel trained to use machine guns who had been killed or wounded, and second to increase the number of men with machine gun skills.
In September 1915 the War Office considered a plan to create a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the machine guns and associated teams from the battalions, with the aim of fully exploiting this new technology. In order to give the battalions firepower they would be issued with the lighter and more portable Lewis machine gun. The plan was approved, the Machine Gun Corps was created in October 1915, and the companies formed in each brigade transferred into to the newly formed Corps. The reorganisation was rapid and was completed by the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. By the end of the war a total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Machine Gun Corps, of whom 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing.
In order to train and prepare these troops a Base Depot for the Corps was established at Camiers in France and a Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and it is this latter location that I will now focus upon.
The camp at Belton Park came in to being shortly after the start of the First World War when the owner of Belton House, Earl Brownlow, offered the use of Belton Park to the War Office. A camp was begun in September 1914, firstly tented but very soon purpose built wooden huts were erected.
These burgeoned and the camp became a small town. It had some 840 wooden huts of which 500 were barrack rooms giving it a capacity of about 12,000 men and additional accommodation for officers, although some sources do suggest that the capacity could have been up to 20,000. It had its own 670 bed military hospital, 5 church rooms, 3 YMCA huts for recreation, a post office, a cinema and its own railway line. The map below gives an overview, but a more detailed sheet is available from the Belton House website.
The camp was initially occupied by troops of the 11th (Northern) Division, then by Pals battalion from Liverpool and Manchester who were part of the 30th Division, before finally becoming the Machine Gun Corps Training Centre on 18 October 1915 when Brigadier General Henry Cecil de la Montague Hill CB CMG took command of the camp. By November he had 230 officers, 3,123 men, 163 guns, 4 wagons and 60 cooks on site. The camp remained in place throughout the war and was eventually dismantled in 1920.
Today it is almost impossible to realise that such a huge encampment existed at Belton Park, unless you know about it. With the dismantling of the camp the land returned to its original use as the deer park for Belton House, and in the ensuing one hundred years almost all evidence of the camp has disappeared. Over the last few years, particularly with the First World War Centenary upon us, some interest has been rekindled in the site. In 2012 Episode 259 of the Channel 4 series ‘Time Team’ conducted an investigation on the site. The National Trust, today’s guardian of Belton Park, has also undertaken some investigative work to help interpret the scale and size of the camp.
I personally found out about this camp some years ago and have wandered over the landscape a number of times. There are just the odd clues to the camp if one looks carefully. The most obvious of these is a water tank, sited on top of the hill overlooking the camp site, and sitting alongside a much more prominent 18th Century folly. Constructed as part of the infrastructure to support the camp this simple round tank is one of the last remaining pieces of physical evidence of the camp.
As a result it is difficult these days, as one walks in the tranquil park land, to imagine the frenetic building that went on to construct the camp, and then the day to day noise and activity of thousands of soldiers undertaking training. The sounds of vehicles, horses, the shouting of orders and the rattle of gunfire as hundreds of machine guns were fired on the ranges purposely built for the job, (the target butts for which now form part of the local golf course) must have been constant.
With the dismantling of the camp the town of Grantham returned to peace and quiet, although it has become the home to a number of memorials to the Machine Gun Corps. The parish church of St Wulfram houses a memorial plaque and book of remembrance, whilst there is a stone tablet commemorating all members of the Machine Gun Corps on Belton Park’s Lion Gates. Finally in 2014 a new memorial, based on the badge of the Machine Gun Corps, was unveiled in Grantham’s Wyndham Park.
Now this story is of course not just about Grantham and its experience of the First World War, nor is it solely about the Machine Gun Corps, there is a wider point here. It wasn’t just Belton Park that experienced this phenomenon. There were hundreds of establishments growing up all over the country to house the rapid and enormous expansion of the British Army that took place in the first year of the War, and to deal with the casualties as they returned home. From Salisbury Plain to Cannock Chase, and from Manchester’s Heaton Park to as far away as Stobs Camp outside Hawick in Scotland, military establishments grew up all over the country. As I postulated at the start of this blog post, it is often easy to overlook the physical impact of the First World War at home, when the scale and horror of the Western Front (or the other theatres of war for that matter) dominate our First World War history and memory. Thus in this period of centenary commemorations it is interesting, and appropriate, to reflect on how this huge military footprint stretched right across Britain and the impact it had on the local economy, population and landscape throughout the country.