Tag Archives: Memorials

The essential bit of Great War kit

Gateways’ Director Professor Mark Connelly discusses the place of the puttee in Great War imagery.

There is a piece of kit used by all British and French soldiers that defines the Great War in my mind, capturing it in time and space. It delineates it from the second total conflict of the twentieth century, but links it back to the armies of the late nineteenth century and conjures up images of dusty imperial outposts on the North-West Frontier. I am, of course, referring to the humble puttee. I can’t quite identify when I became so fixated on this item, but it was certainly in my youth as I was first becoming interested in the Great War. I think it may have been to do with my local war memorial – a good, solid piece of bronze sculpture by Newberry Trent – of a sentinel soldier presenting arms guarding, as well as representing, the civic pride and honour of my East London suburb. Looking up at him on his plinth, it was impossible to escape the fact that his mounting at just above eye level meant that as the head craned up to take in his full size, the first detail caught by the eyes was his boots and puttees. Just what were these strange things? Not yet aware of the wonderful piece of technical Anglo-Indian Hobson-Jobson, I labelled them ‘bindings’. The real term was finally disclosed to me on my first trip to the Western Front when I was asked about the things that interested me in the Great War. I mentioned that there was something mesmeric about those bindings. ‘Aah, you mean the puttees,’ said an old chap from Blackpool with a fabulous Lancashire twang. So, that left me with a linguistic issue. Were they ‘puuuutteees’, as the Lancashire accent inferred, or ‘puttees’ as in window putty? To be honest, I think that one is an open question and either is acceptable.

© IWM (Q 45825). War memorial at Paddington Station, London

© IWM (Q 45825). War memorial at Paddington Station, London depicting a soldier wearing puttees.

So, what was it about the puttee that caught my imagination? I think first and foremost it was the idea of having what looked like a very tight serge wrapping bound tightly around the lower leg and how this might feel when wet. Secondly, and very much linked to this first point, I couldn’t shake the association with those wonderful photographs of chaps burdened down with huge Lee-Metford rifles wandering along a scrubby track in South Africa, or standing around on a rocky valley bottom watching mountain artillery batteries firing on some invisible Pathan position. The common things linking both sets of photographic images stored away in the mental picture album were sunshine, blue skies and dust. In my mind, it never rained in South Africa or on the North-West Frontier. Cold, at times bitterly cold, maybe, but rain never. In short, I couldn’t conceive how these blessed things could ever prove a blessing to a soldier attempting to do his job in a much wetter climate. Throw in miles of trenches and the wonder became even greater. But, and here is where I grew confused, the French army took to wearing them, too, so they must have had what we now call a good USP for them to have been consciously adopted specifically for this particular theatre. Unable to figure out just how they could be any good at all, I remained fixated by them.

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 16162 7). John Singer Sargent, Study for 'Gassed' Five studies of legs

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 16162 7). John Singer Sargent, Study for ‘Gassed’ depicting puttees

As we all know, the Great War generated a huge number of photographs, and as we also all know, for the Anglophone world at least, the Great War is dominated by images of trenches, and they are mostly associated with the Western Front. Another dominant image, visual and literary, is of the misery of men standing about in wet holes in the ground. Yet another thing we all know about the Great War is that the sun shone on two days only – 4 August 1914 when supposedly a million men went rushing off to the recruitment offices bathed in a Bank Holiday glow and 1 July 1916 when an entire generation was, so the common legend would have it, annihilated under a blazing sun. The rest of the time it poured down unremittingly. ‘Never a dry day in the trenches,’ as a character in Alan Bennett’s wonderfully insightful Forty Years On has it. In turn, this naturally concentrates the mind on the lower limbs and particularly from the knee down to the toes. We imagine men saturated. We imagine the awful misery of constantly being soaked to the skin and the creeping horror of trench foot. We see men stamping about in a thick Flanders porridge because that’s what all the films show us at some point. And, in those original sepia images nothing seems more sepia-khaki than the puttee itself. The puttee is the awful sponge of the soaking rain, the thing to which the mud clung naturally because they were so alike in colour. The puttee is the colour of Great War memory – sepia. One other colour does occur in a mental Dulux paint list of the Great War –  a violently vibrant splash of poppy red. But even here it is wet, blood wet, splashy. As Wyndham Lewis wrote of the Third Battle of Ypres: ‘The very name [Passchendaele], with its suggestion of splashiness and of passion at once, was very appropriate… The moment I saw the name on the trench-map, intuitively I knew what was going to happen.’ Soaking wetness is the essence of the Great War and the puttee tucked into the boots is its encapsulation. And, thanks to the presence of so many soldiers on war memorials sat up high on plinths, it is the initial moment of remembrance and memory. Most of those soldiers have pristine puttees as they are statues of sentinels, as in my home, but a few have dragged that Flanders mud back with them most notably Philip Lindsey Clark’s wonderful memorial for Southwark in Borough High Street. His soldier purposefully strives through the slough of despond. He is therefore not the pitiable soldier stood against the parapet of a flooded trench keeping endless sentry hours in unspeakable conditions. This one is the master of the battlefield, but the sheer fact that he is dragging himself through such muck focuses attention on the mud, the boots and the puttees.

All of these thoughts came crashing back to me when the BBC World War One at Home project ran a story about the textile manufacturing firm of Foxes and their wartime production of puttees. I was amazed to see that the factory is still going and they can still make them. Or perhaps a more fitting way of putting it given their dominant association is to say ‘pump them out’? By this time, however, I had learnt from various army manuals, memoirs and living history enthusiasts that the puttee can be a remarkably effective shield against cold, muck, dust and wet provided it is correctly bound. I must admit that that proviso has allowed me to maintain more than a scintilla of doubt about its actual effectiveness. And this explains why, whenever I see any image of British and imperial soldiers in the Great War, I always find myself viewing from the feet upwards.

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.