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.
Spread across an impressive slope in Sydenham, South London, Crystal Palace Park is one of the capital’s most intriguing green spaces.
The locale has always been a noted beauty spot.
Before Crystal Palace Park was established, the area formed the grounds of ‘Penge Place’ (‘Penge’ deriving from the Celtic word, ‘Penceat’ meaning ‘on the edge of a wood’); a large, Tudor-style manor house built at the beginning of the 19th century by Edward Blore.
In its present form, the park owes its existence to an event which took place in 1851- The Great Exhibition; a five-month long celebration of all the world had to offer in terms of culture and technology.
Essentially the world’s first expo, The Great Exhibition was hosted north of the Thames in Hyde Park, housed within a vast, purpose-built structure forged from metal and glass….a building which the satirical magazine, Punch dubbed the “Crystal Palace”.
Between May and October 1851 millions from across both the UK and the world flocked to wonder at the Victorian marvel, firmly planting the building in the public psyche.
By the time the exhibition closed its doors, much of the British public had grown exceptionally fond of their ‘People’s Palace’ and there was great concern that the temporary structure was about to be lost forever.
Luckily, Salvation was at hand thanks to two solicitors- Messrs Leech and Farquhar who suggested that the palace be dismantled and resurrected elsewhere. This plan was quickly adopted and, within less than a year, a site in Sydenham had been earmarked as the new home; a location which the palace’s original architect, Sir Joseph Paxton, described as “the most beautiful spot in the world” for his celebrated creation.
In just two years the huge structure was carefully taken apart and transported to the south London green spot where it was skilfully reassembled and expanded.
The second incarnation of the Crystal Palace incorporated galleries representing the histories and cultures of numerous nations. For these installations, specialist craftsmen from abroad were drafted in to create the representations of their homelands. As one guide-book from the time noted, many firm friendships between these fellows and their British counterparts were made in the “palace of peace.”
Despite the enthusiasm, the project was not without tragedy.
In August 1853 during the building’s reconstruction, a section of scaffolding collapsed, plunging ten workmen 170ft to their deaths.
Following this disaster, 2,000 fellow workers attended a meeting at which it was declared “the working-class are the best protectors of their own interests” and that if the 2,000 colleagues “would each abridge themselves of a pint of ale a week, they might raise a fund of £500 a year for the relief of widows and orphans…”
The ten men were buried together nearby at St Bartholomew’s church, Sydenham (where their shared grave can still be seen), the funeral attended by 1,000 mourners.
A new park for London
In June 1854 and with Queen Victoria in attendance, the relocated Crystal Palace once again opened its doors to an eager public.
The new location was well connected with two purpose built railway stations; Crystal Palace Low Level on the park’s southern side (still open today) and Crystal Palace High Level.
Originally located on the western edge of the park, the High Level station closed in 1954 and has long since vanished, the site now covered by modern housing.
If you look carefully however, a few remnants of the old station can still be glimpsed. Alongside the new homes, just below Crystal Palace Parade, you’ll find a long retaining wall, which once run parallel to the station.
If you peer over the opposite side of Crystal Palace Parade, you’ll spot the dilapidated remains of a once ornate subway which provided a direct walkway between the station and the palace itself.
For those who wished to travel to the attraction by road, accommodation for three hundred horses-a sort of equine garage- was provided at the ‘Paxton Stables’, located behind the nearby Woodman Inn on Westow Hill, where your steed could rest for the price of one shilling and sixpence; “including a feed of corn and all other expenses.”
Today, ‘Joanna’s’ restaurant stands on the site of the old pub, although the cobbled road which led into to the horse facility can still be seen.
Park of delights
Inside the rebooted Crystal Palace there was a stunning amount for visitors to indulge in, with galleries showcasing art and culture from across the ages; Greek, Egyptian, Roman (including a court dedicated to the doomed town of Pompeii), Italian renaissance, Byzantine, Medieval and much more.
There were also galleries for musical instruments, fabrics, sculpture and various other modern technologies.
The surrounding gardens provided even more delights, with impressive arrays of flora, a park showcasing large dinosaur models (more of which in part two) and a system of powerful fountains which, when first inaugurated, were capable of firing jets of water 200ft into the air.
This impressive aquatic display was powered by two mighty water towers; each sanding 282 ft. high- 107 ft. taller than Nelson’s Column and designed by legendary engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
To keep the fountains operating at such levels, the towers were required to deal with a colossal 120,000 gallons of water per minute. However, it soon became apparent that the structures were unable to cope with such force and, fearing that the towers may rupture, the park’s owners had little choice but to wind the fountains down.
More successful of the outdoor features was the Pneumatic Railway; a short, experimental line linking one park gate to another.
The system consisted of an airtight pipe, sunk halfway into the ground, through which a single carriage was puffed from one end to the other- rather like a giant pea shooter.
Many visitors paid a few pence to ride this novelty but despite its popularity the railway remained open to the public for just one year. Its quick disappearance has since led to many an urban legend suggesting that the Victorian railcar lies buried somewhere deep beneath the park…
For the first thirty years at its new location, the Crystal Palace thrived, attracting an average of two million visitors per year.
Countless exhibitions were held; dog and cat shows, livestock shows, photography exhibitions, acrobatic displays, circuses, musical concerts and so on.
Firework extravaganzas were also popular and heads of state from across the globe came to enjoy the delights of the glistening landmark.
In 1911, the complex staged its biggest event ever; The Festival of Empire in which “representations of possessions beyond the seas”- such as Indian tea plantations, Australian vineyards and South African gold mines- sprang up around the park like a miniature, global village.
To help visitors access these dioramas, organizers laid down ‘The Red Route’; a mile and a half long electric railway with stations for each country.
Into the 20th century
Despite such extravagance, the Crystal Palace itself was struggling financially.
Since the turn of the century, the 1850s building- which it must be remembered had originally been designed to stand for a matter of months- was growing increasingly shabby.
Over the past decades, it had suffered fire and storm damage. Random panes of glass would often become loose and drop out and the framework required constant painting. The building’s vast size was proving too costly to maintain and, shortly after the Festival of Empire, the Crystal Palace was declared bankrupt.
War and a new lease of life
Eventually bailed out by the Earl of Plymouth, the huge venue stumbled back to its feet, making a few pounds on the side with newly installed banks of slot machines.
Another innovation was created by a chap called Edmund Dangerfield (editor of The Motor magazine) who, in one of the palace’s wings, set up the world’s very first museum dedicated to the motor-car.
Following the outbreak of WWI, the Crystal Palace and its surrounding park were closed to the public and commandeered by the military; the facilities being used to train 125,000 servicemen.
Due to the war emergency, the cars from Dangerfield’s motor museum were given little consideration; with those that could not be returned to their original donors being hastily dumped on waste ground near Charing Cross.
At the conclusion of the Great War the Crystal Palace found another role as a huge demob centre.
Once its duties to King and country were over, the attraction experienced a brief renaissance thanks to James Buckland; the newly installed manager who loved the Victorian icon so much that he’d named his daughter ‘Chrystal’.
During this period, the Crystal Palace provided a home for the very first incarnation of the Imperial War Museum; the weapons on display illustrating the horror of trench warfare which was still very fresh in people’s minds.
The Imperial War Museum remained at the Palace until 1924 before moving onto South Kensington and then Lambeth, where it has remained since 1936.
In the early 1930s, the Crystal Palace played an important role in the early history of television when the Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird decided to move his studio onto the premises, using Brunel’s two old water towers as masts for his antennas. To read more about Logie Baird’s London, please click here.
Farewell old friend
On the night of November 30th 1936, the legendary Crystal Palace came to a rapid and tragic end.
Just after 7pm, James Buckland- who lived nearby so he could keep a close eye on his cherished responsibility- was returning from an evening walk when he noticed a glow coming from the palace.
Rushing to the scene, he discovered staff attempting to extinguish a fire which, although small initially, was spreading faster than they could handle.
The flames quickly took hold, promptly engulfing the building in a mighty inferno. So intense was the blaze that its red haze could be seen as far away as Brighton and Margate, the disaster earning the awful title of Britain’s largest peace-time blaze.
Despite the exhaustive efforts of 430 firemen, 88 fire engines and 749 police officers the Crystal Palace was utterly destroyed; the London landmark turned into a smouldering ruin of twisted metal within a matter of hours.
A news-reel from the period covering the heartbreaking event can be viewed below.
The only features to survive the inferno were Brunel’s two water towers which remained in situ until the outbreak of WWII- when they were deliberately destroyed in what is believed to have been an attempt to thwart enemy bombers using the landmarks as navigational aids.
Amongst the ruins…
Today, the site of the old Crystal Palace on the park’s western edge is an eerie, melancholy place characterized by windswept staircases and lonely statues; many of which have been callously vandalized.
In 1953, American poet, James Broughton used the atmospheric ruins as the backdrop to his short, avant-garde film, The Pleasure Garden which featured Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier and sought to inject a little cheer into post-war Britain…
I adore history, especially that of the modern kind and, every now and then, I’m lucky enough to meet someone in my taxi who has directly experienced the effects of recent history; people who have lived through certain eras, and have played witness to chaotic periods which shaped the course of the previous century.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting one such person.
I’d just dropped a gentleman off and, as he walked around to the window to pay, raindrops began to splash on the windscreen. Inclement weather is always good for business and, to a cabbie, raindrops really are pennies from heaven. When the skies open up, hands go up too as people strive to avoid a soaking.
Sure enough, before the passenger had even finished paying, a woman eagerly approached, enquiring if I would soon be free. I gave her an affirmative thumbs up.
“St Pancras International, please!”
Despite the downpour, the new passenger was incredibly cheerful and bubbly. As I turned the cab around and snapped the wipers on, I asked whereabouts she was travelling to from St Pancras.
“Paris” she replied; “not a holiday I’m afraid; I live there now, out in the suburbs.”
“That’s certainly not a French accent though” I smile.
“No; I’m from Berlin originally.”
I told my passenger that I’m hoping to take a short break to Berlin at some point in the next few months.
“Ah, you should. It’s a great city. Have you ever been to Germany before?”
I have indeed been to Germany before, but I was very young at time. The last time I was there, Germany was still divided between West and East.
We spent one Christmas visiting my Grandfather, who then worked at ‘Ramstein Air Base’; an immense installation, its huge size firmly securing it as the headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe. Even today, Ramstein has the largest American community outside the US.
My main memory of the airbase is of its vast department store and the ‘Garfield’ merchandise which sat upon the well-stocked shelves (a sound indicator that we were on the Capitalist side of the Cold War; I doubt the Soviet bases readily made plush toys so readily available to their servicemen!)
“East and West,” muses my passenger, “ah; I remember those days well.”
Like so many Europeans I meet in the Taxi, the lady spoke perfect, fluent English.
“It must have been quite an experience to live through such times?”
“It was, yes. I was lucky; I was born and grew up in West Germany. My parents however were originally from the East. They defected.
You see, my parents were intellectuals and they wished to train to be teachers. However, in Eastern Germany, this was not so easy. Being Communist, the authorities liked to give university precedence to those from agricultural or industrial backgrounds.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing of course; it is good for all people to receive an education. However, the Communists simply flipped the situation around, favouring one group over another.
My parents realised that it would be very difficult to become teachers in the East. Even if they were accepted, they would have to bow to and promote Soviet ideology, and this is something they knew they would not be able to stomach.
Defecting was a very dangerous, very tense act to carry out. It was illegal of course, and the penalties if caught were severe.
It was also an awful decision to make and, even though those who loved them actively encouraged them to go, they knew that leaving family and friends behind would be very painful indeed.”
“So how did they manage to escape?”
“Well, they finally left in 1961; around the time construction on the Berlin Wall really began to get underway. When that started to go up, they knew they had to get out quickly.
They defected by train. It was still possible to travel between east and west in this way, but is was risky. Naturally my parents couldn’t take any possessions with them at all- to do so would have aroused immediate suspicion. They had to leave everything they owned behind. The only luggage they took was a small brief-case; carried by my father. They had to give the impression they were only making a short day trip.
Thankfully they made it safely to the West without the guards suspecting.
Once there though, my father received a huge shock- when he opened his case, he discovered lots of silver-wear in there; expensive cutlery and so on. My Granny had put it in there without him knowing! She meant well of course, but my father was furious! Can you imagine if he’d been searched? The game would truly have been over…
With nothing to their name, they moved into a one-room apartment. They’d left a nice house with a large garden behind in the east, all of their possessions and memories, friends and family.
But they were free.
When I was growing up, it was possible every now and then to travel into East Germany to visit family. However, it was like calling on them in prison.We were allowed to take small parcels of gifts, but the border guards would search these very thoroughly.”
“What was your main impression of the East?” I ask.
“Grey. It was all so very, very grey; devoid of colour. Especially by the late 1980s, the people looked very depressed and downtrodden indeed.
When we visited, I remember seeing other children the same age as me- waiting in long queues outside shops. They didn’t even know what they queuing for; their mothers would hear a rumour that something or other had appeared in a shop, and they would send their children out to fetch whatever it was, hoping it would be worth the long wait.
When the wall finally came down, that was one of the best days of our lives. I remember a group of our cousins running across a road towards us; their eyes wet with joy.”
Sadly, we’ve reached out destination very quickly. As the gothic spires of St Pancras International loom into view, I find myself wanting to hear lots more about this Berliner’s family and experiences. This is the downside of meeting wonderful people in the cab; they’re gone all too soon.
I doubt she often has the opportunity to speak so openly about her parents’ experience, and it seems like our chat has sent many memories rushing to the surface. As we say our goodbyes, the woman lets out a melancholy sigh and shakes her head.
“Enclosing people with a big wall. Just imagine! What ever possessed them to do it?”
* * * *
The Berlin Wall was famously torn down in November 1989. Today, parts of it can be seen and touched right here in London.
The largest section is to be found in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. The slab boasts an excellent example of the type of graffiti which characterized the western side of the wall. This section of the wall was located near the Brandenburg Gate, and was acquired by the Museum in January 1991; not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A photo of the wall-section can be seen at the top of this post.
Inside the museum itself, there is a gallery dedicated to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.
Another piece of the Berlin Wall was introduced to London earlier this year, when a statue of President Ronald Reagan was unveiled on Grosvenor Square. Set in the statue’s plinth is a plaque, which contains a small block of the wall, along with a quote; Reagan’s plea to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”