During the Great War, there were moments when the thunder of guns and explosions ripping across the Western Front were so intense the sound could be heard as far away as London.
100 years ago, at 11am on Monday November 11th 1918, these hellish weapons finally fell silent when the Armistice (a word combined of two Latin phrases- ‘arma’ meaning weapons and ‘sistere’ for ‘to come to a stand’) which had been signed by the warring parties at Compiègne in France came into affect.
In London there were jubilant scenes as people took to the streets.
King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and, the following day, attended a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Once the celebrations had cooled, it was time to reflect upon the war’s devastating impact: overall, the four-year long conflict had claimed approximately 37,500,000 lives.
Britain and the Empire nations- which included countless troops from Africa, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, India and New Zealand- had seen 908,371 servicemen killed with many more missing or imprisoned.
Practically every town and village in Britain had lost men.
The grim statistics worsened by the ‘Pals Battalions’; a system which had encouraged friends, neighbours and work colleagues to sign up and fight together. It did not take long for memorials to begin appearing across the nation.
Although the slaughter had ceased, it was not until the 28th June 1919 that the Great War officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles– a controversial document whose harsh treatment of Germany can be blamed in part for sowing the seeds of the Second World War.
The war’s formal end was marked on the 19th July with a bank holiday dubbed Peace Day, marked in London with a victory parade in which over 15,000 troops marched (please click below to view footage):
On that day a number of wooden memorials were erected along the route, one of which was the first incarnation of the Cenotaph (click below to view):
Meaning ‘Empty Tomb’ in Greek, the Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Kensington born architect whose work is most prominent in Delhi, India- including the grand India Gate, which itself serves as a war memorial to the 70,000 Indian troops who lost their lives between 1914-1918.
Like the other structures that day, the Cenotaph- which, like today, stood on Whitehall– was fabricated from from wood and plaster and was intended to remain in place for just a short time.
Its solemn simplicity however proved immensely popular, with over one million people coming to visit and swathe the structure in wreathes.
It was decided therefore that a permanent Cenotaph should be created and this was unveiled by King George V on November 11th 1920.
The permanent Cenotaph has provided the main focal point for Britain’s annual Remembrance Day ever since.
Built from Portland Stone, the Cenotaph features no religious symbology; a deliberate choice based on the fact that those who’d fought alongside each other in the British and Empire Forces came from all manner of backgrounds and creeds.
Although it’s not immediately clear on first glance, every edge on the Cenotaph is subtly curved. If the trajectory of these lines were to be followed, the vertical edges would converge exactly 1,000 feet above ground whilst the horizontals would arc into a broad circle with its radius 900 feet below ground; a technique known as ‘entasis’.
As well as enhancing the Cenotaph’s height and solidity, the invisible trajectories projected by these angles invite a broader interpretation; the connection of the earth to the heavens perhaps?
On the 11th November 2018, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take part in the annual remembrance service; the first time that a German statesperson has done so.
On the same day the permanent Cenotaph was inaugurated, so too was the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
Such was the chaos and ferocity of the Great War that many of those who died were unidentified and as such could not be granted a named grave.
The idea of laying one of these unfortunate souls to rest inside Westminster Abbey as a symbol of all those who’d suffered a similar fate was first suggested by Reverend David Railton who’d served on the Western Front as an army chaplain.
Reverend David’s idea was agreed upon and in early November 1920 six unnamed bodies, each taken from one of the six major battlefields (The Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, The Somme and Ypres) were carefully exhumed, draped in flags and placed in a chapel near Arras, France.
Brigadier General L.J Wyatt then entered the chapel alone, closed his eyes and selected one of the bodies. The remains of the soldier selected were placed in a coffin- constructed from oak trees grown at Hampton Court Palace– and transported back to the UK with full military honours.
After crossing the Channel the coffin was transported by rail to London’s Victoria station where it arrived at platform 8 on the morning of the 10th November 1920.
A plaque at Victoria marks the site.
The Unknown Warrior was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey the following day, his tomb topped with a slab of black, Belgian marble.
The memorial remains a profound site to this day.
Of those who’d survived the war, many had done so with appalling injuries, ranging from facial deformities to lost limbs and lungs ravaged by poisonous gas.
In Roehampton, south-west London, men who’d had arms and legs blasted off were treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital which specialised in manufacturing prosthetics.
The hospital had been established in 1915 by Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford who’d vowed to help the injured after meeting Private F.W Chapman; a young man who’d lost both his arms.
During the war, Queen Mary’s treated 11,000 patients and created so many false limbs that it came to be nicknamed the ‘Human Repair Factory.’
Following the Armistice the hospital continued its important work- by the end of 1918 it had a waiting list of over 4,000.
As well as the prosthetics workshop, Queen Mary’s also had a gym and other facilities where patients were able to master control of their artificial body-parts, as well as undergoing training to help them secure future employment.
Please click below to view footage of patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital in 1916:
Queen Mary’s Hosptial remains open today and has a small museum on its grounds dedicated to its history.
Other soldiers suffered devastating facial wounds which were often so awful it was a miracle they’d survived at all.
A number of these patients were treated by the artist, Francis Derwent Wood who crafted delicate masks to cover such deformities.
A longer article I wrote a few years ago about Francis’ work can be read here.
Not all injuries of course were physical.
Throughout the war, around 80,000 soldiers were admitted to military hospitals with what was then dubbed ‘Shell Shock’ or ‘War Neurosis’.
Today of course we call this PTSD: ’Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’.
In 1918 it was estimated a further 20,000 men were suffering shell shock- and many more would succumb to mental illness in later life as their memories of wartime returned to haunt them.
Those suffering displayed all manner of distressing symptoms from severe facial ticks and night-terrors, to internal pain, an inability to walk or carry out other functions and, in some cases, a complete obliviousness to the world around them.
Sadly attitudes at the time were largely unsympathetic to those suffering from these disturbing mental traumas.
One exception however was Dr. Hugh Crichton Miller, a Scottish neurologist who’d pioneered treatment for mental illness by opening Bowden House; a nursing home for sufferers- the first of its kind in Britain- at Harrow on the Hill, north-west London in 1912.
When the Great War broke out, Dr Hugh enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps and got to witness the severe affects of shell shock first hand. He quickly came to realise that pioneering new methods were required to treat such cases. One such technique involved having doctors treat patients whilst dressed in civilian clothes as opposed to traditional white coats; an idea which was revolutionary for the time.
After the war, in 1919, Dr Hugh along with a number of donors and supporters founded the Tavistock Clinic (orginally located at 51 Tavistock Square) to continue the work and offer support to civilians.
The Tavistock remains open today and is now located on Belsize Lane, Hampstead.
Amongst the many national treasures held by the British Library on Euston Road is the personal notebook of the war poet, Wilfred Owen.
Wilfred enlisted in 1915 and suffered both physical injury and shell shock.
Despite these traumas he returned to the trenches and was killed in action on the 4th November 1918, just days before the war ended.
As his mother back in Shropshire received news of her son’s death, the church bells were ringing out in celebration of the Armistice.
I would like to leave you with Wilfred’s masterpiece- Dulce et Decorum Est, the words of which speak for themselves.
Dule et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick boys!- An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime-
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dream before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.
Raging from July 28th 1914 to 11th November 1918, this hellish conflict was the world’s first truly modern war, characterized by the widespread use of tanks, aircraft, heavy artillery and poison gas.
So intense was the fighting it is said that, during particularly heavy clashes, the thunder of guns could be heard echoing as far away as London.
Leaving Europe with deep physical and psychological scars, the Great War claimed a grand total of 16 million lives and left a further 21 million injured.
On a personal level, my Great Great Grandfather- who was also named Robert- was shot at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
Although he was lucky enough to survive (had he not, I would not be sitting here writing this now), the bullet he took remained in his body for the rest of his life.
To mark this sombre landmark in our relatively recent history- and as my personal tribute to all of those who died, whatever their nationality- I have decided to start a new series which, over time, will take a look at London’s many World War One memorials and the stories behind them.
I shall begin with ‘The Machine Gun Corps’ memorial.
The Machine Gun Corps Memorial
Hyde Park Corner
When war first erupted in the summer of 1914, the British Military were still very much of a 19th century mind-set, confident that traditional infantry and cavalry based tactics would be sufficient enough force to seize victory… a tragically naïve assumption which was starkly portrayed in the 2011 film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book, ‘Warhorse’ (please click below to view):
After a few bloody months on the Western Front, it soon became clear in which direction the conflict was heading, leading to the formation of the Machine Gun Corps in October 1915.
During WWI, the Machine Gun Corps were deployed in a wide range of theaters including France, Belgium, Palestine, Egypt, East Africa and Italy.
Because of the nature of their weaponry, troops from the MGC often fought well beyond the front line; a factor which earned the Corps both a high casualty rate and a darkly comic nickname… ‘The Suicide Club’.
Seven members of the Machine Gun Corps were awarded the Victoria Cross; the highest possible accolade for bravery.
Unveiled in 1925, the memorial to the fallen of the Machine Gun Corps is embodied by a statue known as the ‘Boy David’; the Biblical figure who proved his worth after slaying the fearsome giant, Goliath.
Although we tend to associate David with heroism and triumph over adversity, his representation in this case is naked; something which suggests a sense of vulnerability.
The statue’s plinth includes a quote from the Book of Samuel; “Saul hath slain his thousands but David his tens of thousands”; a grim nod to the impact which the Machine Gun Corps had on the course of the war.
On either side of the statue sit two ‘Vickers’ machine guns, each encircled with laurel wreaths. These fearsome weapons are actually real models… so it is some comfort that they are now encased in bronze.
The rear of the statue provides a brief history of the Corps:
“The Machine Gun Corps of which His Majesty King George V was Colonel in Chief, was formed by Royal Warrant dated the 14th day of October 1915.
The Corps served in France, Flanders, Russia, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonica, India, Afghanistan and East Africa.
The last unit of the Corps to be disbanded was the Depot at Shorncliffe on the 15th day of July 1922.
The total number who served in the Corps was some 11,500 Officers and 159,000 other ranks of whom 1120 Officers and 12,671 other ranks killed and 2,881 Officers and 45,377 other ranks were wounded, missing or prisoners of war.”
When first erected, the memorial stood on Grosvenor Place; just south of Hyde Park Corner.
This first site was short-lived, with major road works soon requiring the statue’s removal. It was placed in storage for many years, finally returning in 1963 when it was placed at its present site on the northern side of Hyde Park Corner, backing onto one of London’s busiest road junctions.
An annual observance is held at the statue on the 2nd Saturday of every May.
Francis Derwent Wood
Perhaps the most poignant factor about the Machine Gun Corps memorial is the story behind its sculptor; Francis Derwent Wood.
Francis Derwent Wood was born in the Lake District in 1871 and went onto teach sculpture at the Glasgow School of Art.
When war broke out in 1914, he was too old for military service, so volunteered to work in the bustling hospital wards, coming to be based at the 3rd London General Hospital in Wandsworth.
Originally built in the 1850s as a home and school for orphans, this grand building was requisitioned in WW1 for use as a military hospital.
To cope with the sheer number of wounded troops being brought it, a temporary platform and station were built on the hospital’s western side (which backs onto one of the main lines into Clapham Junction).
A field behind the hospital (which is today a cricket ground) became an overflow area, lined with row after row of marquees standing in as temporary wards.
Today, the former hospital is now known as the ‘Royal Victoria Patriotic Building’; a complex of apartments, workshops, studios, a drama school and a restaurant called ‘Le Gothique’.
At the 3rd London General Hospital, Francis Derwent Wood encountered many young men who had suffered horrific injuries inflicted by the terrifying new weaponry.
Facial traumas were especially commonplace; if a squaddie quickly popped his head over the trench, an unexpected explosion or burst of enemy fire could have catastrophic results.
In one account, an American soldier, shot in the skull in 1918, described the experience; “It sounded to me like someone had dropped a glass bottle into a porcelain bathtub… a barrel of whitewash tipped over and it seemed that everything in the world turned white.”
In some cases, victims literally lost half their face… yet somehow managed to survive.
Although plastic surgery techniques were being pioneered at the time, there were some unfortunate souls who even this could not help.
Exposed to such tragedies, Francis Derwent Wood had a brain-wave.
Realising that his artistic skills may be able to help those with extensive facial scars, he took it upon himself to set up the ‘Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department’ within the hospital where, beginning in March 1916, he began to use his expertise to create custom masks for his patient’s shattered faces.
Taking up to a month to create, each mask, which was made from ultra-lightweight metal and painted in enamel to match the wearer’s skin tone, was a work of art in itself, designed to fully disguise the affected area.
Where eyebrows and moustaches were required, slivers of tinfoil were used- rather like the technique used on ancient Greek statues.
Patients at the hospital quickly gave the department an affectionate nickname; ‘The Tin Nose Shop.’
This creative solution did wonders for the morale of young men faced with a future of horrified stares and social exclusion- in Sidcup for example, which was also home to a facial hospital, certain park benches were designated for the use of patients…and were painted blue as a warning to passers-by of a more sensitive nature.
Interviewed in The Lancet in 1917, Francis said; “My work begins where the work of the surgeon is complete…The patient acquires his old self-respect, self-assurance, self-reliance… takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance. His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor the sadness of his relatives and friends.”
Derwent Wood’s work was soon noticed by the American sculptor, Anna Coleman.
After liaising with Derwent Wood and with support from the American Red Cross, Anna opened her own mask studio in Paris, where she continued the pioneering work on severely wounded French and American troops.
A video of this studio survives, which gives a good idea of the process involved at the hospitals in Paris and London (please click below to view):
Unsurprisingly, Anna Coleman and Francis Derwent Wood received many grateful letters from those they’d helped.
One particular response is heart-breaking in what it says;
“Thanks to you, I will have a home… the woman I love no longer finds me repulsive.”
Francis Derwent Wood’s studio was wound down in 1919.
Although he was able to help several hundred men, this was a mere drop in a very sad ocean- over 20,000 would return from the continent with facial wounds.
After the war, Francis was commissioned to create memorials in honour of the men who never returned. These works include a statue for Liverpool’s Cotton Association, ‘Humanity Overcoming War’ in Bradford and work on the memorial plinth in his home town of Keswick.
He also created a controversial sculpture of a crucified soldier; ‘Canada’s Golgotha’ which can be seen in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
London’s Machine Gun Corps memorial was one of Derwent Wood’s last pieces. He died just two years after its unveiling.
In 1929, a small, bronze copy of the Boy David was made by Edward Bainbridge Copnall as a memorial to Francis Derwent Wood.
Bequeathed by the Chelsea Arts Club, it can today be seen on the north side of Chelsea Embankment, overlooking Albert Bridge.