Monday, 12 November 2012

Close reading: war memorials

Remembrance Sunday. Fine and sunny, a clear cold morning. Overcoats the order of the day. In Cambridge a large crowd gathers around the war memorial, ‘The Homecoming’, at the end of Station Road. 

This memorial has recently been moved: no longer marooned on a traffic island, it is now well set in a paved segmental concourse beside the road and bordered by the Botanic Gardens. You can at last walk safely all round it. You can even sit and contemplate this striking image of the young soldier striding home, with a backward glance towards the station and those comrades who have not returned. Close reading of war memorials matters more than ever, now that the Great War has passed out of personal reach into cultural memory.

I am interested in what figures on war memorials wear, or don’t wear. This isn’t just a matter of uniform. I have spent a lot of time recently studying the Great War Memorial in Northernhay Gardens, Exeter. It’s one of the most impressive anywhere, and one of the most unusual. Its iconography is complex, and what the five figures on the memorial wear is an important part of this complexity.
On top of a high pedestal an 8ft-tall female figure of Victory stands triumphant over the dragon of Tyranny. Her dress is diaphanous, her bare-breasted figure strongly eroticized. Half amazon, half Isadora Duncan, in one hand she holds a sword, in the other a sprig of laurel.

This, then, is technically a victory memorial (as is the Cambridge memorial), celebrating the successful outcome of the War. Nevertheless, the inscription around the plinth reads


which means this is also a memorial to the fallen. At the foot of the pedestal sit four figures, one on each compass point, forming a guard of honour for Victory herself.  At first glance, it looks as though the figures represent the Services: a soldier faces you; two other male figures, one clearly a sailor, sit either side; the fourth figure, a woman, is out of view at the back.

So you walk around the plinth, and you notice that while the soldier and the woman (wearing nurse’s uniform) are fully clothed, the other two figures are half or wholly naked. The sailor is bare-chested and barefoot but wears breeches, with the legs rolled up; it’s clear from the nets, ropes and glass buoys surrounding him that he is a Devon fisherman, not a sailor in uniform at all. In his lap, however, is a document (perhaps a chart) as if to indicate that he must now travel into unknown waters, leaving his familiar coast behind.

The other figure, naked but for a drape, is manacled. No other clue identifies him, but he represents – very unusually for British war memorials – prisoners of war. So why, and why in Exeter? Here some context helps. This memorial was erected by public subscription (it cost £6,000 in 1923), the appeal being launched by the Lord Mayor of Exeter. During the War itself, the Lord Mayor had been Sir James Owen; Lady Owen, as Mayoress, had co-ordinated a scheme for sending food parcels and other comforts to British servicemen held as prisoners-of-war. Exeter in fact had become a national centre for POW relief. The memorial therefore commemorates not only the POWs but the contribution of those who worked locally during the War for their relief.

What of the soldier and the nurse? Well, the soldier is depicted with utmost realism: every detail of his uniform and equipment is accurate, down to the hobnails in the sole of his boot. He is dressed for winter: not only is he wrapped in a heavy army-issue great coat, upturned collar all but hiding his face, he sits on a ground sheet and his legs are clumsily bound in sacking. By contrast, the muzzle of his rifle is carefully bound with oilcloth to ensure damp and dirt do not enter the barrel - a detail I’ve never seen on any other war memorial.

Hard, next, to tell whether it is simply patination, or whether the surface of this soldier’s clothes has been scuffed and smeared to look as if mud has frozen onto them. Whereas the sailor is idealized, and with his muscular torso even glamorized, the soldier is represented with an unflinching realism. He is enduring the worst that weather can make him suffer.

By contrast again, the nurse on the opposite side of the monument sits in sunlight. At her feet lies a sheaf of corn and discarded behind her is a great coat she has shrugged off. It is a coat of the same design as the soldier’s, and indeed it is a man’s (not a nurse’s) coat she has been wearing. The sculptor, John Angel – himself from Exeter, has been careful to let us see that she has had to turn back the cuffs because the sleeves are too long. Whose coat might it have been? A boyfriend’s? More likely a dead soldier’s, though these suggestions aren’t mutually exclusive. Yet the nurse is not in mourning: her expression is placid. She is absorbed in what she is doing – making bandages out of a sheet of cloth. The winter of war, signified by the great coat, is literally behind her. There is a better future ahead. The sheaf of corn peeping from under the hem of her uniform reminds me of Edith Sitwell’s lines:

Love is not changed by death
And nothing is lost
And all in the end is harvest.

Clothes (and the lack of clothes) are, of course, always signifiers, but they are not necessarily what we look at first on war memorial sculpture. Perhaps they should be: they add text and texture. We should read a war memorial as closely as we read a war poem.

Adrian Barlow

[Photographs: (i)  Remembrance Day, Cambridge, 11.11.12
© Adrian Barlow (ii) Exeter War Memorial, Northernhay Gardens


  1. An extraordinary post, this, Adrian, very instructive in how to read sculptured monuments, something I must admit that I've never thought of doing. I regularly cycle past war memorials here in Normandy, there's one in every village. One very moving monument is in the churchyard of St Laurent de Brevedent near enough to the road to be noticed each time we pass it. It shows a recumbent soldier, bare-headed, leaning on an arm with an outstretched hand. He's presumably wounded, possibly dying. I led the very short Remembrance Service in the British section of the Ste Marie Cemetery in Le Havre at 9a.m. on Sunday 11th. It takes place an hour before the main ceremony in the centre. There are many Commonwealth War Graves in this section, with dates post-1918, presumably because the men died of wounds or possibly from the Spanish 'flu epidemic. Le Havre was the main port for soldiers entering France from England. There was only a small gathering of people, all of them French, but with flag-bearers and a veteran or two, from what campaign I have no idea, plus the mayor in person. The whole service was in English, of course. I had to sing 'O God our help in ages past' a capella and mostly by myself, as I also did for the National Anthem at the end. I've been doing this for the past few years and feel proud to do so. This year, however, I added my playing of The Last Post and Reveille on the cornet. This gave added dignity and solemnity to the service. It certainly aroused a few curious neighbours from the flats opposite who opened their windows to lean out and watch. Lest we forget.

  2. Very interesting, Garry. My grandfather landed at Le Havre in 1917 (see my earlier post ‘Edward Thomas at Buchy’). I was struck in September this year, while in Normandy, by how often - almost invariably - the French 'poilu' is depicted on war memorials wearing an army great coat. The most striking and unusual example of this that I saw was in Saint-Lo: here the original WW1 memorial having fallen victim to the Allied bombing of the town (which the retreating German army had heavily defended), a post WW2 memorial depicts a young soldier charging forward, his great coat flying in the wind and tattered in several places where bullets and shrapnel have pierced the fabric. Is this unique? I’ve never yet seen another memorial in France like this one.

    1. I have an interesting story in relation to Le Havre and the Great War. It will take some space. My French wife's relations on her mother's side come from Scotland. Her great-grandparents arrived in Le Havre from Glasgow the 1860s when it was becoming a modern port. He worked for Cunard as a stevedore and later set up in his own name. They had three children, two daughters and a son, all born in Le Havre. The son joined the Argylle and Southern Highlanders in 1916 through a family connection and took part in the Battle of the Somme. He was killed on 15th September that year, the day the British first used tanks. They never found his body. His name is inscribed in the Thiepval War Memorial. The 'King's Penny' is encrusted in the family grave here in Le Havre. No one knew what it was until I researched into my wife's family history. I tracked down his name in the roll of honour of the regiment in Stirling Castle. My grandfather never landed in Le Havre as he was in the Royal Marines. He missed the Battle of the Falklands because his ship was coaling in Port Stanley at the time and they missed out. They did manage to sink a German collier though. However my father believes he was sent ashore with message in Le Havre,while serving as a petty officer on a torpedo boat. He was in Dartmouth for his 22nd birthday on 5th July 1944. When he woke up on his torpedo boat on the 6th all the ships with the American soldiers on board had gone. Bless 'em all.

  3. Adrian — The Great War memorial in Exeter is clearly extraordinarily complex. I could not have begun to read it as you have, and I wonder: how many people at — and subsequent to — its unveiling understood its intentions? In a sense I feel that it is not elemental enough to continue to convey the truths of the experiences of warfare; and if it has to be read through symbols, then I think it is likely to become more baffling with every decade that passes. (Though of course I recognise that Exeter would hardly have thought in terms of commissioning a Kathe Kollwitz.) Perhaps the major problem with war memorials is the impossible attempt to marry bravery with the tragic reality of mud and blood on the battlefield. And where are the memorials to those who were not killed, but whose lives were shattered by severe injuries, or who were driven insane by shell shock? And where the memorial to the bereaved women and children? (Many women who lost their fiancés in both world wars never married.) There is a shocking imbalance between those who are remembered and those who are not. Just who is being remembered on Remembrance Day? My apologies if this has overrun the remit of a response!

  4. Peter, some memorials of the kind you are asking about do exist. I have been in Birmingham this afternoon and have seen outside the Church of St. Martin in the Bullring, the memorial to the 2441 citizens killed in the 77 air raids on the city between 1940 and 1943. Each victim is recorded by name on this memorial. And outside the Hall of Memory in Centenary Square is a memorial depicted a bereaved WW1 fiancee placing a wreath in memory of her dead husband-to-be. In Jena (former East Germany) I have seen a memorial to the victims of the allied bombing raids on the city, and at Langemark (Belgium) there is a very moving group statue depicting relatives of the dead German soldiers hesitating to enter the cemetery. Sometimes there are visual references to the families and the wounded depicted on friezes around the base of a larger memorial - as at Wellington, New Zealand, for instance. But the question you ask, ‘Just who is being remembered on Remembrance Day?' is an important one that needs to be asked of every memorial we try to read.