Writing this on Remembrance Sunday means that like many people across the world, I’ve spent much of the day reflecting on war, loss and remembrance and what those things really mean – especially to those like myself who are fortunate enough to have no direct experience of it but nevertheless owe our debt of gratitude to those who have lived, fought and died in war conditions both in the past and near history.
I’ve wanted to visit the Imperial War Museum for some years. In September when I was in London I made visiting IWM the first museum on my list of places to go to and after arriving at Marylebone Station after a slightly eventful train journey from Wales and wending my way across (or rather under) a very muggy overcast London via the Tube to the room in Lambeth where I was staying for a few days, I checked in, dumped my bags and walked the short distance to the War Museum to spend the afternoon.
It has a certain poignancy that a memorial to the horrors and inhumanity of war is established in the building that once housed “Bedlam” – which lunatic asylum historically had a somewhat shameful attitude to the mentally sick. As “a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty.” (Roy Porter) it serves not only for the lamentable attitudes towards those who are vulnerable in society through mental illness as well as physical illness but also for the internecine horror of what mankind can do to it’s fellow humans for reasons of race, religion, greed or power. The grounds are beautiful and I wished I had more time to wander around in the small rays of sunshine that passed fleetingly over the grass as I walked up to the building but I had only a few hours and a tight schedule for the few days I was in town.
Once inside I was overwhelmed by the numbers of people and size of the building. It was the very end of the summer holidays and so the displays were still full and busy with families and tourists and I most wanted to see the First World War Galleries which are a new addition this Summer – to commemorate the 100 years since the start of WWI. Entry to these displays were still ticketed but after a certain time, they allowed visitors to queue to be let in in small groups without tickets so I made a note of the time and wandered around some of the rest of the displays arranged on several floors.
I spent some time in the art galleries of paintings from the First World War. These images are sometimes stylised, sometimes gruesomely realistic. As much as they display the realities and harshness of war, documenting the loss of it’s perceived glory and romance and revealing the bloody mess and sheer misery of the hitherto unknown brutalities these young men were facing, I wondered if these paintings were also a way for young minds, unable to cope with all that they were being asked to witness, if not to expunge the memories were that possible (which surely it is not?), to at least expiate their unwilling part in the nightmare. My reactions to the paintings displayed in the War Museum were so very different to the works displayed in the National Gallery a couple of days later; although I was moved by both experiences, it was for different reasons. I fear my lip was curled in dismay at the contemporary shouts from the brushes of angry, distressed men.
I was thankful to see this painting which struck me because of it’s apparent non-war connections – and I confess, it’s textile ones, textiles never being very far from my consciousness! Voluntary Land-workers in a Flax Field by Randolph Schwabe has a timeless bucolic imagery about it – although the workers are apparently still engaged in war work (the linen being used for war aircraft construction) it could be any rural scene and the workers, whilst busy about their task also have a laconic choreographed feel as though it is staged and detached from the more disturbing images that surround it in the gallery.
I had two specific reasons for visiting IWM. One was to look for an inscribed watch gifted by Winston Churchill to the great-grandfather of a dear friend of ours in gratitude for his saving Churchill’s life during the Boer War. It passed down a different branch of the family and is is now held by IWM instead of the McKenna family. It transpired on enquiry that this is in fact in the Churchill War Rooms – somewhere I wasn’t able to visit on this trip sadly. I’d really wanted to take a photo for our friends. I hope that I can find it next time I visit instead. The other reason was to search for any more information regarding my own great uncle who was killed in action in 1918 in France. I have a certain amount of information already, largely because he was an observer in the Royal Flying Corps and was shot down by Manfred von Richthofen, known also as The Red Baron whose exploits are well documented. Sadly I wasn’t able to find out any more than I already knew on that short visit, but it was good to know that resources are available to search for records and images.
I joined the queue for the First World War Galleries which quickly snaked across the main hall. We were let in slowly and it was worth the wait. I hesitate to say they were marvellous – because I’m not sure that anything about a subject so tragic could earn that epithet. But the Galleries are really quite amazing, they’ve been so well designed and laid out and the items on display make it much more real. All of my grandparents lived through WWI as children and worked through WWII as young married couples with reserved occupations or children to care for and protect. I’ve heard from them a few things about the Wars but like so many who lived through these times, it’s not something they ever really wanted to talk about and I was too young to understand that I should have asked more. To piece together some of these things now, even though it’s too late to ask them this perspective helps me to understand something of what they experienced, first as children and then as adults of my own age now. Perhaps it helps to understand their characters too, although I now have to search in my memory and visit them there and to ask of their memories the questions I wish I could instead ask of the people I loved.
A combination of artefacts, archive film displays and photographic records (like this exploding shell in the Canadian trenches near Ypres), explanatory texts, audio clips tell the story of the four long years of war across Europe that dragged the entire world into conflict and some of the human elements of the story, the pathos, the courage, the hope, the despair, the fortitude and even here and there, the humour.
It’s possible to “walk through the trenches” reconstructed here and for a fleeting second feel the fear and transitory passing of each day, each more precious than the last because each day must have felt like a gift to men losing their comrades, their pals, their brothers all around them. Both a gift and a living hell.
This display below struck me – not only do we have a tool identical to this here on the farm but the reel of rusty barbed wire whilst also familiar from fencing jobs in peace time reminds me of a letter my great uncle wrote to his little sister – my grandmother – in 1917. Not a single word in any of his letters that I now have even hint at the terror they must have felt, in only one to his father did he admit how scared they were and how once their job was done observing artillery fire over enemy lines they “beetled back to safety” in their flimsy aircraft made from timber and cloth. In his letters to his little sisters he talked about the other men, about the books he had bought them for their Christmas presents, admonishing them in brotherly fashion to attend to their studies and improve themselves – and to be brave. In one letter she had written (now lost) my granny – aged 10 – had apparently liberally filled the spaces left over after writing with pencilled “kisses” xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx and her brother had jokingly replied that the “barbed wire she sent came in handy for the troops” – and then softened the tease with a few pencilled “barbed wire” kisses of his own…
There was very little on the RFC – the aircraft wing of the British Army which merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the RAF later on. But I did find a small display on Richthofen and a model of his famous red plane from his Jasta, his “flying circus”. My great uncle’s aircraft was one of his very last victims, Richthofen survived him by only a few more weeks before dying in April 1918 after being fatally shot. Richthofen still managed to land his plane despite his injuries and died moments after. He was buried first in France by his enemies with military honours as a respected foe and later reinterred in Germany. My uncle has no grave; his name is among the thousands on the Memorial at Arras and is the only epitaph for a boy who fell from the skies in a burning plane that also served as his funeral pyre.
There was a good deal on the ships of the First World War, Britain controlling as it did then so much of the world by it’s maritime supremacy and lordship of the seas. There was also this poster in the display on the work of the seamen who risked their lives to bring food for a vulnerable island nation, so easy to siege. It’s worth pausing to remember this in a time when we have so much food that we waste it and spoil it careless of what it costs to produce, not in terms of money – the benchmark of everything we value in these subjective, capitalist times – but in terms of work, of the human toil or animal cost and that food is a gift as well as an essential thing and that to waste it or not to be thankful for it is a crime. That without food and water we would die and that people around the world today still do die for lack of nourishment and that we should place a far higher value on something so precious and so fragile, not to be careless of something we take for granted each day and remember that twice within living history, this country has been brought near to breaking point because of this very small, very enormous thing.
Other parts of the museum detailing other conflicts were equally fascinating although I had less time to spend there with them. The wars in The Falklands, The Gulf and Iraq are all within my lifetime. Perhaps most poignant of all is the recent conflict in Afghanistan, which only officially came to an end a couple of weeks ago. One of my closest friends volunteered to serve in Afghan, as did some of his friends and the things he told me about the tour of duty there, even in a relatively calm period of conflict were chilling. When I was a child my parents used to say that “you always remembered where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot”. I couldn’t understand what this meant until I grew up. For a later generation like mine the this made sense with death of Diana, Princess of Wales – I really can remember the exact spot I was standing when I heard that she had died. Later of course the other defining moment where “you remember where you were when…” was the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, better known as 9/11. I can remember the puzzlement turning to disbelief as I heard the breaking news on the radio and then fear as I finally realised something very dark and terrible was happening; fear because I thought one of my brothers was in New York at the time. A quick text reassured me he was safe in London but nevertheless, nothing really seemed safe after that; it seemed a shedding point in history for the modern age – before 9/11 and the post-terrorist age we now live in. To see a twisted window frame from the World Trade Center on display at IWM sent a series of memories through my brain and I understood the concept of living history; that we are all living history here and now whether we know it or not – and how lives are shaped or lost or saved on a turn of events.
Items like a captured Taliban motorbike, a Snatch Landrover or this grisly suicide bomber’s vest brings home the war that exists only in the news for most of us although for many families it is of course an all too real cross to bear for those they’ve lost in recent conflicts or servicemen and women who bear injuries in their bodies or minds from the duties they’ve performed.
On Remembrance Sunday – and Armistice Day – I “remember” a man I never knew. I remember him for the girl who lost a beloved only brother when she was just 11 years old but carried that memory for him throughout the following decades for nearly a century, long after her parents and sisters had died and she was all that was left. She carried a flame of love and devotion that I don’t want to go out just because there is no one alive to remember him – or his comrades. She lost someone she loved fiercely and the pain never went away, but like her I owe my freedom to men like him who simply did their duty and gave all that it demanded of them, even to life itself. She kept a memorial to him to the end of her life and as I type this I hold the bronze plaque in my hand. Since my grandmother died, I’ve kept this token for her – simply bearing above his name the legend “He died for freedom and honour”. Linking his memory to hers so that when I think of her I think of him also just as I now understand she must have thought of him each day. For him, for her, for all of us – I remember.
Lest we forget.