WWI 100: London’s Memorials… Cyprus Street
Cyprus Street Memorial
Cyprus Street, Bethnal Green
Across the UK, most of the memorials dedicated to those who perished in WWI were created in an official capacity.
However, right in the heart of London’s East End (Bethnal Green to be precise) on a quiet road called Cyprus Street, there stands a memorial which is somewhat different…
As the Great War raged between 1914 and 1918, memorials similar to the one on Cyprus Street became a common sight across Britain; unofficial shrines to local men who had been killed in battle.
Such sanctums were erected on a temporary basis and were later replaced by grand, official memorials in the years following the armistice.
The Cyprus Street plaque was originally paid for by the Duke of Wellington’s Discharged and Demobolised Soldiers and Sailors Benevolent Club; a group who were based at and took their name from a local pub.
After the war, the Cyprus Street memorial was maintained for a special reason: the 26 East End lads named on the plaque represented the highest loss to hit a single London street.
In the 1960s the Cyprus Street memorial was nearly lost for good when the local housing association decided to plonk a modern block of flats on the site.
During the demolition of the house upon which the memorial was located, the plaque was damaged. Thankfully the pieces were rescued and stashed away in a pub for safekeeping.
Following this callous blow, the local tenants association clubbed together to fund a replica- the version which can be seen today, a short distance from its original location.
Today, the Cyprus Street memorial is lovingly maintained by two elderly locals; Ron Sale and Dave Stanley who hope that their work will be taken on when they are no longer around to do so.
WW1 100: London’s Memorials… The Machine Gun Corps & the Man Who Mended Faces
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.
Tales From the Terminals: Liverpool Street…. From Bedlam to Kindertransport (Part Two)
Liverpool Street at War
As with its former neighbour, Broad Street- which suffered at the hands of a zeppelin airship in 1915- Liverpool Street Station was the victim of enemy bombing during the First World War, with a devastating attack taking place in May 1917.
By this point the German military had realised that their airships, with their cumbersome and vulnerable nature, were no longer effective for carrying out air-raids over London.
With this in mind, they switched to smaller aircraft- the Gotha Bombers.
With their speed and manoeuvrability, these craft proved far more deadly.
When a squadron of Gothas attacked Liverpool Street during the 1917 assault, they unleashed a lethal flurry of bombs, killing 162 people.
Four years after WWI, in 1922, a large memorial was installed at Liverpool Street Station as a solemn tribute to the many employees of the Great Eastern Railway who had perished during the devastating conflict.
This memorial was unveiled at midday on June 22nd 1922 by Sir Henry Wilson, a 58 year old politician who had served in WWI as one of Britain’s most senior officers.
Once the ceremony was over, Sir Wilson hailed a taxi, the destination being his home on Eaton Square… however, he never made it.
Lying in wait at the Belgravia address were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan; two members of the Irish Republican Army who were reputedly unhappy with the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which had been signed six months before (coincidentally, the treaty had been signed at 22 Hans Place, a short walk from Sir Wilson’s home) .
From their vantage point, Dunne and O’Sullivan waited for Sir Wilson to pay the cabbie and then, as their target mounted the steps to his front door, the pair dashed forward, shooting the former Field-Marshall several times.
Sir Henry Wilson died on his doorstep, the murder causing chaos and outrage. His killers were both quickly caught, and executed at Wandsworth prison a few months later.
WWII and the Kindertransport
Liverpool Street’s finest hour occurred during the prelude to WWII, when the London terminal played a vital role in shepherding 1,000s of Jewish refugees- all of whom were children- to safety.
This process was known as the Kindertransport.
Ever since Hitler had seized power in 1933, Jews had been subject to persecution.
However, on the 10th November 1938, the Nazi’s hatred exploded dramatically and violently with the horrendous Kristallnacht; the ‘night of broken glass.’
During the span of one evening, 267 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses and 1,000s more Jewish homes were targeted, with Nazi thugs smashing windows and daubing anti-Semitic graffiti.
Arson was carried out on a huge scale, with many Jewish premises destroyed outright. A number of Jews were killed, whilst many more were rounded up and arrested.
Following this night of horror, the Kindertransport concept was quickly conceived and put into action.
After getting the nod from then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, certain immigration laws were suspended, thus allowing Jewish youngsters under the Nazi jackboot to enter the UK in large groups rather than waste precious time in applying individually.
In all, around 10,000 children found shelter in the UK under the system and every single one of them passed through Liverpool Street Station.
The first group arrived just three weeks after Kristallnacht- 196 little ones whose Jewish orphanage had been callously destroyed by the Nazis.
The young refugees came to the UK by ship, landing in Harwich. From there, they boarded special steam-trains to London, where they would be introduced to their kindly guardians at Liverpool Street Station.
The process brought both salvation and utter heart-break.
Although the youngsters found safe-harbour, the vast majority would never see their parents again as the families they were torn from fell victim to the perils of war, concentration camps and gas-chambers.
Today, the Kindertransport’s life-line is commemorated at Liverpool Street by two sculptures.
The first, which is tucked away on the station’s bustling concourse, was originally unveiled in 2003 and is dedicated to the Quakers, whose campaign was vital in instigating and implementing the Kindertransport.
This poignant statue is twinned with similar artworks at Prague’s Hlavni Nadrazi Station and Vienna’s Westbannhof Station, both of which served as departure points for the evacuating children.
On 21st May 2011, a ceremony was held in which Liverpool Street’s subtle memorial was rededicated by a very special man… Sir Nicholas Winton- who is represented as the bespectacled chap holding the small child in the Prague statue above.
Sir Nicholas- a Londoner, born in Hampstead in 1909- played a huge role in the Kindertransport, single-handedly organising the evacuation of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia.
His amazing feat, which was carried out from a makeshift office set up in a Prague hotel room, has resulted in him being dubbed Britain’s answer to Oskar Schindler.
In 2011, a documentary film- Nicky’s Family– was made, chronicling Sir Nicholas’s efforts and the subsequent influence his humanity has had upon others.
The trailer for this moving film can be viewed in the following clip:
A humble man, Sir Nicholas didn’t speak about the immense role he’d played in saving so many youngsters from the evils of Nazism for several decades.
Things came to light again in the late 1980s when his wife, Greta discovered Nicholas’ note-books in the attic; the very books and paperwork which he’d used to administer the large scale evacuation.
Greta approached the BBC, who managed to track down 80 of those whose name appeared in the book and, in 1988, Sir Nicholas was invited onto the show, That’s Life to discuss the Kindertransport.
What the great man didn’t know as he sat in the audience was that he was surrounded by a large group of the now fully-grown up children whom he’d saved 50 years previously, all of whom would have started their new lives at Liverpool Street Station.
The following clip demonstrates what happened next….
In 2009, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the lifeline’s route was re-created, with specially chartered steam locomotives linking up the stages across Europe.
The carriages, which were hauled by vintage trains, carried many of the surviving (and now very much grown up!) refugees, who had fled tyranny so many years before.
Younger guests were also invited to join the special ride, giving them the opportunity to chat to the former Kindertransport children about their tragic stories and experiences.
The final leg of the emotional event- Harwich to London- was hauled by the Winton Train; named in honour of Sir Nicholas.
The fantastic engine can be viewed in the following clip, as it thunders towards Liverpool Street on the memorial day:
Sir Nicholas Winton is still alive today; going strong and looking amazingly well at the grand old age of 103.
A true inspiration.
Sir Nicholas can be seen in a BBC news report from 2011, which details the re-dedication of Liverpool Street’s first Kindertransport memorial. Please click here to view the clip.
The second Kindertransport memorial at Liverpool Street Station can be found just outside one of the entrances, standing on a relatively peaceful area which has been named ‘Hope Square’.
Unveiled in 2006 by Prince Charles, the sculpture was created by Frank Meisler- who himself was a Kindertransport refugee, arriving from the Polish city, Gdansk in 1939.
Frank’s Liverpool Street sculpture is actually part of a series, having three counterparts across Europe which chronicle the route of the Kindertransport.
The other sculptures can be found at Gdansk station in Poland, Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse station (which also commemorates the many more unfortunate youngsters who boarded more sinister trains to the death camps) and Rotterdam; the port from where the children would depart for the assured safety of England…
The Blitz and a challenge to authority
Once WWII was fully underway the Kindertransports were forced to cease… and, in 1940, Hitler unleashed his fury on London with the nightly Blitz.
Once the regular air-raids commenced, many Londoners considered the London Underground- with its exceptionally deep tunnels- to be a natural place in which to seek shelter.
The government however had other ideas.
They feared that allowing people to shelter on the tube would result in a ‘bunker mentality’- in other words, they believed that once the shelterers were down on the platforms, they wouldn’t want to come back up ever again, becoming subterranean dwellers!
As such, official policy was that the Underground was for transportation only; anyone attempting to stay for the night would be moved on.
On the 8th September 1940, an event at Liverpool Street station would result in this policy being re-considered…
It was a Sunday evening when the air-raid sirens kicked in and the drone of enemy bombers could be heard approaching…. Eager to get under cover, large groups of residents from Spitalfields dashed towards nearby Liverpool Street, aiming to head for the station’s deep Central Line platforms.
Once there, the crowd found the entrance to the tube barred and gated; shielded by armed troops who were under orders to enforce the government’s no-shelter on the tube policy.
The spirited East-Enders took no time in deciding that this blockade just would not do … and by sheer force of numbers, they managed to disable the barricade, barging their way through and pouring down to the deep platforms, mounting what we today would most probably label a ‘sit-down protest.’
Overwhelmed, the authorities quickly realised that the ban on sheltering on the underground was unworkable and the following day, the Minister for Home Security did a U-turn, announcing that the public were in fact more than welcome to spend the night on the tube if they so wished.
Following this change of heart, the government’s paranoid predictions of bunker mentality were proved wrong.
People sheltered in the tube by night, but were more than happy to leave the following morning…. If anything, they were probably glad of the fresh air after being stuck deep below ground for hours in stuffy, smelly and downright uncomfortable conditions.
Nor was the tube always safe- on several occasions, many civilians were killed by direct hits on stations, with explosions at Balham and Bank being particularly catastrophic.
The following clip is taken from the end of the 1941 short film, Christmas Under Fire, which was shown in American cinemas and depicts the conditions endured by Londoners who opted to shelter on the tube during the Blitz:
Liverpool Street Today
Despite being one of London’s busiest and most illustrious stations, Liverpool Street gradually sunk into a gloomy, decrepit state during the second half of the 20th century.
In 1986, Liverpool Street’s neighbour, Broad Street was demolished and a fresh, modern development of offices, restaurants and public spaces known as ‘Broadgate’ rapidly sprung up to fill the void.
Part of this complex spilled over towards Liverpool Street; namely the impressive ‘Exchange Square’, which is constructed on a vast raft, perched over the subterranean tracks leading into the station; a set-up which invites an interesting perspective of Liverpool Street’s Victorian architecture.
Popular with city-workers on their lunch break, Exchange Square is dotted with small cafes and eateries… and a wide array of public artworks, the largest of which is the ‘Broadgate Venus’:
Weighing 5 tons, the Broadgate Venus was installed in 1990, its creator being Mr Fernando Botero, a Columbian artist who originally trained as a bull-fighter! Fernando’s work is very distinctive in that his subjects often appear tubby- his 1959 re-imagining of the Mona Lisa being a good demonstration of his style!
The Future and reminders of the Past
Today, Liverpool Street continues to grow thanks to its role in the new Crossrail project; an express subway which will link the capital to a number of commuter towns stretching from Essex to Berkshire.
Deep beneath Liverpool Street, a large interchange is currently being constructed to serve the new route; a true feat of engineering which requires hefty piles to be ploughed 130ft into the ground.
Whilst excavations have been taking place, a large number of human skeletons have been unearthed, many of which lay only a few feet below the surface as generations of commuters trudged overhead…
These skeletons, which have been receiving the utmost care and attention in their removal, belong to former inmates of the Bedlam lunatic asylum; the site of the excavations marking the old hospital’s burial ground.
Archaeologists on the project have confirmed that the remains of 4,000 souls lie in this compact area, and it is hoped these sad collections of bones will give historians more insight into the lives of those who were ‘treated’ at the horrendous institution.
As this London terminal expands to meet the needs of the 21st century, these once long-forgotten skeletons are a sober reminder of Liverpool Street’s darker past.