Tag Archives: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

‘War Stories Open Day’ at Brighton Museum: Engagement, Empathy and the First World War.

In this blogpost Dr Lucy Noakes discusses a recent First World War centenary event in Brighton and reflects on the personal dimensions of our continuing fascination with the First World War.

On Saturday 13 September, 2013, the grounds of the Royal Pavilion estate in Brighton echoed once again to the sounds of Sikh riflemen parading and marching. Between 1914 and 1916 the Royal Pavilion and the Dome in the centre of the city had been the Kitchener Hospital, one of three buildings in Brighton (the others being the workhouse and a school) that were a temporary home to soldiers from the Indian sub-continent who had been injured while fighting on the Western Front. The 15th Ludhiana Infantry Regiment, a re-enactment group under the auspices of the National Army Museum’s ‘War and Sikhs’ project were participating in the War Stories Open Day being run by the Royal Pavilion and Museum to mark the major War Stories exhibition running at the Museum until March 2015.

15th Ludhiana Infantry Regiment' (National Army Museum War and Sikhs project) with Brian Fitch, Mayor of Brighton. Brighton Dome.

15th Ludhiana Infantry Regiment (National Army Museum War and Sikhs project) with Brian Fitch, Mayor of Brighton. Brighton Dome.

This affecting and affective exhibition traces the history of the war through fifteen individuals who came from, or had links with, Brighton during the war years. These included Bob Whiting, the goalkeeper with Brighton and Hove Albion football team, who joined the army with some of his team-mates in 1915 and was killed in the Arras offensive of 1917, a family of Belgian refugees who settled in Sussex, and Manta Singh, officer in a Sikh Regiment (and great grandfather of one of the re-enactors present at the Open Day) who had died in the Kitchener hospital in 1915 of wounds received when rescuing his commanding officer from the battlefield. In this focus on individuals, the exhibition could perhaps be understood as being shaped by the ‘new museology’; an approach to museum displays that has moved beyond the traditional ‘glass case’, replacing artefacts with affect and focusing instead on the lives and stories of historical actors as a means to engage the interest, and empathy, of the visiting public.[1] As this short piece will go on to argue, this is an approach that perhaps has an especial resonance for our understandings of the First World War.

As well as the Sikh Regiment, many other groups participated in the Open Day, and visitors to the Museum were able to handle wartime artefacts, hear popular songs from the war years, find out more about the history of Brighton and Hove during the war, and research the histories of their own families and communities in wartime. ‘Gateways’ ran an information stall, where we helped visitors who wanted to discover more about their ancestors’ wartime experiences. Helping people to research these experiences was a fascinating experience for the historians and history students who volunteered on the stall – a real ‘hands on’ history that reinforced our sense that the First World War continues to have a real resonance in many people’s lives today. It’s not often that the historian encounters the visceral emotional response that some visitors to the Gateways stall had when encountering the names of relatives on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Why is this? In part, of course, it is due to the nature of the war itself – its unprecedented and unexpected scale continues to have a resonance down the years, leading to a widespread understanding of the conflict as marking a kind of break between a lost, past world (‘never such innocence again’ as Larkin remarked fifty years on) and the modern world of today.[2] Political, as well as social and cultural histories have played their part in this: the rise of the totalitarian regimes that so dominated and decimated Europe in the mid 20th century are widely seen as having their origins on the battlefields of First World War, and the unsatisfactory peace treaty at its close. Cultural historians like Modris Eksteins and Paul Fussell have found in the war a turn away from the literary, musical and artistic forms of the 19th century and an embracing of the tropes of modernism, in high culture if not in its more popular forms.[3] And social historians have long debated the extent to which the war was a modernising force, bringing in its wake an extended democracy, and an increased willingness of the state to intervene in areas previously understood as the domain of the individual and the family.[4]

There is clearly more to it than this however. Many feel a real, personal link to those whose lives were shaped by the war. This is, I think, more than a simple desire to be ‘a part of history’, to claim a personal, familial role in the conflict that is being commemorated at the moment, though as Dan Todman has perceptively noted, this can be a factor in the ongoing fascination with key events of the war years for Britain, such as the first day of the Battle of the Somme, or Passchendaele, the third Battle of Ypres.[5] There is a personal dimension to the continuing fascination with the war years that can be harder to trace in many of the other key events of the recent past. The First World War coincided not only with the growth of photography and film, giving us numerous images of the battlefield and the home front, but with the growth of literacy, enabling more ‘ordinary’ soldiers to write home about their experiences, or to reflect on these after the war in forms that have been passed down through families and in archives. Conditions for soldiers and civilians in the Boer War just a decade or so earlier may have been equally foul, but, for the most part, they weren’t written down or photographed, and the smaller numbers involved mean what memories there are exist in fewer households today.

The sheer numbers of those involved then plays a key role in this, as family stories of ancestors caught up in the war both reinforce and are shaped by, popular, public representations. The rush to volunteer in 1914, the formation of the Pals Battalions in 1915 and the introduction of conscription in 1916 ensured that more men than ever before were to experience military life. The formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in 1917, and the work of nurses on the war fronts, together with aerial and naval bombardment, ensured that many British women saw the impact of industrial warfare first hand. Many households in Britain today can claim some link to the First World War, either through the participation of a male ancestor in the military or through the war’s impact on those at home in Britain, or in the Empire and Dominions. War memorials, Remembrance Sunday, war poets on the school syllabus, and the ease with which many of us today can visit the war cemeteries in France and Belgium all demonstrate both the continuing fascination with the war years, and its ongoing presence in our material and cultural lives.

Many historians continue to express frustration with (to reluctantly cite Michael Gove) ‘the Blackadder version of the war’, in which everyone dies, and indeed we should remember that the majority of combatant survived the war, and that the social and economic changes it engendered led to long term improvements in the lives of many. However, I would suggest that today’s wide public acceptance that the war was, largely, a futile waste of men’s lives that ended in an unsatisfactory peace which laid the grounds for the even more destructive Second World War, in fact indicates not only an admirable empathy with those who suffered in the war, but a perhaps even more worthwhile scepticism about politicians who are all too willing to rush into conflicts today. The focus on individual stories, and the emotional resonance that the war still has for many, means that the centenary of the war provides us with fertile ground for engaging with the wider public in historical research.

[1]Merriman, N. (1991) Beyond the Glass Case: The Past, the Heritage and the Public in Britain (Leicester: Leicester University Press).

[2]Larkin, P. (1964) MCMXIV.

[3]Eksteins, M. (1989), Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Houghton Mifflin); Fussell, P. (1975), The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[4]Marwick, A. (1965; 2006), The Deluge: British Society and the First World War (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan); Braybon, G. (1981), Women Workers and the First World War (London: Routledge); Gregory, A. (2008), The Last Great War(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[5]Todman, D. (2009), ‘The 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme’ in M. Keren & H. Herwig (eds.), War Memory and Popular Culture (North Carolina: McFarland).

The Silent Cities (London: Methuen, 1929) 10s 6d

In this blogpost Professor Mark Connelly discusses The Silent Cities, a1929 publication by Sidney C. Hurst on the cemeteries and memorials of the Great War.

When I first visited the battlefields in 1986 I found that my military history interest was very quickly matched, if not surpassed, by a new obsession with the memorials and cemeteries of the Western Front. The first Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery I visited was Dud Corner at Loos, and despite seeing many photographs of those neat and tidy corners of a foreign field forever England, I was totally amazed by actually stepping into one. Just like everyone else I found the cliché was absolutely true: the peace, quiet and dignity of the place were truly remarkable. On returning home I quickly managed to find a copy of Philip Longworth’s official history of the Commission, The Unending Vigil, published to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 1967.  I read it avidly and was particularly interested in the references to a book called The Silent Cities by Sidney C. Hurst published by Methuen on behalf of the Commission in 1927. Deeply curious as to its contents, I searched my local libraries with no luck and then put in an inter-library search request. In those days everything was done by filling in paper forms and acknowledgement came in the form of a prepaid postcard. After a good few weeks that postcard duly arrived and told me the book was ready for collection. Having no idea of the nature of the book other than the fact that it was obviously about the work of the IWGC, I had no insight as to what I was picking up.

Opening the book for the first time I was stunned. First, it was printed on beautiful, glossy art paper. Used to the yellowing and foxed pages of inter-war books I had purchased in my local second hand bookshop or read in the library, nothing had prepared me for opening a volume that seemed brand new. Then there was another huge shock. Rather than pages of text, which I had expected, there were photographs of cemeteries; not just a few photographs to break up and illustrate the text, but page after page of photographs. The book was a gazetteer of each and every cemetery and memorial. Under each cemetery was a short description with details about the graves they contained and map references to aid location. Suddenly I was teleported back to the world of the original visitors to the Western Front or those who longed to go, but with perhaps neither the means nor time who, instead, purchased the book as some kind of permanent souvenir of their lost loved one thus providing a fitting domestic reminder. The book was also a world of liminal spaces for many photographs showed the cemeteries incomplete or in transition. The original Graves Registration Unit crosses could be seen in some rows with others seemingly sprouting up their new crop of pristine white IWGC Portland Stone headstones. Close examination of the landscape around the cemeteries also revealed a world permanently caught in a moment of drastic transition. Look beyond the cemetery and it could have been a shot of the prairie with far, far horizons: the war had destroyed everything and so there was nothing to punctuate the background or immediate hinterland. Most of all, it was a world of saplings carefully planted by the IWGC in the cemeteries or some farmer to help define his field boundaries beyond. Mature trees seemed so rare that their total number could easily be accounted across the entire 407 pages of the book. It was impossible not to play the ‘then and now’ game as I thought about the cemeteries I had seen on my trip and compared my photographs to those contained in the book. Houses, roads, and above all, trees, had appeared in the intervening years.

The next great discovery was turning to the back of the book and seeing the index of cemeteries. Having been on the trip I had some inkling of the wondrous range of names used, starting with the severely utilitarian, through the humorous and ironic and on to the elegiac and iconic. But here was a whole new thesaurus of memory and commemoration. Cemetery names tumbled out and rapidly fused in my head a connection with Blunden’s poem, Trench Nomenclature, which I have never since escaped, particularly in that most wondrous of concoctions, ‘Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillebeke’. Pouring over the photographs and delighting (that may seem an odd word to use in this context, but I genuinely can’t think of another one which better describes my sensations) in the cemetery names, I saw veterans in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and doffing their caps as they visited the graves of old chums and cloche-hatted women with young children searching for solace in at least seeing daddy’s grave so nobly marked and beautifully maintained. As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my other pieces, that vision is one I have never since managed to shake off and has become an important component of my professional career.

Of course, the time came for me to return the book. I dreaded that moment, for I realised then that The Silent Cities was a book that I wanted to own. At that stage I knew absolutely nothing about the workings of the second hand book trade other than the fact that there was a good, rambling second hand bookshop in the London suburb in which I grew up. I did know that I had a rarity on my hands and I was highly unlikely to find a copy in my usual haunt. Aching with the misery that only a teenager can muster, and a teenager at the height of ‘The Smiths’ fame at that, I wondered what I could do. Looking at the library stamps in the book, I saw that no one had taken out since the late 1950s! From this fact I deduced that the library from which it originated might not be that interested in retaining it. Using what I thought to be politely cunning (or cunningly polite) skills I wrote to the library (I have a vague feeling that it was in East Sussex somewhere) and asked whether I might be allowed to buy the book from them, especially as it was clearly not the hottest volume on their shelves. Needless to say that offer was declined with equal decorum and politeness (and perhaps cunning, as well). Skip forward a few years and I was now on the mailing lists of a few second hand book dealers who sent me their quarterly catalogues. Then, one magical day, I saw the book listed in one of the catalogues. I phoned immediately terrified that it might have been snapped up by someone else, but no, I was fortunate and managed to purchase it for let us say a not inconsiderable sum for the early 1990s. Receiving the book felt like having a scoop of soil from every cemetery in Belgian and France; it felt like some holy relic was now in my possession. Something far more than a simple catalogue was now on my shelves.

You might therefore imagine the amazing frisson that overcame me, when, about a year later, I purchased a copy of a collection of R.H. Mottram’s essays (of which more in a later piece) titled Through the Menin Gate. Among the short stories, autobiographical sketches and snatches of journalism was a review of The Silent Cities. I made straight for the essay and felt an odd sensation as I realised that Mottram had expressed many of my own thoughts some sixty years earlier. ’The real end of the War came, so far as I am concerned,’ he wrote, ‘on the day that a volume entitled The Silent Cities, an illustrated guide to the War Cemeteries in France and Flanders, 1914-1918, was put into my hands for review. That was the end, there is no longer anything to be done.’ For me though, Silent Cities was not the end but the end of the beginning.


Ypres: the game of ghosts

Professor Mark Connelly, University of Kent

I first visited Ypres on a cold, wet day in the spring of 1987. I remember the Grote Markt and the Cloth Hall with its colonnade along its eastern face. My memory also brings back a sense of emptiness. In my mind’s eye the Grote Markt was completely empty. My recall is of no cars parked, no buses moving around it, just a massive space shiny wet in the drizzle. I returned in mid-July, and again my memory is of a quiet, sleepy little place. I remember walking up to the Menin Gate and on the corner of the road opposite its great east portico were very ordinary, non-descript little shops. I think one was a grocer or maybe a butcher’s. Of course, the timing of my visit was very interesting for it was in the immediate run-up to the seventieth anniversary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres. Yet, there was little sign that anything in particular was being planned. I can’t remember any notices giving details of special events or parades. All seemed immensely low-key. This is not to say that the people of Ypres were indifferent to the war and the impending anniversary, far from it. Anyone who has ever visited the city will know that at 8pm every evening buglers sound the Last Post under the great barrel vault of the Menin Gate, or the Hall of Memory as its designer, Sir Reginald Blomfield, so poignantly labelled it. It is a simple, but deeply moving act of respectful commemoration. No, the point I am making is that although the swelling tide of the Great War renaissance was well under way, it had not yet brought vast numbers of British people, especially school groups, on visits.

The Menin Gate, Ypres

The Menin Gate, Ypres

It was a few years before I visited Ypres again – probably five or six, in fact. On my return I was shocked. The Meninlaan was now a road of smart boutiques and shops. The Grote Markt was much busier and there was a car parking system in place. Going to the Last Post ceremony was no longer a case of turning up relatively late on and picking a good spot, but one that required arrival at least fifteen minutes before hand. Since then I have visited Ypres with increasing frequency, and so am part of the phenomenon in which British, and Commonwealth, particularly Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, visitors have flooded into the city to see the gate, stand choked with emotion at the Last Post ceremony, visit the museum in the Cloth Hall… and buy chocolate tin helmets, drink the wonderful local beers and eat the equally great mussels and chips. The number of visitors now means even more careful timing for the Last Post ceremony. To stand any chance of getting a good view, arrival has to be at least 45 minutes before. Wreath-laying by a group, be it a school, British Legion party or regimental association, now occurs almost daily, and the summer months can be packed solid. As for visiting on Armistice Day, especially if it falls on the weekend, a visitor could well fail to get a view of the Menin Gate at all being forced to take up a place somewhere near the Grote Markt.

Yet, what are we all there for? What brought us to this charming, friendly West Flanders city? Trying to determine what motivates each and every visitor is, clearly, impossible. However, a few broad-brush suggestions can be made. One of the huge advantages and outcomes of digital communication is the availability of information and records. In turn, this has made genealogy much easier, and given the very bureaucratic procedures of the armed forces, we are all much more likely to find a family member who once performed some sort of military service. Then, given the ubiquity of Ypres in the British military experience of the Great War, it is hardly surprising that many people find out that their relative served, and possibly died, in the salient. Next comes the mystical appeal of the Great War itself. What has given it such a grip on our imaginations? Perhaps it is something to do with envy? In our world of cynicism, information coming at us from all angles bearing many different, often contradictory, messages at once, the men who went off to war in 1914 are bathed in a glorious light of certainty. No matter what became of them later, our hearts tell us that they signed up because they believed totally and utterly in the cause. Unconditional belief in a cause: how wonderful that seems. We also have the bitter-sweet sensations of power through knowledge of their fate which we often translate into a journey starting in innocence but often ending in brutal experience. We can pity them, and that gives power, but also makes us feel strangely powerless. If only we had a time machine, we could go back and warn them, tell them what we know and how they might avoid their fate. But we don’t, and so desperately feel the need to do something. We can go to where they served, suffered and perhaps died. We can stand there and conjure up some kind of communion with them. This is clearly an emotional journey with very little hard-headed, rational thinking about it, but emotions are powerful motivators and the visit to Ypres is often seen as the way of assuaging, or even exorcising, them.

Although I am professional historian in the wondrously privileged position of being paid to research and teach about the past, when I go to Ypres I definitely feel its emotional pull and it often crashes right through other bits of my thinking and feeling. By the same token, my obsession with the city itself, as opposed to the former battlefields beyond it, is not so much its wartime state as what happened to it from the end of the war and up to 1939. I am fascinated by how the local people returned to this shattered city and started rebuilding their houses, businesses, occupations and lives. I am fascinated by the fact that they lived in little wooden prefabricated bungalows. I am fascinated by the fact that almost instantly a tourist industry grew up and people started visiting the ruins and battlefields. When I go to Ypres I am desperate to find signs of them; to think about the kinds of places they would have visited, the people they would have met, the souvenirs they bought, the memories they brought home with them. I want to know more about the British people who decided to make Ypres their own home. By the mid-1920s there were enough of them to necessitate the building of a school, and for visitors to notice the existence of a permanent British community. It is for this reason that I am delighted to be writing a book that will explore these very ideas and questions. Ypres gets under the skin alright, but how much of that is because of what we impose on it by what is in our head and how much is because of real ghost inherent in the very fabric of the place, I really don’t know.

Read more about the Menin Gate and other war memorials at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website: www.cwgc.org