War memorials

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Why do war memorials look the way they do?

The War Memorials Trust estimates that there are 100,000 war memorials in the UK, and many of them follow a similar range of designs. There’s the statue of an infantryman, as in the memorial in Otley. There’s the Cenotaph style memorials that mimic the original design created for London by Edwin Lutyens in 1919. Some places, such as Victoria Park in Leicester, have an archway reminiscent of the Menin Gate in Ypres. Many smaller towns and villages have a memorial in the form of a simple cross.

The First World War defined remembrance for the 20th century. Wars had been commemorated before, but the sheer scale of the conflict and its impact on towns and villages across the country sparked a response to anniversaries beyond anything seen before. The BBC has a great summary of how the response to conflict ‘set the blueprint’ for commemoration. Now, at nearly a century’s remove from the events of 1914-18, it seems appropriate to reflect on how the formal commemoration events that began in 1919 have influenced who and what we remember in our commemoration events today, and how they are enacted. Who is remembered, and who is not? More importantly, why? We’ll return to this topic in future posts.

As part of our project we’re researching seven names from the war memorial in Otley, West Yorkshire. All were soldiers with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and all had different experiences of the war. We’re using a range of sources including medal indexes, service records, battalion war diaries, death and burial records and personal memoirs of soldiers who served with those battalions to build up a picture of their war service and how they died. We’ll report back as our research unfolds.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, aka the Tower Poppies

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Image: the poppies, and the crowds, at the Tower of London, 7 November 2014.

The art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, is to date the UK’s most viewed and probably most controversial commemorative act of the First World War centenary (though it could yet be surpassed: there are still nearly four more years to go!). The work consisted of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British or Colonial serviceman killed in the war, which were installed progressively in the Tower of London moat between July and November 2014. The installation has been well documented in the press. The debate over whether it is in appropriate way of commemorating and memorialising the First World War offers and insight into contemporary attitudes towards the conflict and much food for debate. We focused on two contrasting articles:

It’s hardly surprising that the Mail and the Guardian should differ in their views (and it amused me that Hardman should claim the First World War as a chapter in the country’s history that ‘transcend(s) the petty squabbles of Left and Right’ while at the same time using his article to take pot shots at ‘Lefties’). The debate begs a number of questions. Is it ever possible for commemoration to transcend politics? Who does this installation represent, and who (by definition) does it exclude? Does it matter? And what alternative ways can we find of remembering and commemorating the First World War?

 

Facing-Recovering at Fort Nelson

Artist Jevan Watkins Jones talks about his experiences collaborating with soldiers and veterans for new exhibition facing – recovering, currently on display at the Royal Armouries Fort Nelson until February 1.

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Jevan Watkins Jones & Luke Hardy 2013

(Facing-Recovering Image: Jevan Watkins Jones and Luke Hardy, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite.)

What was your role in the project?

My role was as lead artist responsible for designing and delivering a socially engaged art project with wounded and injured soldiers (WIS) as an Associate Artist to the Learning Team, firstsite in partnership with Chavasse VC House, Recovery Centre, Colchester Garrison. The project was based at the centre one day a week for 10 months.

How did you work with the soldiers and veterans to share their personal stories and experience of injury and post-traumatic stress?

Words became drawing and drawing became words – they were interwoven. My original intention had been to draw more myself in the situation, directly from them and their stories. I had intended to create an active studio space where drawings were left on the wall of the canteen. First mine then theirs. This was not allowed on the new centre walls but also it became less relevant. The space I had created appeared to have founded itself upon talking together; talking about soldiering and art and, liminally, the human relationship between these two – me and them. I say ‘me and them’ though I often listened more than I spoke because it was still the offer of ‘Drawing with Jevan’ that instigated that space and my job to draw the visual out in a relational way. It was my duty in this instance not there’s. They didn’t have to participate or even turn up. The only way that the drawing-out could happen was to keep hold of these conversations as best I could in note form in order to draw on them in weeks to come. Key events were up most in my mind and these became drivers, or more rewardingly, evidence of a growing rapport with a few individuals channelling the course  of the project at what was and still remains for many a raw time.

(Image: Josh Green, Eye Crowd, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite. Please use title as caption)

(Facing-Recovering Image: Josh Green, Eye Crowd, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite.)

How is this exhibition significant to the current experiences of the armed forces?

From my perspective as an artist, civilian and having a step-son who has served in Afghanistan, it is significant in as much as it presents the contemporary soldier as a fellow human being who is as vulnerable if not more because of the extreme situations they face. My experience through this project is that many soldiers feel unable, even disabled, to reconcile their experiences with living a civilian life. The adjustment appears to be challenging and is certainly exacerbated by persistent stereotypes that can reinforce a sense of isolation or at least difference. The few soldiers I met wanted to express themselves personally and grab an opportunity to publicly declare their voice so that as Luke Hardy, Ex-Private and Sniper said people would be able to see ‘..the person behind the soldier.’

Is there a particular piece in this exhibition that stood out for you?

They, of course, all do for different reasons but because I have a particular love for drawing I would single out Josh’s drawing, ‘maimed Man’ as it really rocked me when he first presented it to me. Art has this potential but it is infrequently met. It is drawing in its most elemental, stripped back and sincere. It is also such a timeless image – man against man, defence, protection and humanity all rolled into one.

facing – recovering is on display at the Royal Armouries Fort Nelson until 1st February 2015.

 

 

The Christmas Truce

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Image: soldiers of the 12th Bn East Yorkshire regiment pass through a communications trench, 1918. © Imperial War Museum, Creative Commons

Preview post

 

Did you see the Sainsbury’s Christmas television advert featuring the legendary Christmas truce that happened at various locations along the Western Front in December 1914? Whether you saw it or not, you probably will have heard some of the controversy it aroused. The advert, and more importantly the discussion around it, provided a great case study for our first class examining the history and memory of the First World War and generated a lot of debate. Here are the links we used, with a couple more we didn’t have time for:

Do you think Sainsbury’s ‘went too far’ with this advert? Was it a fond, well-researched tribute to an important historical event, or a cynical, emotive ploy to boost flagging profits? Or something in between? And what does this advert, and the debate it generated, tell us about the way we remember the First World War one hundred years on?

Historical Memories…

Oral Historian Tracy Craggs has been working in partnership with the Royal Armouries Museum to complete a two-year European Union-funded project, contributing towards a methodology on teaching historical memory in schools. Tracy tells us more about the project.

The Royal Armouries’ team worked with a class of Year Nine History students (aged 13-14) for one term. The students were from the Co-operative Academy of Leeds, a mixed-ability comprehensive school near the city centre. The students studied the Second World War, focusing on the history and memories of D-Day.

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Students interview D Day veteran, Alf Ackroyd

Students learnt about the background to the Second World War, then spent a lesson focusing on D-Day from the perspective of one man, Wilf Todd, who took part in the invasion on Sword beach in Normandy. Using photographs, historical documents relating to Wilf’s service, a letter he wrote to his wife Mary, and extracts from Wilf’s and Mary’s memoirs, students analysed the difference between history and memory sources.

They then used a wide range of eyewitness accounts of D-Day, together with photographs, films and archive sources, to broaden their understanding and assess why the invasion of Normandy was ultimately a success. The class spent a day at the Royal Armouries Museum, where they worked in the museum galleries and handled Second World War weapons and uniforms.

After interview skills training, students met and interviewed D-Day and Second World War veterans in school. Using their interview results, students created digital stories based on the interviewees’ experiences, interpreting their stories in the context of the Second World War and giving their own views on the relationship between ‘official’ history and memory sources.

The Royal Armouries team found that students had a far more mature response to the museum’s collection, particularly difficult objects such as Second World War weapons, when they understood the memories those objects held for people who used them. Meeting living witnesses was an important part of the learning process for young people. However, oral history was more powerful for the students when they had the opportunity to question and compare different narratives rather than seeing it as a piece of evidence telling them ‘what really happened’. Getting young people to deconstruct how interpretations are made, and how social memory is created, made them appreciate the relevance of history to their own lives.

Our team worked with staff from museums and cultural organisations from Spain, Norway, Italy, Slovenia and Poland to create a methodology to teach historical memory that would work in schools across Europe. This methodology has now been made available and interested teachers can access it at http://memoriesatschool.aranzadi-zientziak.org/methodology/

Blogger: Tracy Craggs, Oral Historian

Becoming Florence

One of the most popular workshops with younger visitors to our education centre at Fort Nelson is the session about Florence Nightingale during which pupils investigate the life and times of the pioneering nurse. Our wrap-around service provides teachers with pre- and post-visit resources to enhance the time the children spend exploring our authentic Victorian fort.

In order to really bring history to life our Education Manager Eileen Clegg is regularly transformed into Florence Nightingale.

In order to really bring history to life our Education Manager Eileen Clegg regularly transforms into Florence Nightingale.

As part of their visit to Fort Nelson children get their hands on history through our special handling collection, they can explore the Victorian hospital ward and listen to the story of the ‘The lady with the lamp’ in the Fort’s atmospheric tunnels.

Blogger: Nicole Heard, Education Assistant

Reporting From the Front

On 5 November 1854, one of the bloodiest battles of the Crimean War was fought. A large Russian army of over 40,000 troops counter attacked the Anglo-French forces besieging the Crimean town of Sevastopol, in an attempt to drive them away. After several hours of savage fighting the Russians withdrew, leaving over 12,000 dead on the field.

With the British troops at Inkerman was an artist, William Simpson. He was born in Glasgow in 1823 and became an apprentice lithographer. In 1851 he got a job as a lithographer with the firm Day & Son in London, and in 1854 was commissioned by the Fine Art company P&D Colnaghi to produce a series of illustrations depicting events during the Crimean War, which they intended to publish in a commemorative book.

Frontispiece

Frontispiece

Due to the lack of source material for the illustrations in England, Colnaghi’s took the unusual (for the time) decision to send Simpson out to the Crimea. He thus became one of the first war artists, depicting at first hand what was really going on. In 1856 his illustrations were published as The Seat of War in the East. This work comprised 81 colour lithographs with text in two series; the library at the Royal Armouries has copies of both, bound together into a single volume.

Second charge of the Guards at Inkerman

Second charge of the Guards at Inkerman

Several illustrations depict events during the Battle of Inkerman, and the whole volume is a magnificent testament to Simpson’s skills both as artist and reporter. After the Crimea Simpson went on to cover other British campaigns – including the Indian Mutiny – and worked all round the world covering military and civilian topics. His works appeared in numerous other publications and also newspapers such as the Illustrated London News. Simpson died in 1899, a successful and famous artist. He had even achieved Royal patronage from Queen Victoria herself.

The Field of Inkerman

The Field of Inkerman

Although the Russians were defeated at Inkerman, their attack did succeed in diverting the Allied efforts away from Sevastopol, ensuring the siege dragged on for many weeks longer, through the savage Crimean winter. The hardships the British soldiers endured during this time are well known, thanks to the efforts of William Simpson and the other early war reporters.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant