Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War

Tin Hat
Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Tin Hat’.

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.

John Nash Over the Top
‘Over The Top’ by John Nash (the left hand of these two paintings.)

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.

Nash Menin Road
‘The Menin Road’ by Paul Nash in situ at York Art Gallery.

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.

Airy Pics
Two pictures by Anna Airy, an official war artist. The left hand picture is ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’ (1918).

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!

York Gallery General View
A general view of one of the three rooms housing ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ exhibition at the York Art Gallery.

The First World War on your doorstep

Machine Gun Corps Training
Troops of the Motor Machine Gun Corps training February 1916. ©IWM (Q 53896)

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.

Maxim Plaque
A blue plaque at 57 Hatton Garden, London, where Hiram Maxim set up his workshops on his arrival in Britain in 1881, and where he designed his famous 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.

men-of-the-machine-gun-corps-at-drill1
Machine Gun Corps personnel undergoing training during the First World War.

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.

Belton Camp Aerial
An aerial view of Belton Park Camp during the First World War.

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.  

Belton Military Camp
A wartime picture of Belton Park Camp showing the wooden huts and rolling stock for the camp’s own railway line.

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

Belton Map
A map showing Belton Park Camp and giving an idea of its scale.

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.

img_0617
One of the three YMCA recreation huts in Belton Park Camp.

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.

Belton from Belmont Pano
The current view over the area occupied by Belton Park Camp.  The avenue of trees in the centre extends to Belton House and the open areas on either side would have been covered in wooden huts during the First World War.

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.

Belton Watertank
One of the few remaining pieces of Belton Park Camp, a water tank overlooking the park which, one hundred years ago, would have been covered on wooden huts and alive with the sound of military training.

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.

Slide1
Two memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  Left, a stone tablet on the Lion Gates entrance to Belton Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire.  Right, a modern memorial, based on the Machine Gun Corps cap badge, in Grantham’s Wyndham Park, erected in 2014.

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.

Stow Maries: An evocative tribute to First World War aviation.

Aircraft Stow Maries
Aircraft on the ground and in the air at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome.

One hundred years ago a new threat to the United Kingdom was forcing the Government to introduce new measures to defend the country.  From early 1915 German airships had been attacking and, whilst the casualties were very low compared to those that would be experienced in the ‘Blitz’ of the Second World War, this new form of warfare was causing alarm and fear amongst the population.  In response to this unrest, in late 1915, a number of new Home Defence Squadrons began to be formed with the aim of providing a dedicated force of aircraft to defend the country’s eastern approaches.  These squadrons, eleven in all, began to come into operation from January 1916.  One of these squadrons, 37 (Home Defence) Squadron Royal Flying Corps, was formed in September 1916 with its headquarters at Woodham Mortimer and its three flights located at three separate, and newly built, aerodromes in Essex: Rochford, Stow Maries and Goldhanger.   Its mission was to provide air defence on the eastern approaches to London.

Air Raid Damage 1917
Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. © IWM (HO 77)

The aerodrome at Stow Maries, the home of 37 Squadron’s B Flight, was initially under the command of Lieutenant Claude Ridley who, at 19 years of age, was already a decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order to his name. Under his command the first aircraft (rather inadequate BE12s) arrived at Stow Maries in October 1916 and the station became operational in May 1917. At its height the station was manned by 219 personnel of whom 16 were aircrew, with the rest supporting staff (of whom about 20 were female). During its operational period from May 1917 to May 1918, 81 operational sorties were flown from Stow Maries to intercept airships, Gotha and Giant bombers. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were being driven back on mainland Europe and were no longer able to threaten the United Kingdom from the air.  As a result Stow Maries, now a station belonging to the newly formed Royal Air Force, re-roled to provide a training and support function until 1919 when, as part of post-war rationalisation, the squadron was relocated to RAF Biggin Hill. At that point Stow Maries aerodrome went back to agricultural use, although very importantly the buildings constructed to house 37 Squadron remained.

The site operated as a farm for the next 70 years until one of those fortunate circumstances occurred.  It was put up for sale and by luck spotted by Russell Savory who was looking for somewhere as business premises.  Immediately seeing the potential to return the site to its Great War heyday, in 2009 he and his business partner bought it. He then encouraged the formation of the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust (SMGWAT), which in 2013 purchased the site and began the difficult and mammoth job of its restoration and development as a heritage attraction telling the story of its days as a Great War aerodrome.

Stow Maries Museum 1
The museum houses tableaux showing the living and working conditions in wartime Stow Maries.

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the launch of a new flagship museum at Stow Maries.  Funded by monies given by the Government from the fines imposed on the banking sector, the museum was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and interestingly the local MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East) John Whittingdale. The museum marks the start of what augers to be a bright future for the site that will see its transformation from a set of derelict, and for years neglected, wartime buildings into a sympathetically restored homage to First World War aviation.

The museum, housed in the old workshop building, has been professionally designed, but has been constructed by some of the SMGWAT’s band of enthusiastic volunteers.  The result is an excellent scene-setter for anyone visiting the site.  On arrival one is met with a small shop and admissions area that are fresh and well-organised. The museum proper starts with an introduction to the air war conducted during the First World War with a particular emphasis on the air defence of London and its eastern approaches.  This sets the scene and explains the reason for Stow Maries existence. It clearly outlines the threat from the various types of airship and aircraft, and culminates in a tableau showing a life-sized section of a German Gotha, complete with crew, flying over London. The latter is supported by a very informative interactive that shows the location of various bombing raids on London and their impact.

Stow Maries Museum 4
Wartime Stow Maries had its own complement of WRAF personnel who are also represented in the museum’s displays.

In parallel to the ‘bigger picture’ story, the role played by Stow Maries is also told – how it was established, its personnel and their roles.  These include the aircrew, the ground crew and the female personnel.  There is also a section on aircraft design and construction that graphically illustrates just how flimsy and dangerous these fighters from the First World War were.  This is reinforced by the wartime casualty figures of 37 Squadron.  Of the ten aircrew killed during the Squadron’s operational period, eight died as a result of flying accidents!  In short the content of the museum tells a wonderful evocative story of Stow Maries and its contribution, set within the context of the air defence of the United Kingdom during the period.

Stow Maries Museum 2
The exhibition covers the problems and challenges of building and maintaining the rudimentary aircraft flown by the Royal Flying Corps and later the newly formed Royal Air Force.

Elsewhere on the site other buildings have, or are being, restored, in order to gradually bring the whole site to life.  The Airmen’s Mess is now resplendent in its wartime glory and serves refreshments for visitors.  The Squadron Offices tell the story of 37 Squadron and other buildings are in the process of being stabilised and restored, as and when finances are available.

The other big draw at Stow Maries are its flying days, when vintage and reproduction aircraft of the period fly over the aerodrome.  To support the opening event we were treated to a display of flying. Standing on the aircraft line with a whole array of period aircraft lined up on the ground, with another in the air, transported the audience back to Stow Maries’ Great War heyday. And it has, like so many heritage sites, that intangible but spine-tingling sense of place.  You can feel that you are standing in the ground where one hundred years ago young men, many still teenagers, got into aircraft that were made of wood and flimsy canvas, and flew them sometimes as high as 10,000 feet in order to engage and shoot down enemy airships and aircraft.  To stand beside reproductions of these aircraft today the prospect of doing so is terrifying, yet these men did this and ultimately contributed to the defence of the nation.

Aircraft Line
An impressive aircraft line up by the airfield at Stow Maries

The work being done at Stow Maries, like so many other projects of this nature, began as a mission to save decaying and unloved heritage from disappearing forever.  With that initial threat now removed the task for the SMGWAT is to restore and make this fascinating site even more accessible.  But also to continue to tell how Stow Maries played its small but important part in the bigger story of the development of the air defence of the United Kingdom, and ultimately the formation of the Royal Air Force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Men Who Made the Cemeteries

GRU Cpl
A Corporal from a Graves Registration Unit with an exhumed body. ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via IWM

I am sure that for anyone who has visited the battlefields of the First World War, in particular those of the Western Front in France and Belgium, one of the most vivid memories will be the war cemeteries.  These are looked after and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and serve as a permanent and powerful reminder of the death and suffering that the Great War brought. But I suspect that fewer visitors really think about how the cemeteries came about and how they were developed.

The story starts soon after the start of the First World War and, in large part, is down to the work of one man, Fabian Ware.  He arrived in France in September 1914, too old to serve in the Army, instead he commanded a mobile Red Cross unit.  He soon identified that there was no official process for documenting or marking the location of the graves of those who had been killed.  To fill this void he and his mobile unit undertook the task.  Ware’s work was quickly given official recognition and the unit was transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915.  As the work of grave registration became known to the public at home, the Commission began receiving letters and requests from relatives for photographs of graves, which it duly began to provide.  As a result, in 1916, the Graves Registration Commission was renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. Its remit was also extended beyond the Western Front and into other theatres of war including Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  As the war progressed Ware and others became concerned about the future of the graves after the war, which led to the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 (updated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 1960s).

The work continued through to the end of the war and on into the 1920s with the recovery of bodies, concentration of some of the smaller cemeteries into larger ones and the building of large permanent memorials such as the ones at Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Graves Resistration Unit
A Graves Registration Unit in France or Belgium, probably after the end of the First World War ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via the IWM

This work was crucial in helping the grieving process for those hundreds of thousands of families who had lost loved ones.  Some years ago I came across a grave in Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient.  Unlike so many in that cemetery, this one had a name on it, Private James Weir, 31st Battalion, Australian Infantry, AIF.  It also had an intriguing epitaph ‘The Lord Gave And The Lord Hath Taken Away’.  So out of interest I decided to trace Private Weir and to see if I could find out more about him.  In doing so I uncovered a tragic tale, but one that probably mirrored many thousands more.

Private Weir was killed on 27 September 1917, during the bloody Third Battle of Ypres, and was buried in a battlefield cemetery somewhere in the area of Polygon Wood. However, the grave appears to have been lost and even as late as the summer of 1921 the family, in Australia, were writing to the authorities to find to where the grave was. Eventually the grave was located, the body exhumed and concentrated with many others in Tyne Cot Cemetery, and in October 1921 the family were sent photographs of the grave. Nonetheless it is hard in these days of instant communication and rapid travel to imagine the anguish his family went through for four years, not knowing where he was buried.

Weir Grave Register
The Graves Registration Unit’s notification that Private James Weir’s body had been exhumed and reburied in Tyne Cot Cemetery. ©National Archives of Australia.

This week I came across Lincolnshire resident and author Tim Atkinson who is writing a book about the men who stayed behind after the Armistice as part of the Graves Registration Units to search for and recover bodies on the battlefields. Entitled ‘The Glorious Dead‘ the marketing blurb for the book states the following:

‘The book promises to reveal what happened when the Great War ended and the guns fell silent, to tell the story of the battlefield clearances and creation of iconic war cemeteries and to explain why so many men who served – and survived – remained in Flanders amid the ruins of the war they’d fought.

The story follows one of these men – Jack Patterson – as he busies himself doing the Empire’s dirty work. Jack seems not to mind getting his hands dirty, digging graves, living among the death of devastation of the war he and others have just fought. But there’s a secret keeping Jack in Flanders – a secret that only emerges when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching…. for Jack’s own grave!’

Intrigued by Tim’s (TA) approach I (HM) caught up with him and we had a chat.

HM:  “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

TA:  “I was a teacher for twenty years and then decided to give up full-time work to look after my youngest child, and at the same time start writing,  Since doing so I have had a number  of books published, and my latest venture is ‘The Glorious Dead’.”

HM: “I have read the blurb, but tell me more about the book.” 

TA:  “Well it’s been five years in the making and is the story of Jack Patterson and his comrades who stay behind on the Western Front after the end of the First World War to complete the harrowing and unpleasant task of recovering bodies from the battlefields for burial. The story covers the important years just after the end of the Great War when thousands of troops remained behind to complete this task. It also touches on those who eventually married local girls and became part of Anglo-Belgium and Anglo-French communities looking after the cemeteries through the inter-war period.”  

HM: “Why did you choose to address this subject through the medium of historical fiction rather than a factual narrative?”  

TA:  “The book is principally about the people involved with this undertaking rather than the process.  There are a number of good non-fiction books already published on the subject, including Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil and David Crane’s Empires of the Dead.  And I’m not an historian so didn’t want to cover the same ground less-well.  What I wanted to do was to understand the psychology of these men.  To understand what motivated them to stay behind and complete this task.  In the case of my chief protagonist there is a personal reason and a mystery about him that eventually comes to light but I won’t spoil the story. But the historical fiction approach gave me more scope to do this.”

Serre No3
Serre Road Cemetery Number 3, a battlefield cemetery on the Somme, on an atmospherically overcast day.

HM: “These cemeteries always have a profound effect on people visiting them.  Why do you think that is?”     

TA:  “From Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery, to the smallest battlefield cemetery on the Somme their design is consistent and perfect.  This was an inspired period, from the work of Fabian Ware to establish the Imperial War Graves Commission through to that of the architects such as Blomfield and Lutyens to establish the monuments.  I have been to many of the cemeteries on the Western Front and standing in them I think the overriding impression is of the simplicity of the design and the serenity of the places.  And I think it is this contrast with the horror of the battlefields that really has an impact on people.”

HM: “Your book is being published through Unbound. Why have you chosen this route?”

TA: “Well first it is a very successful model which has had some notable successes.  The one that immediately springs to mind is Philip Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which made it on to the Man Booker long list in 2014.  Secondly I enjoy the interaction with potential readers that this form of publishing allows.  Once subscribers have pledged their support they are given access to ‘the Shed’ an interactive area where they can receive updates from the author and leave comments and thoughts. As a writer it is unusual to connect with readers while engaged in the process of writing.  Unbound offers a great opportunity to open a dialogue with your readers and allow them to help shape your book.”

HM: “Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.  Good luck with completing the book and your quest for support.”      

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries of the Western Front, and elsewhere in the world, are an iconic and important part of the Remembrance of all wars that have involved military and civilian personnel from across the Commonwealth since 1914.  As we move through the Centenary commemorations of the First World War their power to connect us with that War does not seem to diminish, indeed in many respects they are even more powerful today than they ever have been.

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot Cemetery today.

What I hope I have done in this blog post, and what Tim Atkinson is attempting to do in his book, is to highlight the effort made to ensure the memory and sacrifice of those who died in the First World War was not forgotten.  Initially this was through the efforts of Fabian Ware to institutionalise the burial and commemoration of the dead.  Then later through the physically hard and traumatic work of men, like Tim’s character Jack, to scour the battlefields searching for bodies, and hopefully help to close a chapter for many families such as those of Private James Weir.  As we remember the dead and the wounded throughout the Centenary of the First World War, we should also take our hats off to the men who completed the grisly, but very important, task of making the cemeteries.


You can subscribe to Tim Atkinson’s book ‘The Glorious Dead’ at https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-glorious-dead

 

Preservation, restoration or recreation. 

Destruction of Gettysburg Visitor centre
The removal of the old 1920s Gettysburg Visitor Centre in 2009.  This was done as part of the rehabilitation programme at the Gettysburg National Military Park, which is returning the battlefield to how it looked in 1863. (Picture: The blog of the Gettysburg National Military Park)

Much work is undertaken these days to maintain, repair and restore heritage sites, locations and buildings.  Such work often causes debate, in particular related to how much work should be done, to what, and why.  A recent project to renovate London’s Alexandra Palace produced much controversy and discussion about the nature of the proposed work and its purpose. It strikes me that in any work undertaken upon heritage sites and buildings, the key questions should of course focus on what we should do to such places in order to keep them for the future, but also very importantly, on how to make them relevant to today’s users and visitors.

Before I examine some examples, a few definitions.  For the purposes of this blog post I am going to talk about three processes that can be applied to heritage sites – restoration, preservation, and recreation.  There are a range of other terms that are used to cover similar ground, but to keep things simple I am going to use these three.

Restoration is essentially about taking something back to a former condition, such that it has an authentic appearance appropriate to the chosen period.

Preservation is about stopping an object, place, building etc. from deterioration or destruction, and preventing it from being altered or changed. These days this is often linked to the protection of architecture or the built environment. The key difference to restoration is that it is not the final appearance of the object, place or building that governs the process, but rather it is the retention of as much of the original fabric as possible, with minimal changes, that guides the final outcome.

Finally recreation is about replacing previously destroyed or removed objects, perhaps with a replica, or recreating fundamentally altered environments or settings, in order aid understanding.

Let me look at some examples.  The first is the American Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg which has undergone a programme of what has been termed rehabilitation. A look at the programme highlights that it includes elements of all the above categories. Restoration works has seen the removal of lots of 20th century intrusions such as buildings and car parks, as well as non-period vegetation that had encroached on the battlefield since the battle. Recreation sees the replanting of vegetation appropriate to the period, and alongside, preservation work has ensured that those authentic elements of the battlefield remain in place.

The underlying purpose of this project has been to:

‘…restore the Gettysburg Battlefield’s historic integrity, to enhance visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for what happened here, and to help create a sustainable environment by improving wetlands, water quality and wildlife habitat…’.

To guide what was required to make the battlefield more understandable, an analytical process called KOCOA has been used.  This means:

Key Terrain includes those areas that were seized, retained or controlled in battle.

Observation includes signal stations and fields of fire.

Cover and Concealment includes stone walls, woods, ridges and other features offering visual protection.

Obstacles include fences, buildings and field fortifications that affected military movement.

Avenues of Approach are the roads, farm lanes and open fields that led to the enemy.

By identifying these important locations on the battlefield the necessary action could then be taken to ensure the landscape presented to visitors was increasingly returned to, as near as possible, that present during the battle.  This allows the visitor to understand the all important impact of the terrain on the conduct of the battle and to ‘feel’ the battlefield. The images below are just one example of where this work has been completed.

Ohio Memorial Gettysburg (The Evening Sun)
This picture shows the memorial to G and I Companies of the 4th Ohio Infantry on the battlefield at Gettysburg.  On the left with the ‘Home Sweet Home’ motel, a 20th Century intrusion in the background, and on the right with the motel demolished and the terrain closer to resembling how it was at the time of the battle in July 1863. (Picture: The Evening Sun)

Gettysburg is not the only American Civil War battlefield going through this process and very recently similar plans have been implemented at the battlefield of Franklin (30 November 1864).

Another location that has been through a similar process in recent years, and one close to my heart, is Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England.  The location of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War, Bletchley Park produced vital intelligence, the value of which had a profound impact on the conduct of the Second World War.

Hut 6
Bletchley Park’s historically important Hut 6 prior to restoration.

The site has been through a major restoration project during which the wartime huts in which vital codebreaking work was conducted were restored to their wartime appearance, and the landscape around them returned to its 1940s feel. Prior to this project the huts were in an appalling state of repair and close to being lost. The rationale employed by the Bletchley Park Trust in restoring them was firstly to stop them falling down, and by all accounts this was very close to happening. But rather than just preserving crumbling wooden huts, they were restored and made accessible to the public with audio-visual interpretation and set dressing in order to allow visitors to understand and experience the rudimentary conditions under which the difficult cerebral work of Bletchey Park’s wartime codebreakers was conducted.

A similar logic was applied to the landscape of the site which had been encroached upon by modern car parks.  These were removed and the wartime landscape recreated, as can be seen in the pictures below, not only capturing the wartime feel but also providing much better space for visitors to enjoy.

BP MANSION
Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England, the home of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War.  The image on the left shows the site’s Mansion house surrounded by car parks before the restoration of the site in 2014, with the image on the right showing the same view post-restoration. 

The two examples I have cited above have been largely about the restoration of buildings and landscape in order to evoke a particular period.  There is of course equally strong merit in just preserving sites and buildings, be it for their architectural value or because the cost of doing anything more would be prohibitive.  Many a ruined castle would fall in this latter category where their reduction to ruins happened so long ago that the cost involved would be enormous. Equally in a ruined castle it is relatively easy to interpret the story and purpose of the building for a visitor, perhaps negating any more intrusive restoration.

Recreating lost buildings and places from scratch also has its place.  Obvious, and timely, examples are the replica trench systems that have been dug in a number of locations in the UK (and abroad) to tie up with the First World War Centenary.  These include the Coltman Trench at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Digging in project in Glasgow.  In these cases replica trench systems allow students and visitors to experience the physical surroundings of the trenches, which is difficult to do on the actual battlefields where most of the original trenches have long since disappeared.

Debates about the merits of preserving a heritage site versus the more radical approach of restoration, or rehabilitation as undertaken at Gettysburg, will, I have no doubt, continue to occur in many different guises in the future.  And the arguments either way are rarely likely to be clear-cut.  What I have tried to suggest above is that at some heritage sites the careful restoration, and in some cases selected recreation of spaces, places and buildings, can provide a greater insight into the importance of a place. In doing so the aim should always be to engage a visitor, and/or an inquiring mind.  If this can be achieved through careful and sympathetic restoration, then it is probably much better to follow this path than leaving derelict buildings preserved in aspic to attempt to talk for themselves!

 

 

 

Signs, guides and videotape…

Gettysburg Sign
One of the many interpretive signs that adorn American Civil War battlefields.

One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.

The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.

For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing.   Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield.  They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.

Naseby Board Image
A good example of an informative and engaging battlefield interpretation board.

The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.

BP Sign
An interpretive sign at Bletchley Park showing what activities happened on the ground in front of the board during the Second World War, using period photographs and quotes from veterans.

Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor!  Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board.  She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations.  These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.

Guiding Monocacy
The author in full flow conducting a guided tour of the American Civil War battlefield of Monocacy (9 July 1864).

But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme.  Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.

One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides.  But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy.  Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question.  Is guiding for you?  In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:

Do you love to teach?  Are you a storyteller?  Are you an extemporaneous speaker?  Are you a simplifier?  Do you love people?  Are you comfortable speaking to groups?  Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?

A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides.  Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.

Another challenge with human guides is quality control.  The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining.  But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story!  I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality.  This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself!  But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.

Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor.  These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content.  As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.

Battle App Overview
A screenshot from the Civil War Trust’s Bull Run Battle App® Guide

By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861).  As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.

Battle App Detail
Another screenshot from the Civil War Trust Bull Run Battle App® Guide showing some of the more detailed content.

As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video.  The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds.  A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!

This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too.  At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can.  There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity.  But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation.  For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation.   There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.

To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.

Review: The Great War 100 Infographic Postcards

postcards-GW100-1024x1024

In my last blog post I touched on the subject of infographics.  By coincidence, this week, a set of ten infographic postcards have landed on my desk for reviewing.  Produced by Scott Addington, and taken from his book ‘The Great War 100 – The First World War in Infographics‘, these cards cover ten of the key battles of the First World War.

The front cover of the packaging in which the cards come describes the contents as:

“Ten Infographic Postcards: Packed with facts, stats and first hand accounts of some of the bloodiest battles in history.”

The first thing I should offer is a brief health warning. These are not traditional postcards. Each is a large 20cm x 20cm square produced on glossy card, with information on both sides.  These are most definitely not designed to be sent through the post!  Rather they are information cards for reading, exploring and displaying.  Each one covers a particular battle/campaign from the First World War: Mons, Tannenberg, Gallipoli, Loos, Verdun, Somme, 3rd Ypres, Cambrai, Kaiserschlacht, Amiens.

Cards All
All ten cards and packaging

On the front of the cards is an infographic of the style found throughout the aforementioned book.  Set on a dark background, there is a location map to put the battle in question in the wider context of the First World War.  Also on the front side are the dates of the battle/campaign in question, the commanders, the numbers of troops involved, casualties and other relevant statistics.

Somme Front
The front view of the Somme postcard.

On the rear of the cards there is a ‘Did you know?’ section which covers some of the key facts and figures about the battle – some providing basic information other a little more quirky.  For example the fact that after the success at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 church bells were rung in Britain for the first time since 1914. Finally on the back there is also a relevant quote from a participant in the battle providing some human colour to the story.

Somme Reverse 3
The reverse view of the Somme postcard.

To set these cards in context it is important to understand Scott Addington’s philosophy in producing them.  He calls himself a ‘layman’ and this is his approach to this project. As he says on his website:

History doesn’t have to be dull. My aim is to write military history books in a lively way that informs and inspires people that have may have never read much history before.  My ‘Layman’s Guides’ military history books are short, sharp and to the point – not chock-full of unnecessary detail that can sometimes overwhelm and confuse readers. Fact books and infographics add a slightly different twist to the telling of history as I try to make the subject more accessible to more people!

With this aim in mind, I am sure Scott would not object to me saying that these postcards do not purport to be extensive histories, nor are they primarily targeted at the expert. Rather they are a collection of key facts and figures that provide an interesting and accessible overview, and a taster to a deeper study of the battles.

Now at £7.99 a pack, I am not sure I see them fitting in the library of a serious student of the First World War – there is so much more detail available in a myriad of other publications. Equally if one has an interest in infographics, and I have to admit I do, then one will probably wish to buy the book which is full of them!  However, as an introduction to the First World War, these cards have much scope to open up the story of these battles to a new audience.  I can see them being very attractive to children and young adults, be it in schools or at home.  Gracing the walls of a history class in school, or the bedroom wall of an enthusiastic young historian, they are guaranteed to grab attention and be a talking point. Indeed had they been around when I was a child they would have been on my bedroom wall!  Equally I can see parents attaching these with fridge magnets to the fridge door, or leaving them lying around, in order to provide an opportunity to stimulate young minds during the current First World War Centenary commemorations.

In short these are an imaginative, attractive and engaging set of cards that will provoke discussion and interest. The selection of facts and figures give a good flavour for each battle. They are thought provoking and will encourage further investigation. And if they encourage those with little understanding of the First World War to engage with the history and explore the subject further, then Scott has probably achieved his aim, and I congratulate him for trying to do so with such an attractive and accessible product.