Tag Archives: Professor Mark Connelly

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 Spanish Farm Trilogy

In his latest blogpost Professor Mark Connelly discusses R.H. Mottram’s novels and essays on the First World War.

Among my presents on Christmas Day 1985 was a book called Three Personal Records of the War.  I remember that it was in beautiful condition. Its binding was amazingly tight and was, to use the Dylan Thomasism, ‘bible-black’ in its blackness. Looking inside I found that it contained three long essays authored by R.H. Mottram, John Easton and Eric Partridge respectively. I had heard of Eric Partridge. Thanks to being interested in Oh What a Lovely War!, I had come across his wonderful, The Long Trail: Soldiers’ Song and Slang, collated with John Brophy. The other two were complete mysteries to me, and to be honest my grip on John Easton remains slim to say the least (is he the same chap who wrote about postage stamp design in the 1930s?). Then there was the publisher, Scholartis Press. By this stage, thanks to my parents being very good at snapping up things about the Great War in our local second hand bookshop, I was used to a good range of publishers such as Methuen, Blackie, Macdonald, Hodder and Stoughton, Chatto and Windus (or more properly Chatto & Windus: the ampersand is everything). Thanks to that teenage immersion, those names will always conjure up visions of offices in courts somewhere off Fetter Lane deep in the heart of a still very Dickensian City of London. Scholartis on the other hand stumped me, and a bit like John Easton, still means nothing to me aside from this particular volume. On flicking through its creamy, thick parchment-like pages, all in perfect condition, I became more and more convinced that no one had ever read this book. I found myself wondering whether it had been bought as a present for someone very interested in the war, but steeped in things like Churchill’s The World Crisis or Sir John French’s, 1914, found this a poor substitute,  and promptly shoved it into their bookshelves in a room that didn’t see much summer sun. Was it simply a very dull collection of pieces that no one else would publish I found myself thinking.

Distracted by other things, I got no further than a quick dip into it myself and put it back on my shelves. Then another piece of the jigsaw fell into place. Whilst scrabbling about in dear old Edward Terry’s (the second hand bookshop of my London suburb), I saw the bright orange and faded white cover of a 1930s Penguin classic. What really caught my eye was the title and author, R.H. Mottram, The Spanish Farm (originally published in 1924). I knew from the details about each author in Three Personal Records that Mottram was the author of something called The Spanish Farm Trilogy, but had no idea as to its contents. I picked it up and saw that it was a novel about the Great War and the setting was somewhere between Dunkirk and Ypres and not much further south than Hazebrouck. It was very cheap and so I bought it, took it home, flicked through it a bit more, found that it seemed distinctly lacking in drama and put it on my bookshelves.

The two books sat there not much examined until I was an undergraduate studying a module on the Great War and literature and I noticed there was an essay question on R.H. Mottram. Totally intrigued as to what this chap was doing among the Sassoons and Owens, I couldn’t resist picking it. I also strongly suspected that no one else would go near it and so the secondary literature items associated with the question would probably be easy to grab from the university library shelves. Hurriedly retrieving my copies of both books, I started to read. And, as you have probably guessed, I was instantly hooked. The Spanish Farm amazed me. Nothing seemed to happen, certainly nothing particularly interesting about the front line anyway, but everything happened. As a suburban East Londoner, I was deeply engaged by his portrait of the British Western Front. Described as an area with a population about the size of London, he identified its West End as the rearmost areas where the great base hospitals and headquarters could be found often in highly civilised settings. The zone a bit closer to the line was like the City of London for it was the heart of administration and planning. The final component was the East End, the industrial zone, the front line where the killing was carried out with mechanical regularity. Deeply attached to The Diary of a Nobody and Betjeman’s tender solicitude for London clerks, I found in Mottram’s Western Front a world of khaki-clad Pooters and Metroland dwellers. By the same token, this author clearly inspired by Galsworthy and Trollope, also plunged me into a Zola-esque world of Flemish peasants who did not give a stuff about Germans, French or British soldiers and just wanted everyone to bugger off and leave them alone. This was a stunning revelation. They were no longer the anonymous, miserable swindlers, crooks and beggars of Graves’ Goodbye to all that, but passionate, stubborn, resilient people who had had their lives turned upside down by the war and were determined to get even by squeezing every penny they could get out of the British to cover the costs of billeting and the damage done to their property by largely clumsy, and only occasionally malicious, British soldiers. Madeleine, the daughter of old Vanderlynden, owner of the Spanish Farm, seemed terrifying in her single-mindedness and cunning. She is aged twenty at the start of the novel, my age as I was writing the essay, but she seemed infinitely more savvy than me. I felt very, very innocent next to Madeleine. Finishing the novel, I quickly got hold of the other two in the series, Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four (1925) and The Crime at Vanderlynden’s (1926). As I read, I saw more and more how deeply Mottram understood the culture into which the British army had intruded, and also how deeply the war had affected him. His ability to provide so many different pen portraits of peoples and landscapes – often buttressed with references to the paintings of the Flemish masters – revealed a man who had soaked up the war through the sodden Flanders soil.

After finishing the novels, I finally picked up Three Personal Records and read his essay. Mottram was clearly the star turn of the three. Even the book’s title seems to concede the fact being uncannily close to the title of his own essay, ‘A Personal Record’. Although producing another minor masterpiece of understated, middle-brow prose, as with The Spanish Farm Trilogy, Mottram revealed his determination to grapple with issues ignored almost entirely by other writers. Most remarkable to me was the decision to discuss the disturbances at Etaples in 1917. The public record of the British Army’s conduct allowed no entry for the one outbreak of large-scale indiscipline, and yet here was a man who tackled the subject head-on. He used the intriguing metaphor of the ‘Headless Man’ to describe the phenomenon, but in doing so shrewdly reduced the incident to something unplanned, uncoordinated and totally lacking in revolutionary fervour. It was just a lumbering, zombie-like mass of men crashing around because they were fed-up. As such this must have been deeply reassuring to a middle class fearful of Bolshevik infiltration of British life. But, he also sent out the dreadful warning never to repeat what he labelled ‘the nightmare of waste’.  I found myself more and more intrigued by Mottram’s beliefs about the war and his own war experience. He introduced me to the idea that ambiguity about the war was not only possible, but very probably the dominant response to it. Here was no Sassoon raging about a confidence trick played upon his generation. Here was no Owen agonising over the pity of war. Instead, Mottram maintained his pride at being a volunteer, his insistence that his fellow soldiers revealed wonderful reserves of sang-froid, stoicism and good humour, that on the whole the cause Britain fought for was justified, but at the same time he was horrified by its vast cost  which brought the civilised world to the verge of collapse.

Being so intrigued by Mottram’s world, I tracked down many of his other writings about the war including Ten Years Ago ‑ A Pendant to The Spanish Farm Trilogy (1928), containing a series of short vignettes many of which flesh out incidental figures and details from the trilogy; Through the Menin Gate (1932), a collection of essays mainly reprinted from newspaper articles and his finely crafted guidebook cum meditation, Journey to the Western Front (1936).  At the same time, I began searching for traces of his environment on the Western Front. Among the copses on the north side of the road leading from Steenvorde over the Belgian border and on to Poperinge can be see a hunting lodge. It corresponds closely – ‘a little hunting shelter, brick, with mock Gothic windows and leaded lights, encircled by a timber-pillared verandah’ – with the description of the one belonging to Baron d’Archeville, the local landowner of The Spanish Farm Trilogy. I am also pretty convinced that the model for the Spanish Farm itself – ‘a single-storied building of immensely thick walls of red brick’- can be found in the great barrack of a farm on the north side of the D948 at the crossroads for Abeele. I always point it out as I pass with any group I happen to be guiding and usually face a sea of unimpressed faces. Very few show any flicker of recognition when I mention The Spanish Farm Trilogy. It seems amazing that a writer who won the Hawthornden literary prize for The Spanish Farm, making him a celebrity often invited to comment on matters relating to the war by newspapers and magazines, could be almost entirely forgotten. But, perhaps Mottram and the world he explored in such detail is about to be revived. With more and more people interested in topics such as nursing, the hospital camps and the huge behind-the-lines infrastructure required for the maintenance of fighting units, Mottram’s focus becomes a wonderful snapshot. But a photograph is probably not a metaphor Mottram with his reverence for Flemish culture would have appreciated. Rather, he urges us to explore a distinctive physical and spiritual landscape of the Great War where sky and soil are so sharply contrasted: ‘that wide blue vault that the old painters loved… out of a Flemish picture ‑ a Van Dyck… a Hals or a Jordaens.’

Could this building have been the inspiration for Mottram's 'Spanish farm'? Image © 2014 Google

Could this building have been the inspiration for Mottram’s ‘Spanish Farm’?
Image © 2014 Google

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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.


The Loneliness of Thiepval

Professor Mark Connelly, University of Kent

Thiepval on the heights above the River Ancre was once a thriving village centred on a handsome chateau. As with countless other places in France and Belgium, it was destined to be utterly devastated by the war. During the course of the huge Battle of the Somme, Thiepval was reduced to nothing. Its commanding position sealed its fate for the Germans quickly saw that it was a strong defensive position capable of dominating the surrounding country. Inevitably, the British had to capture it before their forces could advance elsewhere. The attack on 1 July 1916 was a failure made more tragic by the fact that the men of the 36 Ulster Division achieved a stunning advance on its outlying boundary. Unable to maintain their toehold due to the failures on their flanks, these brave Irishmen had been forced to concede all their gains and return to their original positions. Thiepval then remained stubbornly beyond the hands of the British and it was gradually obliterated. Edmund Blunden witnessed Thiepval’s destruction and lamented its fate in his poem Premature Rejoicing, which was elegiac, wistful and ironic in turn:

What’s that over there?

Thiepval Wood.

Take a steady look at it; it’ll do you good.

Here, these glasses will help you. See any flowers?

There sleeps Titania (correct – the Wood is ours);

There sleeps Titania in a deep dug-out….

After much careful preparation, the British finally captured the village in a well-executed, but hardly bloodless, assault in September. However, this did not mark the end of the war for Thiepval, for it was fought over twice more in 1918 first during the great German advance in April and then for the last time when the British passed back through it in August.

As in other places, at the war’s end the people of the Somme region returned to their former homes and commenced the slow, grinding process of rebuilding and healing the scars of war on the landscape. But, for Thiepval there was to be no return to its pre-war condition. What had made the village an ideal defensive position now became its irredeemable weakness. Stranded on high ground a long way from the main Albert-Bapaume road, it lay inaccessible and isolated. In a region crying out for building materials and builders, Thiepval was a low priority as other, easier to reconstruct places swallowed attention and effort. Only slowly were roads rebuilt to the devastated village, but it had missed its moment. Thiepval shrunk massively from its pre-war size and although a non-descript red brick church, so typical of those that mark the Somme region, was rebuilt, it lacked a soul and a centre and became a hamlet containing a handful of houses and farm buildings.

Why then did the British choose this spot to erect their main memorial on the Somme? Everyone involved with the Imperial War Graves Commission knew that the Somme would have to be marked by some great memorial, and it would have to be in a prominent position. Sir Edwin Lutyens commenced work on designing a suitable memorial to commemorate the 70,000 missing on the Somme up to the spring of 1918 (a separate memorial was designed for those lost in the final stages of the war and was eventually incorporated into the cemetery at Pozières). With his plans complete, it was now necessary to allocate an appropriate location. Lutyens had wished it to be on the Albert-Bapaume road or on the outskirts of St. Quentin. In both cases the memorial would have taken on a similar function to the Menin Gate, as it would have been a daily reminder of British and Imperial sacrifice to all local people going about their lives. It was this very aspect which caused a problem. Concerned that too many large British memorials were being erected across France, which might give people the impression that the British effort had somehow outshone that of the French army, the French authorities were increasingly sensitive to requests for land. Unable to place the memorial in the heart of the Somme community, Lutyens and the Imperial War Graves Commission looked for an alternative site. As the highest point on the Somme battlefield, Thiepval was perfect for it meant that the towering memorial would be visible for miles around, particularly in a landscape still denuded of trees.

Work commenced on the memorial in 1929, and proved a complex task for it required the making of thousands of bricks and the movement of much heavy materials. After three years, the work was complete and it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 1932. Unfortunately, unlike the Menin Gate, Lutyens’s architectural masterpiece has never gained the iconic status of Blomfield’s work in Ypres. The reasons are probably two-fold and involve the emotional and the severely practical. To start with the practical, it is harder to reach Thiepval in every way. In the 1930s a visitor would have to take a train to Amiens or Arras and then change to the branch line to Albert. Once in Albert, a visitor would have to take a bus or taxi to the site. Even then, most buses would have gone along the Bapaume road, leaving the visitor with a stiff walk from Pozières. Once at Thiepval the visitor would have found little to hold her or his attention. There was a café in the 1930s run by a British ex-serviceman, which would no doubt have been a welcome stop, but there was very little else to restore the flagging visitor. By contrast, Ypres was a short rail journey from the coast. Once at Ypres station it was a short walk into the heart of the city where there were bars and cafes aplenty, and, of course, there was the attraction of the Last Post ceremony. Then there is the issue of the emotions. Unlike the familiar neo-classicism and ornate decoration of the Menin Gate, Lutyens set the visitor an emotional and intellectual puzzle. As you first approach the Thiepval Memorial its strange ziggurat pyramid form, refashioned into an arch, hits the eye. It has a remarkably complex geometry and scale with each of the arches being two and a half with the largest central arch having a span of thirty-five feet. All of which means that on first glance the memorial appears to lack neat proportion and the brain and eye are slightly confused, and then there is the inscription which simply says, ‘The Missing of the Somme’. Rather than the affirming ‘Pro Rege’ and ‘Pro Patria’ of the Menin Gate, Lutyens makes the visitor think about the enormity of the losses. The visitor is forced to contemplate what caused such tragedy in sobering, sombre terms. Little wonder it often leaves people marvelling, but perhaps slightly confused and disturbed, too.

The Thiepval Memorial.

The Thiepval Memorial.

From the moment I first saw it in July 1986 I have been overwhelmed and awed by the Thiepval memorial and its strange, haunting, ethereally majestic brooding effect. The brooding nature affects the stillness and quietness of Thiepval, and it can feel very, very lonely particularly on grey winter days when wind and rain buffet. The Somme trees may have grown back, but Thiepval can still feel extremely exposed and somewhat forbidding. Having taken many visitors to the memorial over the years, I have been struck by how often they return back to the road looking slightly quizzical, slightly cowed, slightly scared even. And it is then that the loneliness of Thiepval, the agony that it has suffered, the dreadful fact that 70,000 men were not simply killed but obliterated, really hits me. Lutyens’ brilliant genius combined with location provided a fitting tribute. As an architect for an imperial agency, Lutyens asks us to consider carefully the cost of war to a mighty empire. Doing so in the loneliness of Thiepval is sobering indeed.


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



Launch of Gateways to the First World War, Friday 30th May 2014

Last week saw the launch of Gateways to the First World War, one of five AHRC-funded centres designed to enhance public engagement and mark the centenary of the conflict. Gateways is based at the University of Kent and brings together a team of researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth, Brighton, Greenwich, Leeds and Queen Mary, London. The launch was part of a First World War Study day organised by the University of Kent’s German Department. The event was opened by Professor John Baldock, the University of Kent’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, who expressed the university’s pleasure in hosting the Centre and introduced an afternoon of debate and discussion on the First World War and its commemoration.

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Dominiek Dendooven, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, His Excellency Dr Emil Brix and Dr Deborah Holmes discuss how and why we should commemorate the First World War

One of the highlights of the event was a panel discussion on the commemoration of the First World War chaired by the event’s organiser Dr Deborah Holmes, of the German Department, and featuring Dr Emil Brix, Austria’s Ambassador to the UK, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, the Imperial War Museum’s Director of Research, and Dominiek Dendooven of In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium. The panel led a fascinating discussion of both the problems and benefits of commemorating an event often complicated by ‘contested memories’. Dr Brix expressed his belief in the importance of European collaboration in the commemoration of the war, and Mr Dendooven discussed the ways in which the Flanders Field Museum is attempting to overcome national boundaries through exhibitions focused on individual war experiences. Dr Bardgett outlined some of the exciting centenary projects supported by the Imperial War Museum, including Lives of the First World War, the First World War Partnership, and Whose Remembrance?, the IWM’s project to investigate the role of colonial troops in the conflict. The discussion reinforced one of the key aims of the Gateways project: to encourage academics and the wider public to work together to discover connections between the local and the global during the First World War. As Gateways’ Director Professor Mark Connelly stated, the conflict was, for Kent and the South East in particular, a ‘global event with global repercussions’ which took place ‘on the doorstep’.


Gateways Director Professor Mark Connelly with His Excellency Dr Emil Brix, Dr Deborah Holmes and Dr Heide Kunzelmann

The panel discussion was followed by an illustrated lecture by Professor Connelly and Dr Heide Kunzelmann, of the German Department, presenting photographs taken of troop mobilisation and prisoners of war in 1914 by Dr Kunzelmann’s great-grandfather, a medical officer in the Habsburg Army. Comparing these newly discovered sources to photographs taken by British officers in 1914, the pair talked about the connections between the personal and the public, and the similarities between artefacts of the First World War from different sides of the conflict. Through their discussion of the photographs – which focused on the themes of mobilization, violence, vulnerability and reconstruction – they emphasised the importance of revisiting accepted and established approaches to the conflict.

img023 img017 Photographs taken by Dr Friedrich Kunzelmann in 1914

The event ended with a drinks reception and official launch of the Gateways to the First World War Centre. Professor Connelly and Dr Will Butler outlined some of the centenary projects already underway, including a collaboration with Step Short of Folkestone on an app tour highlighting the town’s connections to the conflict, and guests were shown the newly-launched Gateways website. After a successful opening event, the Gateways team is now looking forward to developing its work with local groups and organisations on a range of First World War projects across the UK. The Centre aims to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support. Forthcoming events include:

19th July 2014 – 25th January 2015 – ‘Lest We Forget’, an exhibition in conjunction with Portsmouth City Council

13th September 2014 – A Family History Day at Brighton Museum in conjunction with Brighton Museums and Pavilion

28th September 2014 – Gateways to the First World War Public Open Day, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

12th December 2014 – ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a one day symposium at the University of Kent

More details of these and many other projects can be found on the Gateways website at www.gatewaysfww.org.uk. The Gateways team can be contacted at gateways@kent.ac.uk and via Twitter and Facebook.