Telling Poland’s turbulent history

Faces
Three faces of Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising of 1944 on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

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.

Synagoge Roof
The amazing recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue at Gwoździec in one of the galleries at POLIN.

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.

Jewish Street
A representation of a Jewish street from the 1920/30s inside POLIN.

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.

Ghetto Memorial
The memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of Warsaw is situated opposite the POLIN museum in the centre of what was the Jewish ghetto.  In was raised in 1948 in memory of those who died in the abortive 1943 Ghetto Uprising.

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.

Uniforms
Uniforms worn by Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

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.

Rising Museum
The former power station for the Warsaw tram system which now houses the Warsaw Rising Museum.

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.

Armband
This wall displays original armbands worn by the Polish fighters during the Rising. Each is signed with the individual’s name. The letters WP denote Wojsko Polskie – Polish Armed Forces.

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.

Rising Museum memorial
The towering monument at the centre of the Warsaw Rising museum which records each day of the fighting and within which can be heard, as well as a heartbeat, the sounds of the Rising such as gunfire, radio announcements, prayers and falling bombs.
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In the footsteps of the Blue and Gray at Gettysburg

Blue and Gray Title
The Wheatfield at Gettysburg

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.

Statue Hannover
Author and historian Eric J. Wittenberg presents the story of the Battle of Hanover (30 June 1863) in front of Cyrus E Dallin’s statute ‘The Picket’ depicting a Union Cavalryman which was erected in 1905.

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.

battle-of-gettysburg-official-history-map
The Battle of Gettysburg showing the Union ‘fishhook’ position and the action over the three days of the battle. ©Thomaslegion.net

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.

Gettysburg Guides
Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides ‘in the zone’.  The Civil War Trust’s Gary Adelman (left) at the National Cemetery, and Colonel Doug Douds (right) on Culp’s Hill.

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.

Devil's Den to Little Round Top
The view from Devil’s Den to Little Round Top on an overcast morning.

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.

Penn Memorial
The Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg.

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!

East Cemetery Hill from SE
A view not often seen by the average visitor to Gettysburg.  East Cemetery Hill from the South East with Winfield Scott Hancock’s Statue in the centre and the entrance to the Evergreen Cemetery on the left.

150 years on – The Battle of Königgrätz, 3 July 1866

Konnigratz
‘The Battery of the Dead’ by Carl Röchling (1855 – 1920). This picture shows the Prussian Guard overrunning Captain August von der Groeben’s so called ‘Battery of the Dead‘ at the Battle of Königgrätz, on the afternoon of 3 July 1866.

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.

Bismark
Otto Von Bismarck (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898) the architect of German Unification. This photograph was taken late in his life and had been beautifully colourised by Marina Amaral.

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.  

KG Map Morning
The morning’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

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.

Bayonet Charge by Prussians at the Battle of Sadowa
An etching showing Prussian infantry charging Austrian troops at bayonet point.

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.

KG Map Afternoon
The afternoon’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

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.

Königgrätz - Hunten
‘Battle of Königgrätz 1866’ by Emil Hünten (1827-1902) The picture depicts King Wilhelm I awarding his son, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Order Pour le Mérite after the Prussian victory under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, who can be seen on the left side. © Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

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.

Panorama Lookimh East
A panoramic view from the Chlum observation tower looking East.  In the foreground is the museum and visitor centre.  In the centre, on the right edge of the woods, is the memorial to the ‘Battery of the Dead‘.  The attack of the Prussian Second Army swept in from the left hand edge of this view.

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.

Dead Memorial
The Battery of The Dead Memorial unveiled in October 1893. Captain von der Groeben and his horse battery of eight Groeben’s guns were placed North-West of Chlum facing the Sweipwald. In mid-afternoon of 3 July 1866 the battery tried to hold off a flanking attack by the Prussian guards before rapid and heavy fire silenced the guns. Groeben, 53 other officers and men, and 68 horses were killed. 

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!

Sweipwald Memorials
Some of the many monuments and memorials in the now tranquil Sweipwald.

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.

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.

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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.

Review: Relics of the Reich – The buildings the Nazis left behind

Relics of the Reich

This book recently arrived on my desk to review and, as I am heading to Berlin for a short break this summer, I opened it eagerly.  As I read the following passage from the introduction I was immediately engaged:

“Studying this physical legacy makes for a fascinating journey, not out of some morbid curiosity for a dark period of history, but because a sense of place, wanting to be there, and wanting to tread where history was made are undeniable parts of the human psyche. Focussing on the places where the deadly Nazi story unfolded serves to remind us of the depths to which humanity sank. It can also act as a commemoration of mankind’s deliverance from a dark decade and serve as a renewal of our commitment to ensure history does not repeat itself.”

This was clearly a book written by someone who takes the same view as I do of what history is really all about – that interplay of events, people and places.

The overarching narrative is about the use of construction, structures and buildings as essential elements for creating and sustaining the Nazi Party and its vision for the Third Reich. Organised into eight themed chapters the book looks at a whole range of different examples. Broadly chronological, it starts by looking at those buildings that helped to ‘Establish the Faith’, that is those that were created or adopted as symbols of the Third Reich.  These were places that helped to create and strengthen the Nazi Party’s relationship with the German people.  It includes some examples with which, I suspect, many readers will be familiar such as the Nuremberg Rally Grounds (shown on the cover of the book – see above) and the Munich Hofbräuhaus.  Others are likely to be less well-known.  One of the latter that immediately attracted me was the Wewelsburg Castle, near Paderborn in northern Germany, a place I have visited a few times and know well.  As the author outlines, Himmler had identified this seventeenth century castle to become a centre for SS education and had lavish plans for it to be the ‘centre of the world’. Work did start on this project but was put in abeyance by the War.  Today it is open as a museum which, somewhat unusually for modern Germany, does not shy away from its Nazi history.

Wewelsburg
Wewelsburg Castle today ©KreisMuseum Wewelsburg

The next chapter examines the idea of ‘Strength through Joy’ and considers the buildings constructed to facilitate the Third Reich’s programme of providing organised sporting and leisure facilities for its people. These include the massive Prora-Rügen holiday complex on Germany’s Baltic Sea coastline (a complex that was then used by the East German Army post World War Two) and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, as well as the facilities built for the pleasure and recreation of Nazi leaders such as Goering’s Carinhall and Hitler’s Berchtesgaden.

Subsequent chapters move through structures built to show off the Third Reich to the wider world, in particular the massive investment made to stage the 1936 Olympic Games.  A large section is devoted to the Olympic Stadium (again featuring on the cover of the book  – see above) and the Olympic village in Berlin, but coverage is also given to the, again probably less well-known story, of the Winter Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen where extensive constructions were also made to host that event. There is a chapter that considers what are referred to as ‘Future Fantasies’ and looks at some of the great plans that never came to fruition.  The greatest of these was probably Germania, the so called Welthauptstadt (World Capital), which would have seen the redesign of Berlin to become a city to exceed London, Paris and Rome, and serve as the capital city of a world dominating Third Reich. Of course Germania and other such fantasies never happened, but it is fascinating to read and explore the plans.

Germania
A model of ‘Germania’, or the re-modelled Berlin, that was planned to serve as the ‘world capital’ of a world dominating Third Reich ©Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Further chapters cover some of the darker aspects of Nazi Germany.  The infrastructure put in place to control the Reich, those necessary to fight a world war, and the chilling and clinical constructions that enabled the Holocaust. The final chapter considers the ‘Downfall of the Third Reich’ and examines amongst others, the structures to house and build the V (Vengeance) weapons, the Reich Chancellery and the Führerbunker.  Also in this chapter is a look at Dresden, not because of any structures built by the Nazis but rather to reflect on the destruction of this city and its role as a motif for the futility and pain that the Nazi regime brought on Germany.

This is undoubtedly a fascinating book.  The range of buildings it covers is wide and varied.  It looks at those that existed and were largely destroyed, those that were envisaged and never happened, and those that survived and still exist today.  There are some notable exceptions, for example there is only a passing mention of the Atlantic Wall defences that were built both in France and the Channel Islands, but it is recognised that a book of this length has to be selective. The conclusion, entitled ‘Coming to Terms with the Past’, pulls together the various strands and their legacy.  It considers how some buildings, or parts of them, have been destroyed to eliminate the memory of the Nazis, but how other places, especially military structures, were re-purposed through the Cold War and beyond by the German Military.  And of course other structures, such as the Olympic Stadium, have continued to play a role much as they were planned and built.

To conclude, this is a very well-produced hardback book, copiously illustrated with both modern and contemporary illustrations. It is well-written, engaging and accessible.  It serves equally well as a thesis on the buildings of Nazi Germany, as a practical guide to them.  It doesn’t shy away from the dark, brutal and horrific aspects of the Third Reich, but equally it is pragmatic about how these structures played a variety of roles within it. This will of course appeal to any students of the Nazi regime and its building, but I am sure that it will also attract a wider readership and anyone interested in the Second World War will find this a fascinating read.  In short I thoroughly recommend this book and it will most definitely be in my luggage when I travel to Berlin later this year, and undoubtedly be well-thumbed as I explore that city’s Second World War history.

Hardback
Pages: 202
Pen & Sword Military
Published: 11 April 2016

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.