the glorious dead – tim atkinson

I was lucky enough to have chance to interview an author who’s work I am extremely interested in. Tim’s book details the story of several characters from the First World War who stayed behind in France once the war was over to find and bury the bodies that were left by the fighting. Below is the interview we conducted – via email mind!

– where did you get the idea from – what inspired you?

Two things got the ball rolling. I was doing some research into a relative who served in Flanders during WW1 and discovered that his battalion had been destroyed in early 1918. The soldier was transferred to a unit I’d never heard of called an ‘entrenching battalion’ and I was inspired to find out more. Some time later a chance conversation with a friend intrigued me. He said a relative of his had suffered from the effects if gas – in spite of not serving abroad until 1919. It was news to me that soldiers were still being sent abroad in 1919. And I was intrigued to know what he was doing – and how he’d been gassed.

Can you tell me a little more about the book?

It’s a war book (obviously) but a war book with a difference. First, the action only starts once the guns stop firing. And rather than battles, attacks, it’s about the aftermath – the enormous clearing up operation that involved finding and burying the thousands of bodies abandoned on the road to victory. But it’s also about the individual aftermath for the men involved – all of whom, to some extent, can only cope with the end of the war by remaining abroad doing the Empire’s dirty work.

What was your research process before you began writing – or did you research as you went along?

Both, really. I spent a lot of time reading just about all the books on the subject that I could find. I also spent some time trawling the archives of the Imperial War Museum as well as going to Flanders, staying in Ypres and walking the streets and the battlefields described in the book.

Are there any particular stories you came across during researching that stuck with you more than any other?

The exhumation of the battlefield cemetery at Wild Wood was especially poignant (you can read an extract describing it on the Unbound website).

Is there a character of yours whose journey moves you more than any other, or even a character who you favour a little more over the others?

The main protagonist, I suppose, has to take centre stage and it’s his journey from battle-scarred veteran suffering what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder to a man if not at peace with himself, then certainly at peace with his past that is the book’s central theme. But that personal journey mirrors the wider social journey as a country devastated by war slowly comes to terms with what has happens and starts to think about the future.

The cemeteries and monuments kept by the CWGC are always beautifully maintained; is there one that you feel you have a connection to?

There are some tiny battlefield cemeteries on the Somme that are especially memorable – places like New Munich trench cemetery near Beaumont-Hamel where around 100 men are buried, usually from the same regiment and often close to where they fell. But my favourite is probably Ypres ramparts cemetery because of it’s location on the eastern ramparts of that devastated city as well as its stunning beauty, especially in autumn.

There are many heart-felt epitaphs on some of the gravestones out in France, are there any that you found particularly moving, or that you chose to feature in the book?

The original title of the book was ‘Known unto God’ which appears, of course, on thousands of headstones. In terms of the book, it’s appropriate both to the work of the exhumation company about whom the book is written and to the central secret that keeps the main character, Jack Patterson, in Flanders finding bodies, digging graves and avoiding something – or someone – back in England.

You’ve chosen to use Unbound to publish your work – why have you decided to go down this route?

They were the first people to see the MS and they liked what they read and were immediately encouraging. And I like what they’re doing. I’ve been published ‘traditionally’ a number of times by a number of different publishers and haven’t ever felt in control of what was happening. I like the fact that artistically I’m wholly responsible – which mean I’ve got to persuade the public that what I’m doing is worth reading! That’s hard work but I think there’s a decent chance of getting better books this way. I was am Unbound customer long before I become one of their potential authors and I’m delighted to have supported so many books that I really wanted to read, but which might not otherwise have been written.

If you are interested in donating to fund the publication of Tim’s book or want to find out more, check out his Unbound page here!

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Both Sides of the Wire

I expected there to be a lot more programmes on during the immediate Somme period but, unless I’ve just missed the majority of them, there haven’t been as many as I expected. Perhaps a good thing that there has not been a deluge – I’m not really sure. I feel like the commemorations have sort of finished up being the big three moments – 1914, 1916 and then 1918. It will be interesting to see what 2017 brings, but that is another thing entirely!

This programme, Both Sides of the Wire (BBC Two, Mondays) states that it will tell the story of the Somme from both the British and the German perspective. I’m not sure how many episodes this series is scheduled to run, but this first one looked at July 1st, 1916.

I thought the introduction to this show was really good – clear and informative and not sensationalised in the way that I find some shows tend to get. For many who already know about the Somme, there was not much new to be found in this segment. Many of the details throughout were good, including the use of statistics and primary sources (I love a good primary source, especially when its quoted!). I also liked the use of actual footage of the soldiers waiting for the command on the 1st July – poignant and striking – but not overused. It covered quite a bit of ground and I liked the way it was separated into the different areas of the front with a focus on a certain battalion, rather than trying to cover it all in one fell swoop in not a lot of detail.

One of the niggles I had with it was that I felt the programme was a little more skewed towards the Allied experience of the Somme. I don’t know how much of this was just down to me, and if there was actually an even split between the two, or if the programme did focus a bit more on the Allied side of things – but that was just the feeling that I came away with. Furthermore, I would have liked a bit more on the Allied treatment of captured Germans – the programme did touch on this briefly, but did not linger.

Overall, it was a fair enough programme, in my opinion. I learnt some new stiff, which is always good, and I’ll most likely tune into the second episode next Monday, but probably on iPlayer.

(now BBC, just give me a programme on the Eastern Front, eh?)

Other Fronts, Other Spaces

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June has been a quiet month for blogging, mostly because I’ve been busy, so I thought I’d best get a post in! My internship has formally finished, but I’ve still been returning to Leeds Museums to help out with the Somme commemorations! This post is a review of a study day which I attended just before my placement came to an end.

Towards the end of my placement year with Leeds Museums and Galleries, I attended a study day at the Wellcome Trust in London entitled Other Fronts, Other Spaces: First World War Nursing. Nursing is not an aspect of the First World War that I find myself focusing on. Though I have seen some exhibitions and read some memoirs, I would not consider myself to know any more than the average on the topic, but the day remedied that and certainly had my interest when it came to certain papers.

There were three panels and two separate talks about different projects related to nursing and I could natter on all day about every single paper, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just be making note of the papers that I personally enjoyed the most.

Prof. Alison Fell’s paper, Crossing Borders: National variations in images of First World War nurses was a talk which I thoroughly enjoyed – looking at the differing images of nurses used in propaganda and recruitment materials. It was especially interesting noting how many depictions fit a certain number of archetypes.

Sue Hawkins paper, The Indian Princess and the Lady Racer: WWI Stories from the VAD Archive was fascinating and definitely inspired me to look more into the stories of the nurses and others who worked alongside them. It was also interesting to note the different demographics of nurses and the jobs that they had (such as x-ray and lab assistants, something which had never previously crossed my mind). The work to digitise the Red Cross archive was wonderful to hear about. It’s fantastic that so many of these resources are now online and so easily accessible.

Finally, Alice Kelly’s piece, Commemorative Gestures: Nurses Writing Death in the Great War was a paper which looked at the idea of the war as the turning point in the attitude of the people towards death. Something which struck me particularly was the reference to the Victorian’s view of death and dying – that there was a way to ‘die well’ and to die well was to die quietly – it became idealised in a sense. Mourning was ostentatious and literature was a consolidation of death. The war however, was – as Alice Kelly termed it – an “unexpected assault on the Victorian idea of death.” In the 1912 Red Cross manual for nurses, they were primarily concerned with the logistics of death, but they were sadly not formally prepared for the scale of mass death which they would encounter. There was a renegotiation of death and dying throughout the First World War, public forms of remembrance came to the forefront and there was a desire to personalise the anonymous death, something that I, personally, see so keenly in the work of the CWGC.

Other Fronts, Other Spaces really was a wonderful study day and gave me much food to thought. Many thanks to all those who gave papers at the day, and to Leeds Museums for letting me tag along!

 

truth and memory: british art of the first world war

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Today, I visited the exhibition Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at York Art Gallery – this is a small review. Not all paintings and works are mentioned, as there were a lot and I could not fit them all in.

The first room of the downstairs gallery is laid out exactly as Gallery III was in 1919 at the Royal Academy of Art. The exhibition, The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records, in 1919 contained 925 paintings, sculptures and other pieces of art in various styles, though in York there are significantly less pieces. Gallery III contained the grandest official commissions from the war and the overall idea behind the original exhibit was to have an artistic memorial to the war. It contained work by younger artists – they had been the generation to bear the burden of war; their work would be the most truthful and most affecting.
The York exhibition runs through three linked rooms, each split into sections with their own titles. When walking in, I was struck by the scale of the works which were on display – the small busts of various figures were dwarfed by the paintings on each wall – the canvases huge and striking, even in a large space.

There are paintings from medics, such as Stanley Spencer who worked in Salonika, and later on in the exhibition – there is also work from women. The first piece I saw was Henry Lamb’s Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised By A Turkish Bombardment. The huge canvas captures the disorganisation of troops when confronted with the attack – the strain in two soldier’s faces visible in the lower corner while the rest of them are left reeling, crouched in the stones. The tents, arranged in solemn rows seem innocuous amongst the chaos, unmoved.
There is also George Clausen’s Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal. His is a romantic evocation of the production of weapons – an avoidance of the dirty and dangerous reality of such work. His men are granted nobility in the ethereal light which is simultaneously the dawning of a new era. The workers are graceful in their movements almost, yet many are faceless – the machine is the centrepiece. Certainly not a truthful rendition of the actuality of working in a factory at the time.

A few busts by various artists are dotted about the room, seemingly at random. Georges Clemenceau is posted near the door – his features pensive and worried. Sergeant DF Hunter, VC is at the back of the room, his gaze frank and unapologetic. Hunter’s bust was intended as a memorial to all Scottish VC awardees. Hunter is portrayed without rank or insignia, rendering him an everyman. The only mention of a woman in this first room is a bust of Dr. Elsie Inglis by the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. They seemed to be vaguely placed throughout the space, almost an afterthought.

The next section is more of a ‘themed’ part – entitled Perspectives of Battle. This is more landscape based and it is interesting to see how each different artists captured the land before them, how they communicated the destruction that had occurred. Orpen’s piece, Thiepval, is striking for its use of white – that on first glance is snow and the second one realises that there are two entangled skeletons of German soldiers. There are other examples of Orpen’s work throughout the gallery, some showcasing a nightmare world with an absence of pity, a lone crucifix standing as a reproof to God. He shows the harsh reality  of war and its effect on the landscape in his work, not shying away from portraying remains. There are not just paintings of the French front however. Sidney Carline’s The Trail of War, 1919 looks at the destruction of a Turkish aerodrome – the wrecked, skeletal remains of aircraft are left like slain animals, firmly bound to the land, an antithesis to flight.

I am not overly one for landscapes, so there were few which drew my attention in this section and made me pause. The first was Paul Nash’s Wire. The tangled mess is nightmarish, yet striking in its intensity, the barbed wire more like some sort of weed, snaking its way across the landscape, choking everything in its path. The second was Nevison’s Paths of Glory. In person, the wire glints in the light, almost like spun gold – the danger of it unclear. What is most interesting about this piece is that it was originally banned from display due to its depiction of two dead British soldiers. Nevison was originally lauded for his representation of “a more intense reality” and I must say I did find myself drawn to it, lingering somewhat. Another of Nevison’s works which was banned from display was his Group of Soldiers – this time due to his depiction, not of any horror or trauma, but instead because the men he depicted were not aesthetically pleasing. His subjects, the everymen, the ordinary soldiers, were deemed to be too “ugly” to be put on display. Instead, I thought his piece to be simple – yet affecting. The soldier’s features are rounded and drawn from life.

The penultimate section was one entitled Sacrifice, Redemption and many of the paintings within are ones of grief and loss. Orpen’s To The Unknown Soldier in France was one which drew my eye, and then my interest. The painting is the final of three which Orpen was commissioned to produce to record the Peace Conference of 1919. Totalling £3000 it was one of the most costly commissions of the war. His depiction of the Unknown Soldier is endlessly grandiose until one reaches the coffin in the lower half of the painting, central and illuminated by a shaft of light from a far window. It is lonely within the space it occupies, the colours of the flag are garish. What is most interesting however, is that in the original painting, Orpen added two emaciated, semi-nude soldiers who guarded the coffin and two cherubs above: “after all the negotiations..the Armistice and Peace, the only tangible result is the ragged, unemployed soldier and the Dead.” It caused controversy when it was first displayed and the IWM would only accept the painting when the four figures were painted out. I do wonder what the original would have been like – all the more affecting in its contrast, one expects.

Within this section are also three portraits by Orpen of members of the RFC. The portraits are informal, the figures command the gaze of the viewer – and yet they are melancholy once one realises that one of the three men died several days after his portrait was painted and a second was wounded.

The final section is entitled the Forgotten Front – a title which I feel could have been rethought.The contents of this part encompass industry and the wider homefront – certainly in my view not a forgotten front. It does feel somewhat like an afterthought, but this is the only section in the gallery which contains work by women war artists and works which feature women. I was beginning to despair somewhat as I took in the rest of the exhibition! There is also only one painting in this section which contains POC – Indian soldiers recovering at Brighton Pavillion.
Anna Airy’s Women Working in a Gas Retort House is a far more realistic depiction of industry than Clausen’s romantic view. There is iron here, black and imposing, the fire bright orange and red, threatening and powerful all at once. Commissioned to produced four paintings depicting munitions production, Airy captures the machines and their workforce unapologetically; the women are on the factory floor and she does not shy away from this, skilfully depicting the change in society that has occurred – women occupying a men’s space.

Richard Jack’s Return to the Front is another staggering canvas – occupying one wall alone. The mass of faces and bodies bring the scale of the human cost sharply back into focus – each face is different. One wonders at the relationships – mothers and sons perhaps, sweethearts are visible. There is one lone nun amongst the crowd and in a lower corner in the foreground, a young man sits in his uniform from a Scottish regiment. He is gazing at something not seen by the viewer, lost in his own thoughts, his expression hard to place. There is no dread there, not on any of their faces, but there is on his perhaps a hint of worry, an attempt at self conviction.

The last work I want to comment on is Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916  by J Hodgson Lobley. It is another immense piece, depicting Londoners watching the arrival of the wounded from the Somme. It is not a tender piece, but instead tackles a great mass of people. They stand at the roadside, peering at the ambulances. They hang out of windows, they sit upon signs and gaze at the convoy as it passes. One man reaches up into the cab of an ambulance and a wounded soldier looks back. The crowd are faceless, and yet amongst it all – there is a woman with her head in her hands – the grief clear.

Overall, I liked the exhibition – its mix of styles and depictions, not shying away from what had once been banned from display. Much of it was new work which I had not seen before, giving a fresh perspective, a new set of eyes and a rendition of another new experience. I came away from it newly appreciative. However, it would have been nicer to see a more equal balance of work split between male and female painters (though I’m not sure this would have been possible). It would also have been interesting to see more work from artists on fronts other than the Western Front.

War Horse

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As the National Theatre’s production of War Horse has left its London home for the final time, I thought that now would be a pertinent moment to write something about it.

I was lucky enough to see the play live when I turned eighteen and it’s something that I’ll never forget. There are so many moments that have lingered in my mind and that I still find myself thinking about – especially the point in the play when the foal Joey becomes the adult Joey. It’s a mastery of puppetry, technology and drama – full to the brim with feeling; soaring joy, amazement, wonder. It’s certainly the first time I have ever audibly gasped aloud and clutched at the armrests of my seat in reaction to a piece of drama.

These are the things which have stayed with me in the three years since I saw the play. First, the artistry that comes from the puppets. They’re so lifelike, it’s easy to forget about the men behind them. There are small nuances that make it all the more real – a flicker of an ear, a slight movement of the head, a gentle whickering sound. Second, the laughter that comes and lightens some of the moments, even when a little unexpected. The play is not misery after misery, far from it; but the balance is there, between laughter and the quieter moments that rest a little heavier on the audience – something which is welcome, I think.

When I saw the play, I found myself overwhelmed by it, my heart in my mouth and tears falling freely as the narrative unfolded on the stage, but it was such a release of emotion that it was cathartic – something I needed to do.

A relative saw the film a few weeks ago and said, “It’s so much more important, isn’t it? Once you’ve been to France..” and perhaps it does add something else to the piece, another sort of knowledge, a different perspective and a different focus. The book too was something completely new as far as WWI narratives go – told through the eyes of an animal. A different voice, a new experience – but it remains still fresh now, despite the wealth of stories that have been brought to the forefront.

In my eyes however, the play stands tall of its own accord – a wonderfully moving piece of drama that still leaves you with hope at the fall of the curtain.

a dear sacred voice;

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I am incredibly pleased to announce that my exhibition, Behind the Lines, looking at the war poetry of Leeds and the way in which the people of the City creatively responded to the war, has all been printed and delivered. It’s been an amazing two months putting it together, from investigating the work in our collections to writing interpretation and receiving the final proofs.

At present, the exhibition can be seen from 1st July at Leeds Central Library and then at Leeds City Museum during October half term. Keep an eye out here and on twitter for information of when and where it will be on display outside of these two dates.

If you, or anyone you know would be interested in displaying the exhibition or want to find out more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me via twitter or email!

But where the lamb

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Wilfred Owen was born on this day in 1893.

Wilfred Owen is one of those poets, it seems, that people wonder what he might have done – even his contemporaries. I own one biography of him and three collections of his poetry and the question does sometimes linger in my own mind. What path might he have taken and how might his talent have developed? We don’t know, and never will know, as 1918 saw the close of Owens life, and the war within a week of one another. This post however is in honour of Wilfred’s birthday. It is a small one on a poem I love and cherish dearly, one which I come back to on occasions and find myself just as moved as I was that first time I found the words.

I first came across Owen (and his works) as I did with Sassoon, reading Regeneration – a novel it seems I will never escape. Of course, Anthem for Doomed Youth was the first (I remained fascinated for weeks at the Latin end for the piece), but there is another of his works which stood out to me more than any other and which earned a place firmly in my heart.

It was The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It’s one which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before, I believe, but I’ve never written much about it. It’s different, in my view to Anthem, so very different and all the richer for it. Perhaps that is why I love it. I find it even more wrenching than that description which lingers long in the mind , ‘and at every jolt..’

Instead, Parable gives me a sense of foreboding with its jerky rhythm that never quite settles and it brings tears to my eyes each time I read it. I find there is a slowness to the piece, as though one is watching Abram and Issaac play out their roles with no alternative, heading toward an inevitable terror. War’s apologist and war’s victim are Owen’s subjects in this piece and there is no other way to the end but the warmongering apparent in the final lines which come as a shock to the reader.

I end this short post with Owen’s own poem and the one which I have written about in this post. It says more for itself than I ever could hope to.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen