Death penalty for British World War I child soldier


This music video from Britain says about itself:

A song entitled “Deserter” by Mike Blackburn which tells the story of one soldier who had been affected by all that he had done, heard and seen in the trenches during WW1 and who no longer had the will to be there.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Shot at dawn – not forgotten

Friday 26th September 2014

PETER FROST mourns Thomas Highgate who was shot for desertion a century ago this month

Young Tom Highgate was terrified. Nothing had prepared the boy from a farm village in Kent for the horrors of the battle of the Marne early in the first world war.

Certainly not the recruiting sergeant who had signed him up aged just 17. He had told him about the fine uniform and the comradeship, how the girls all love a soldier, but hadn’t mentioned the actual fighting.

He had even hinted that Highgate might earn a place in British military history. Sadly he was only too right.

Nothing had steeled young Highgate for the heavy artillery bombardment from the German guns. Nor the fact that the German infantry appeared to far outnumber British troops.

Highgate, along with his comrades, had done his best. Hand-loading their Lee-Enfield rifles 15 times a minute, he and his fellow heroes stemmed the German advance.

But then the French had retreated leaving the British flanks exposed.

All around him his young friends were lying in the mud, blown to bloody pieces in the huge shell craters.

Then came the ultimate humiliation. The British forces were ordered to retreat. All the fright, the blood, the gore, the death, the suffering were for naught.

The terrified young soldier tripped over the edge. Today we would call it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A hundred years ago they had harsher, crueller names — shell shock, cowardice and desertion.

Private Thomas James Highgate was about to earn his place in British military history. He would become the first British soldier shot for desertion in World War I.

Highgate was discovered and arrested by a gamekeeper in a barn on the estate of Baron de Rothschild.

He told the gamekeeper: “I have had enough of it. I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it.”

He had abandoned his uniform and weapon. They were found hidden beside the barn.

The army moved fast. He was court-martialled and convicted of desertion and the death sentence was confirmed on a single day in September 1914. The war had been on for only a month.

Highgate had no-one to defend him. Indeed all of his comrades had been killed, injured or taken prisoner. He called no witnesses in his defence.

His account was that he was a straggler trying to find his way back to rejoin his regiment having got separated from his comrades. No-one believed him.

Highgate’s death was almost as hasty as his trial. Senior officers insisted that he be executed at once. They wanted it to be as public as possible.

The next day Highgate was told of his fate at 6.22am on that September morning, in the presence of a Church of England clergyman. An officer then ordered a burial party and firing squad to prepare, and the 17-year-old lad from Kent was shot at 7.07am.

News of his fate was published in Army Routine Orders and distributed to the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force. The example had been made.

Highgate was the first of over 300 Tommies shot for desertion. By contrast most shell-shocked officers were shipped home and treated in officer-only hospitals.

Shell shock, also called war neurosis or combat stress and today recognised as PTSD, was deliberately misdiagnosed by the officer class.

Victims were picked out and convicted as a lesson to others.

Charges included desertion, cowardice or insubordination. Often the symptoms were just walking around dazed and confused.

Most of those shot were young, defenceless and vulnerable teenagers who had volunteered for duty like Highgate.

General Haig — or Butcher Haig as he was known — when questioned declared that all men accused of cowardice and desertion were examined by a medical officer and that no soldier was sentenced to death if there was any suspicion of him suffering shell shock.

As so often, he lied.

Haig not only signed all the death warrants but when questioned later on this issue lied repeatedly.

The general’s stubborn and ignorant belief was that anyone suffering shell shock was malingering. In fact in Butcher Haig’s mind, shell shock and malingering were one and the same thing.

Highgate has no known grave. As recently as 2000, the caring folk on Shoreham Parish Council voted not to include his name on its recently restored war memorial. His only marker is on the British memorial to the missing at Seine-et-Marne.

The Armed Forces Act 2006 allowed the mass pardon of 306 British empire soldiers executed for certain offences during the first world war.

One of them was Highgate.

Today between 9,000 and 10,000 British soldiers who served in various foreign wars are homeless and numbered among our rough sleepers. Many have PTSD.

Many have medals, commendations and other awards, but that doesn’t stop the likes of supermarket giant Tesco putting down spikes to stop them sleeping in some kind of shelter.

Shockingly, ex-service personnel account for one in 10 rough sleepers across Britain, according to homeless charity Crisis.

Simon Weston OBE, who suffered serious burns in the Falklands war, has accused the government of betraying veterans after learning of the disturbing numbers without a home.

“A huge amount of rhetoric comes from politicians, but they never actually do anything,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s a betrayal.”

In so many cases it has led to a cycle of family break-up, addictions to drugs or alcohol and homelessness.

In a particularly crass case last year Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith used his notorious bedroom tax to take away the room in his mother’s home of a soldier serving in Afghanistan. His mother was told she could not keep his room.

“He had a bed in a barracks in Germany,” declared the government.

Defence cuts have reduced the number of soldiers by over 10,000 in recent years.

A total of 20,000 are due to be axed by 2017. The RAF and Royal Navy are each shedding 5,000.

In themselves these reductions are good news but unless adequate resources are put in place a flood of redundant ex-service personnel will end up on the streets.

Jim Jukes, founder of charity Homes 4 Heroes told us there were an estimated 9,000 homeless ex-servicemen in Britain, including rough sleepers and those in hostels and B&Bs.

He said: “With the redundancies coming up and more with PTSD, this is only going to get worse. It’s a ticking time bomb.”

His charity helps ex-service personnel in London, Brighton, Birmingham and Northampton, giving them sleeping bags, blankets and food.

In 2011, when body bags were being paraded in the streets of our garrison towns, David Cameron and Nick Clegg tried to claw back some popularity with the much-heralded Armed Forces Covenant. Not so much hopping on the bandwagon as hopping on the hearse.

It was, like most Con-Dem initiatives, a hollow promise. Numbers of homeless, unemployed, traumatised and distressed service personnel have soared since then.

In reality the Cameron and Clegg coalition has enforced further austerity measures that have reduced help to ex-soldiers and indeed increased the time handling compensation claims to up to two years.

In their own way, they are just as cynical and unfeeling as Butcher Haig and the officers who shot young Thomas Highgate a century ago.

US entry into World War I, exhibition


This video says about itself:

28 January 2014

Helen Kay, a member of the Scottish branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom discusses the organisation’s centenary for the January edition of The World Today.

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

New York Public Library exhibition on US entry into World War I

25 September 2014

While this summer marked the 100th anniversary of the eruption of the First World War, the entry of the United States into the imperialist conflict did not take place until almost three years later, in April 1917.

Perhaps in anticipation of the 2017 date, a small but historically interesting exhibition is on view at the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan.

The title of the show explains its focus: “Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind.” The emphasis is on the efforts carried out between August 1914 and April 1917 to win political support for United States entry on the side of the Allied forces against Germany, and also the official efforts, once war had been declared, to mobilize public opinion and suppress anti-war opposition.

Using the voluminous collections of the New York Public Library, among the most extensive in the world, the exhibition “explores the manner in which public relations, propaganda and mass media in its many forms were used to shape and control public opinion about the war,” as the show’s brochure explains.

Various publications, books and pamphlets of the period are displayed, along with photos, propaganda posters, short films, lithographs and even recorded songs, to show some of the opposing points of view on the war during the 1914-1918 period and the techniques used, especially by the government, to mold public opinion. As with other commemorative articles and new histories of WWI that have been published, it is clear that these topics are all too appropriate a century later, amidst the threat of global war between nuclear powers and the increasing attempts by Western imperialism to whip up chauvinism and support for war preparations.

While President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a policy of neutrality in the global slaughter that began in the summer of 1914, sections of the ruling class almost immediately began beating the drums for war. Among the loudest voices for “preparedness” was none other than ex-President Theodore Roosevelt.

This most jingoistic American chief executive had attracted national and international attention with his exploits during the Spanish-American War of 1898. This did not prevent his selection as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, in which capacity he was a forerunner to Barack Obama a little more than a century later.

'Give Your Vacation to Your Country,' 1916

Roosevelt had been elected vice-president in 1900 and less than a year after that became president upon the assassination of William McKinley. The exhibit shows a copy of TR’s 1916 book, “Fear God and Take Your Own Part,” which played a significant role in the buildup of war fever.

There are other, even more inflammatory examples of pro-war propaganda displayed, such as a book of “alternate history” that imagined the invasion of the United States and its defeat at the hands of Germany. Another book contained the image of the 47-story Singer Building, the best-known skyscraper of the day, being toppled by enemy attack.

New media, like motion pictures and recordings, were also utilized. The exhibit provides examples, such as a recording of Irving Berlin’s “What Kind of an American Are You?,” a provocative question aimed at millions of immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, who were told they had a special obligation to display their patriotism, much as Muslims are today. This was only one of many such popular songs, by Berlin, George M. Cohan and others.

A short film cartoon deals with the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in 1915, which was used to whip up anti-German sentiment. Another short film, entitled “Colored Man is No Slacker,” was used to build support for war aims among the African-American population denied the most basic rights at home. Another example is “Hate the Hun,” a film by the young director Raoul Walsh. Walsh (High Sierra, They Drive By Night), who lived another six decades and became an important figure in the history of American film, later called this early movie “the rottenest picture ever.”

Propaganda posters were also widely employed. According to the exhibit, there were more than 20 million copies of about 2,500 different poster designs used by the time the war ended in November 1918. A few of the best-known posters are displayed in the show.

'Must children die and mothers plead in vain? Buy more Liberty Bonds,' 1918

Amid this detailed memorabilia, one thing becomes clear almost from the beginning of the exhibition. In its focus on “the fight for the American mind,” it leaves out two crucial issues: first, the causes of the war and of the drive for US entry into the conflict; and second, the nature of mass opposition to the war that found expression in this country both before and after the US joined the fighting in 1917.

There is some mention of anti-war opinion, but it is brief and vague. “As anti-German sentiment within the United States grew,” the exhibit explains, “… hawkish, often nationalistic voices were, in turn, answered by those belonging to a diverse group of individuals, among them pacifists, suffragists, socialists, anarchists, religious figures, and German sympathizers, who believed that it was in America’s best interest to stay out of the war.”

The example chosen to illustrate the supposed anti-war coalition is a book by Jane Addams, the famed social worker, sociologist and pacifist. Addams’s Patriotism and Pacifism During War Time is displayed alongside the abovementioned clarion call to war by Roosevelt.

There is not a single mention of Eugene Debs, either in this section or elsewhere in the exhibition. Debs was the Socialist Party (SP) candidate for US President in both 1912 and 1920, and in the latter instance, Debs ran while in federal prison for opposing the war. Each time he won close to 1 million votes, which represented 6 percent of the total in 1912.

Of course, Debs did not begin from the standpoint of “America’s best interest,” but rather from the interests of the working class all over the world. He made this eloquently clear in his trial on sedition charges in 1918, as we shall see.

'Joan of Arc Saved France,' 1918

But the library exhibition does not refer to the working class or the class struggle. The omission includes the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the revolutionary syndicalist organization founded in 1905 that played such an important role in labor battles in the decade leading up the war, especially in the West, but also in such struggles as the Lawrence textile strike of 1912.

Exhibition curator Michael Inman and his team may well have thought their focus on war propaganda would suffice to indicate a critical attitude. They refer, for example, to xenophobia. There is a brief mention of Emma Goldman, and a section of the exhibit discusses the attack on The Masses, the socialist monthly led by Max Eastman and John Reed. The magazine ceased publication in November 1917, several months after the US postmaster general, using the allegation that the publication was obstructing the draft, rescinded its mailing privileges.

The general impression from all of this, however, is that opposition to the war was confined to the fringes of society, and perhaps to sections of the intelligentsia. The important issues of civil liberties are mentioned, but the class issues underlying the repression of 1917-1918 are ignored.

In the 1914-1917 period, as throughout the past century, the drive toward militarism and war was bound up with both the global interests of American capitalism and the class struggle at home. A discussion of US entry onto the world stage as an imperialist power that does not discuss the class struggle, and specifically the role of the IWW and the SP, is deeply flawed, to put it mildly.

In fact, the war remained unpopular among broad layers of the population, and not just those with pro-German sympathies. The lack of enthusiasm was demonstrated in the total of only 73,000 volunteers in the first six weeks after the declaration of war in April 1917, leading to the imposition of conscription. Both the IWW and the Socialist Party opposed the war, with the SP in emergency convention calling it “a crime against the people of the United States.”

The IWW, despite its own limitations and its numerous reverses in the period after the Lawrence strike of 1912, saw a significant revival in 1917, in the months before and after the US declaration of war. It participated actively in the struggle of the Arizona copper miners earlier in the year and led the lumber workers’ strike in the Pacific Northwest.

These struggles were viciously attacked, with the federal army used as strikebreakers against the lumber workers. This was followed, in September of that year, by simultaneous raids on IWW offices. Some 165 IWW leaders were arrested, 101 eventually facing trial and conviction for violating the just-enacted Espionage Act (the same legislation under which Bradley Manning was convicted and under which Edward Snowden has been charged), with its prohibitions against “disloyalty” and “insubordination.” IWW leader Big Bill Haywood was sentenced to a 20-year jail term, later jumping bail and seeking refuge in the Soviet Union.

Many of the Socialist Party leaders, along with figures like Jack London and Clarence Darrow, supported the war, but thousands of SP members, including large numbers of immigrant workers, remained opposed. Support for SP candidates grew rapidly in the period between 1915 and 1917, with Morris Hillquit winning 22 percent of the vote for mayor of New York, the socialist vote increasing from 3.6 to 34.7 percent in Chicago, and 10 socialist candidates elected to the New York State legislature.

After the Russian Revolution in November 1917, ruling class fears increased further. The Espionage Act was used to arrest and convict hundreds of opponents of the war, most famously Debs himself.

The Socialist leader was arrested in June 1918 after he visited three Socialists in prison for opposing the draft and addressed a crowd outside. “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…. And that is war in a nutshell,” he told the crowd. “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”

Addressing the court after being found guilty, Debs famously declared, “Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs was sentenced to a 10-year term and served about 32 months before being released by President Warren Harding in 1921.

To sum up, “Over Here,” despite containing much useful and interesting material, leaves the visitor with the false impression that the drive toward war is virtually unstoppable. Official propaganda and official repression is depicted, while the scale of popular opposition is minimized and the voices of those who opposed the war on the basis of socialist internationalism are virtually ignored. This is a serious weakness indeed.

World War I poets on stage


This theatre video from England is called Pat Barker‘s Regeneration adapted by Nicholas Wright.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Anthem for souls in conflict

Thursday 18th September 2014

Peter Frost recommends Regeneration, a dark vision of the psychological horrors endured by soldiers in WWI

Regeneration, Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton

4/5

Novelist Pat Barker won a Booker prize for The Ghost Road, the third book in her Regeneration trilogy set in the first world war.

Now Nicholas Wright has adapted the novels for the stage and the result is thought-provoking and disturbing.

Virtually all the action takes place in the Craiglockhart war hospital in Scotland — a sombre asylum for officers with shell-shock — in 1917.

Soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon (Tim Delap) has been sent there ostensibly because he is insane but in reality the War Office has put him away to discredit his anti-war poems and pronouncements.

Army psychiatrist Doctor William Rivers, beautifully played by Stephen Boxer, has the job of curing the shell-shocked officers, suffering from what is now understood to be post-traumatic stress disorder — or at least getting them fit enough to return to the trenches.

His sessions with Sassoon force him to consider the morality of what he is doing in the name of medicine. Some of the treatments employed are little short of torture.

We witness Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (Garmon Rhys) tussling over one of the latter’s poems — Anthem for Doomed Youth — before both men decide to return to the front.

Sassoon, Rivers and Owen are all drawn from history but the one individual who provides a more realistic view of the madness of war is the fictional character of grammar school boy Billy Prior (Jack Monaghan) from the “lower orders.”

A compelling look at the futility of war, the play is a reminder too that even in the horror of an asylum the officer class still get a round of golf in or take dinner at the Conservative club.

Sassoon, wounded by friendly fire, would live until the 1960s while Owen died exactly one week before the war ended.

His mother received the fateful telegram just as the church bells in her village started ringing out to celebrate victory.

A bitter irony, entirely in keeping with this commendable production.

Runs until September 20, box office: royalandderngate.co.uk, then tours nationwide.

Poem about World War I, by Attila the Stockbroker


This video is called Attila the Stockbroker – A Centenary War Poem For My Father Bill Baine, 1899 – 1968.

By poet Attila the Stockbroker from Britain:

Cheers for proud Hull, punking about in Brussels and a poem

Saturday 13th September 2014

On the road with Attila the Stockbroker

LAST weekend I was on at the Freedom Festival in Hull, and what a wonderfully organised and vibrant event it was.

Set in the old streets of the historic port area and featuring loads of diverse bands, poets, dancers — you name it — all washed down with a fine selection of local beers and food from all over the world.

Hull is Britain’s City of Culture for 2017 and has had a vibrant scene for years. It also hosts my favourite venue the Adelphi, basically a hollowed-out terraced house next to a bomb site. It’s been presided over for 30 years by the indefatigable and inspirational Paul “Jacko” Jackson and spawned loads of household names in the independent music scene from the Housemartins to Pulp to Death by Milkfloat, to name but a few.

What d’you mean, you haven’t heard of Death by Milkfloat? Legends, comrades, legends.

Best T shirt of that weekend: “Welcome to Hull, European City of Culture 2017. We’re not shit any more.” You never were, Hull, you’re great.

This music video from Belgium is the song Nuit blanche, by the band Contingent.

I’ve just been playing bass in Brussels with Contingent, the punk band I joined there in 1979. They still gig occasionally — and incendiarally — and we’re supporting Sham 69 at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Magasin 4, the alternative venue set up by our late, great guitarist Eric Lemaitre. Belgian beer awaits in vats – and then I’m off with my wife for a week’s holiday in Marseille.

I wanted to use this poem in my column at the actual anniversary of the start of world War I, but so much was going on gig-wise then that I decided to hold it back for the relatively relaxed few weeks between the end of the festival season and the start of my autumn touring, where it could have pride of place.

It is a true and unusual story — and a poem from the heart.

A Centenary War Poem

For my father, Bill Baine

“What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
And so some lines to spike centenary prattle:
These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s.

My father Bill, born in Victorian England:
The sixth of January, 1899.
His stock, loyal London. Proletarian doff-cap.
Aged seventeen, he went to join the line.

Not in a war to end all wars forever
Just in a ghastly slaughter at the Somme
A pointless feud, a royal family squabble
Fought by their proxy poor with gun and bomb.

My father saved. Pyrexia, unknown origin.
Front line battalion: he lay sick in bed.
His comrades formed their line, then came the whistle
And then the news that every one was dead.

In later life a polished comic poet
No words to us expressed that awful fear
Although we knew such things were not forgotten.
He dreamed Sassoon: he wrote Belloc and Lear.

When I was ten he died, but I remember,
Although just once, he’d hinted at the truth.
He put down Henry King and Jabberwocky
And read me Owen’s “Anthem For Doomed Youth”.

“What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
And so some lines to spike Gove’s mindless prattle:

These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s.

Wars are madness, Pope Francis says


This video from Redipuglia in Italy on 6 July 2014 is about a concert ‘against all wars’. Music: Dies Irae by Giuseppe Verdi.

From Associated Press:

Pope urges world to shed apathy toward new threats

By COLLEEN BARRY and LUCA BRUNO

September 13, 2014

REDIPUGLIA, Italy — Pope Francis urged the world Saturday to shed its apathy in the face of what he characterizes as a third world war, intoning “war is madness” at the foot of a grandiose monument to soldiers killed in World War I.

Francis’ aim in recalling those who died in the Great War that broke out 100 years ago was to honor the victims of all wars, and it came at a time when his calls for peace have grown ever more urgent amid new threats in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Standing at an altar beneath the towering Redipuglia memorial entombing 100,000 Italian soldiers fallen in World War I, the pope said “even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

The visit was also infused with intensely personal meaning. The pope’s grandfather fought in Italy’s 1915-17 offensive against the Austro-Hungarian empire waged in the nearby battlefields, surviving to impress upon the future pope the horror of war.

The pope in the past has recalled the “many painful stories from the lips of my grandfather.”

Before arriving at the monument, the pope prayed privately among the neat rows of gravestones for fallen soldiers from five nations buried in a tidy Austro-Hungarian cemetery just a couple of hundred of meters (yards) away.

In his homily during an open-air Mass at the Italian monument, the pope remembered the victims of every war – up to today.

“Today, too, the victims are many,” fallen to behind-the-scenes “interests, geopolitical strategies, lust for money and power,” the pope said.

He lamented that the human toll of “senseless massacres” and “mindless wars” has been met with apathy. Francis urged: “Humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”

The enduring impact of World War I, 100 years on, is evident in the visitors who continue to make pilgrimages to the monument, although in ever decreasing numbers, said Fogliano di Redipuglia Mayor Antonio Calligaris.

According to a Dutch NOS TV report

The pope inter alia condemned arms dealers and terrorists.

British artists and World War I, exhibition


This video from Berlin, Germany is about Käthe Kollwitz, artist and World War I opponent.

By Tom Pearse in England:

World War I remembered through British art

Truth and Memory at the Imperial War Museum, London, until March 2015

6 September 2014

A major retrospective at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) London features the work of British artists sent to capture the reality of the First World War.

Compelling works reveal how artists helped commemorate “the war to end all wars.” They also highlight the dilemma facing official war artists. While many of the artists started the war at least generally supportive of its aims, they confronted something rather different at the front. Their portrayal of the horrors they witnessed does not always sit uncomfortably with official requirements.

The works are divided between two galleries, Truth—artists who created on the front line; and Memory—artists who painted their works on returning to Britain.

Truth is the more sobering. Visitors are confronted first with two paintings illustrating official British sentiment at the start of the war. William Barnes Wollen’s large Death of the Prussian Guard (1914) presents the first battle of Ypres as a moral triumph over Prussian militarism. Walter Sickert’s Integrity of Belgium, painted late in 1914, endorses support for “gallant little Belgium” in its noble and glamorous depiction of physical warfare.

Both paintings support the justification of British involvement in the war in defence of Belgium and in opposition to German militarism. This propaganda promoted British imperialism at the cost of millions of lives.

The rest of the gallery portrays a very different conflict. Two rooms feature works by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and Paul Nash, both appointed official war artists in 1917 for the Department of Information.

Nevinson had been associated with the Italian Futurists before the war, collaborating with the movement’s founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti on a 1914 English Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art. Marinetti had promised to “glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, [and] the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers.”

Initially, therefore, Nevinson was interested in glorifying the war as a triumph of technical achievement. His style changed after the horrors of the front. The “essence of the new war,” he said, “was overwhelmingly extremely alien, and utterly un-heroic.”

He is best known for La Mitrailleuse [The Machine Gun] (1915), “an example,” in the words of the London Evening News, “of what civilized man did to civilized man in the first quarter of the 20th century.” It does not really stand up to this praise: it shows less of the realities of war than it does a Futurist glorification.

Memory contains a room devoted to the Vorticists, whose manifesto bore some similarities to Futurism, with its call for a “strong, virile and anti-sentimental” art. In Percy Wyndham Lewis’s A Battery Shelled (1919) the soldiers are insect-like stick figures. Lewis likened the First World War to an absurd nightmare, removed from everyday reality. The IWM distanced itself from his work, loaning it out long term to the Tate Gallery.

Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919

Nevinson’s French Troops Resting and The Doctor (both 1916) show a sympathetic realism. Of the image of a dead child in A Taube (1915), completed in Dunkirk after an air raid, Nevinson said: “there the small body lay before me, a symbol of all that there was to come.”

Nevinson’s depictions of death, like the portrayals of destruction by Paul Nash that hang alongside them, are apocalyptic. Paths of Glory (1917) was banned from public display, as it depicts two putrefying British soldiers lying face down in “no man’s land.”

C.R.W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory, 1917

Another similar picture did not attract the censor. The Irish-born William Orpen’s Dead Germans in a Trench (1918) also shows soldiers putrefying in their trenches. The Times said Orpen “paints the corpse with serene skill, just like he might paint a bunch of flowers.” The censor allowed this painting because, unlike Nevinson’s, it showed enemy corpses.

Orpen was criticized in the press, but achieved popular acclaim for his sympathetic response to what the IWM call “the madness of war.” Works like The Mad Woman of Douai (1918) and Blown Up—Mad (1917) portray its harrowing effects. He depicts trench warfare in grim detail but seems, in the words of his contemporary John Rothenstein, to have “found it difficult … to come to terms with the broader implications of the war.” This is a wider problem here.

Orpen had been associated with the Celtic Revival, seeking artistic expression for an Irish national identity alongside the literary Celtic Twilight movement. Orpen, who went to the front as an official war artist, remained a loyal figure within the British Empire despite his anguish at what he saw of the war. He was knighted by the British crown after the war.

What Orpen saw at the front affected him deeply. Most of his images, some of the most powerful here, come from the Somme. In August 1917 Orpen came across a vast cemetery where British troops had buried their own dead but left the Germans to rot. Like Dead Germans in a Trench, Orpen’s Thiepval (1917) leaves us with a dismal image of mud-baked white and the remains of a British and German soldier, their bones entangled in death.

Such sympathy was often based on personal experience. In “Over the Top”, 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 (1918), John Nash (Paul’s brother) recalls a disastrous action that resulted in the death and wounding of nearly his whole company.

Many of the artists emerge as deeply conflicted. Orpen, for example, despised the post-war vainglory of those military figures who commissioned him for portraits. Despite this, and his own depictions of imperialism’s effects, he was knighted for his war work in June 1918.

Another Irish official war artist represented in the Memory gallery, John Lavery, was also knighted for his work. He painted a portrait of Michael Collins after the pro-Anglo-Irish Treaty Sinn Fein leader’s assassination. Orpen and Lavery both gave the IWM substantial art collections after the war.

Lavery’s Lady Henry’s Crèche, Woolwich (1919) is one of several pieces showing women’s auxiliary work for the war, including Anna Airy’s Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells (1918). Airy, one of the first official women war artists, was employed by the IWM when it was first established. The Museum could refuse any work she produced, without payment.

Anna Airy, Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1918

Memory also marks the memorialisation of the dead. George Clausen’s Youth Mourning (1916), inspired by the death of his daughter’s fiancé the year before, stands as an elegy for a lost generation; a powerful image of grief and sacrifice. Clausen was appointed an official war artist in 1917, but could not travel to the front because of his age.

George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916

The most striking work here is the final painting in the Truth gallery, Gassed: In Arduis Fidelis (Faithful in Adversity) by Gilbert Rogers (1918). In stark contrast to Wollen’s work opening the gallery, Rogers hauntingly depicts a dead medical officer lying alone in the mud surrounded by puddles of water. The officer’s gas mask is turned towards the observer, a disturbing image that stays with you.

Gassed: In Arduis Fidelis (Faithful in Adversity) by Gilbert Rogers

The exhibition is significant. The paintings do not just document the conflict. They raise questions about it.

The IWM was first proposed in 1917 as a “national war museum” to document the experiences of World War I. Its remit was extended in 1939 to cover the next world war. During the Korean War coverage was extended to “all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces had been involved since 1914.” Since then it has also expanded to run the Royal Air Force museum, the museum on World War Two warship HMS Belfast, and the War Rooms of Winston Churchill. While the IWM can be blunt about certain realities of conflict, it is also an official repository, pushed towards “approved” versions of history.

Like other cultural repositories in Britain, even the flagship museum of the government’s Great War centenary has not been immune to budget cuts. The IWM’s government grant has been reduced significantly, and it relies on private funding more than ever.

It also has to satisfy its 22 trustees, who are appointed variously by the monarch, the prime minister, the foreign secretary, the secretary of state for defence, and the high commissioners of the seven Commonwealth governments. The board currently includes leading military figures like former secret intelligence head Sir John Scarlett, as well as the billionaire Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft. This is a highly political body.

In October 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron opened the centenary campaign at the IWM announcing £50 million of funding, including an upgrade to the museum.

The portrayal in Truth and Memory stops short of analysing the wider implications of what the IWM calls the “epoch-defining events of the First World War.” Its focus, rather, is a sense of ordinary people working together in a difficult but necessary situation without commenting on the reasons. Overall its memorial to British sacrifice fits perfectly with David Cameron’s notions of “Britishness.”

IWM publicity underscores this: “At the turn of the last century, art in Britain held a position and status in society quite different from today and was often regarded as having a social function. In particular, images of warfare imparted notions of identity, culture and morality, enshrining these as the ‘truth’.”

The exhibition’s strengths lie in what it shows of the realities behind such notions. Artists in the current epoch confront the necessity to go further.

The exhibition, which is free of charge, runs until March 8, 2015.

World War I and poppies


This video is called Poppy – Papaver rhoeas.

From Peter Frost in Britain:

The flower of sacrifice

Thursday 21st August 2014

PETER FROST traces the history and symbolism of the poppy

The poppy, Britain’s most colourful weed, is much in the news lately as we mark the centenary of WWI that didn’t end all wars. Over the century that simple flower came to mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people and not always for the best.

We are talking about the corn poppy, (Papaver rhoeas) also known as the corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy, red weed, coquelicot, and even, due to the strange effect of its curious smell — the headache poppy.

Cascading down the walls of the Tower of London are thousands of ceramic red poppies and they are promised to fill the moat before November 11, Armistice Day.

Members of the public are invited to pay 25 quid to acquire a poppy for themselves. Some of the money goes to a coalition of military charities. The poppies will stay in the Tower until November and then be despatched to those who have purchased them.

There are plenty of poppies to buy — 888,246 in fact — one for each of the brave British tommies who laid down their lives in the blood and gore of the first world war.

The poppies at the Tower are an amazing sight — the thought behind it a noble one. But as you would expect every dodgy politician from the prime minister down, every gung-ho blood and thunder Colonel Blimp is getting in on the PR act.

Even junior royals like Prince Harry, this time not wearing his Gestapo uniform,

Actually, it was an uniform of Adolf Hitler’s Afrika Korps.

and William and Kate are trooping along to the Tower to plant a poppy to ensure a spot on the six o’clock TV news.

It’s too good an opportunity to miss. Wrap a bit of the glorious dead’s glory round you.

Commercial sponsors haven’t been slow to get in on the act either. There’s a Spanish sounding bank, a big city insurance firm and millionaire’s law firm …

Let’s leave this whole pathetic story and take a look at the amazing plant itself.

The poppy has evolved and found itself a unique evolutionary niche. We don’t really know where it originated. North Africa probably, or perhaps ancient Persia.

We do know how it travelled. It hitched a lift in the clay jars of seed corn that ancient traders trafficked all over the known world.

Ancient farmers in Britain, Flanders and just about everywhere else would buy a bushel or so of seed from a passing Phoenician and the free gift would be a bunch of colourful scarlet weeds.

They soon discovered that the poppy seed had plenty of uses in bread and cakes and boiled up in a tea it even possessed magical curative powers.

It had developed its tiny rock hard seed to last a long time before it landed up somewhere it could grow.

Did you know that some poppy seeds found in funereal jars in ancient tombs have been successfully germinated?

That of course is the explanation of the huge flowering of poppies in Flanders. As shells, bombs and trench digging disturbed the soil, poppy seeds that had lain dormant so long got warmth, moisture and sunlight and burst into scarlet flower.

Up to 10 million soldiers were killed in WWI. Estimates of civilian deaths top 1.4m.

As the men returned home, many of them with shell-shock, or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they had stories to tell.

Those who had seen such horrors in Belgium and northern France also would tell a much brighter story of the extraordinary beauty, persistence and profusion of the fragile but defiant flower — the blood red corn poppy.

Strangely, it was returning north American soldiers who first adopted the red poppy as an emblem.

Canadian doctor John McCrae had captured the beauty, symbolism and pathos of the poppy in a poem: In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row,/That mark our place; and in the sky/ The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below…

This music video by British punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees is the song Poppy Day, based on McCrae’s poem.

US organisations arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-torn France. The money raised went to children who had been orphaned by the war.

British soldiers too came back from the grimness of war to find that life wasn’t “fit for heroes” as they had been promised. Just like today returning heroes found the government off hand and tardy dealing with their problems.

Some organised themselves into ex-servicemen’s societies of various political opinions and of varying degrees of militancy. In 1921 many of these organisations united to form the British Legion.

Its purpose was to provide support and to fight for the rights of ex-servicemen, especially the disabled, and their families. In fact what actually happened was it became one of the richest British charities ever.

In 1921 it bought one-and-a-half million of those French made artificial poppies and sold them to the British public raising over ten thousand pounds. Poppy day had been invented.

Soon it set up its own poppy factory, with disabled ex-servicemen making the poppies. Today they produce and sell over 45m lapel poppies, 120,000 wreaths and one million small wooden remembrance crosses.

Not everyone is happy to wear the red poppy. Some see them as glorifying war and militaristic thinking. In many people’s eyes they have become a badge of jingoism and a justification of recent wars.

The British Legion adopted as its slogan: “Honour the dead, care for the living” but even in the week David Cameron and Nick Clegg and various other ministers paraded themselves at the British Legion commemorative church service it was announced that claims for compensation from recently serving military personnel, often wounded in battle, were taking 10 times as long as before the latest Con-Dem round of spending cuts.

The idea of detaching the poppy from a militaristic culture dates back as far as 1926.

The No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion should be asked to imprint “No More War” in the centre of the red poppies instead of “Haig Fund” and failing this pacifists should make their own flowers.

Douglas “Butcher” Haig was the British general who had ordered so many of his troops to their deaths at the Battle of the Somme — one of the worst bloodbaths in British military history.

When it came to lions led by donkeys, Haig was certainly our biggest donkey — two million brave lions died under his orders.

The Legion choose to keep Haig’s name on their poppies until 1994.

In 1933 the first white poppies appeared on Armistice Day, mostly home-made and worn mainly by members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

Just a year later the Peace Pledge Union was formed and it began widespread distribution of white peace poppies in November each year.

Just as today, it took real courage and real commitment to wear the white peace poppy.

So which will you wear? My wife Ann always wears a red poppy. She wears it in proud memory of her dad Fred who always wore his red poppy in memory of his own father, another Fred, Ann’s grandfather.

Grandfather Fred died in France in 1917. He had been in France just days and his body was never found. He left a widow and four children including young Fred then aged just six. Fred’s red poppy was the only memorial to his dad he ever had. No wonder he wore it with pride.

This year our 14-year-old grandson, who also has the middle name Frederick, was at Tyne Cot cemetery with his dad and his family to pay tribute to his namesake, five generations before, who made the ultimate sacrifice at the Battle of the Somme.

So wear your poppy, red or white or both with pride. They aren’t about glorifying war and militaristic thinking. They are about the respect each of us feels for those who paid the greatest price in the futility of war.