The factories of war

Memorials of the Great War in Britain - War and Faith - At the Eleventh Hour
November 6, 1998

The 20th century draws to a close, a new millennium beckons, and the last survivors of the Great War of 1914-18 pass away. Individually, each is a significant event. Together, they form an emotional alliance, gathering up pieces of history, setting them in new patterns. Fin de si cle assessments epitomise our capacity for hindsight and prediction, providing opportunities to examine not just the evidence, but the tools we have made to retrieve and work with it.

One measure of our assessment of the past is the analysis of material culture - the way the things we make shape our social and emotional lives and bridge the divide between physical and mental worlds.

These three books are history, their authors acknowledged Great War specialists. Yet, together with recent publications by Jay Winter and Joanna Bourke, they reveal an underlying gelling of research that edges towards an anthropology of the Great War experience. It is from this perspective that they are reviewed.

They explore the emotions unleashed by industrialised war - during the conflict, at its unexpectedly swift conclusion, and throughout the inter-war years, even to the present. Between them, we get a tangible sense of the past - a past whose physical remains are still with us. They shape our architectural heritage through cenotaphs, memorials and vast war cemeteries; they appear as symbols of common currency - the Tomb (and concept) of the Unknown Soldier, Armistice Day, poppies, the railway carriage at Compi gne, museum displays, and the two-minutes silence into which are compressed not only the ten million dead and 1,567 days of the Great War, but all later conflicts as well.

If these things appear eternally valued and fixed in our national consciousness, they are not. Objects and habits have past lives that the synchronicity of the present often obscures. Cenotaphs are empty tombs, the two-minutes silence was widely unpopular during the 1930s, the Compi gne carriage is a replacement of the original destroyed by the Nazis in the second world war.

If the opening 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan gives today's generation the truest feel yet for the Omaha Beach landings, then it must be acknowledged that such gut-wrenching episodes were almost daily experiences for countless Great War soldiers. How much more "real" is Spielberg's late 20th-century cinematic artefact than the famous contemporary film of helmeted Tommies scrambling out of a trench - one of whom quickly slumps back - when we know the latter was artifice accepted for years as "truth"?

If film is art, then what of the relationship between art and war? As Annette Becker reminds us in War and Faith, Picasso and Cocteau may have deliberately adopted a "French" style in their work, but it is also true that cubism was seen as a way of representing the fragmentation of war and the inhuman conditions of trench life. Yet material culture works both ways. Becker shows that camouflage techniques at the front benefited from the techniques of cubist fragmentation - avant-garde art in the service of life.

The grotesque nature of the war was thus aestheticised, and as Samuel Hynes has observed, a modernist method that before the war had seemed violent and distorting, now appeared all too realistic. This is true also of the countless examples of so-called trench art - momentoes and talismans made from the detritus of industrialised conflict. Decorated shells, bullet crucifixes and metal matchbox covers embodied the ambiguities of the war. Made by servicemen and displaced civilians alike, many were sent home as souvenirs by soldiers who would not return. These objects, and identical ones bought by battlefield pilgrims after the war, changed their meaning, becoming metal embodiments of the spirit of the deceased.

This spiritual dimension is explored from a French perspective by Annette Becker. Unlike Britain, France was occupied by the enemy, and the distinctive French response was the Union Sacree. This linking of religious faith with patriotic fervour and identification with the land, launches War and Faith into areas that seldom appear in English translation. Excellent history it is, yet the book is also full of anthropological insight, particularly the production of objects infused with the blend of emotions and meanings generated or altered by the war.

Of many examples, that of the French national flag is instructive. All French soldiers died for the tricolour whose colours were reinterpreted thus: blue for the dust of battle, white for the dust of marching, and red for the martyrs' blood. This re-orientation of meaning allowed monarchists to accept the national, and thus republican, flag.

Similar ironies resonate through Hugh Cecil's and Peter Liddle's edited collection, At the Eleventh Hour. In a war defined by industrialised production of war material, its ending produced paradoxical attitudes to the objects themselves. In Britain, Liddle shows how the joy of the Armistice was tempered by the anxieties of armaments workers after the Ministry of Munitions restricted production. In France, Allain Bern de tells how Parisians mocked the material spoils of war.

In the wake of war, material remains were inextricably linked to the deadly landscapes they had created, giving rise to contested notions of what to do with the devastated areas. Mark Derez relates how the British proposed to leave the Ypres Salient as it was -a place of pilgrimage for British and empire veterans. Returning Belgians could not conceive the damage until they saw it for themselves and eventually these zones rouges were painstakingly reclaimed and Ypres rebuilt in imitation of its former glory.

While for the French and Belgians, the Armistice brought a return of national unity, for Canadians it was believed to have created it. The taking of Vimy Ridge by Canadian forces, welded together Canada's diverse groups, giving birth to the modern nation.

The Great War legacy extended beyond the celebrations of Armistice. The shock, fragmentation and, as it has been described, the "rupture of time" that the war produced, resonated down the inter-war years, transforming political, emotional and physical landscapes. In Memorials of the Great War in Britain, Alex King explores the astonishing range of British war memorials, chronicling the consensus and conflicts that surrounded the choice of shape, funding, and manufacture, as well as their very existence.

Much of King's research reveals contemporary attitudes and ideas that seem surprising today. Local war memorials were expected to be of interest not just to locals, but to tourists and travellers. Linking technology, consumerism and memory in the shaping and perpetuation of emotions through the built environment was the density and visibility of memorials. For the rising number of leisure motorists, every English highway appeared as "one continuous memorial avenue", whose cumulative effect on the traveller's mind was described as almost unendurable in its poignancy.

The significance of the materiality of war is everywhere apparent in these books: interpretations complement and collide by turns. For the French poilu (infantryman), Becker informs us that they wore finger rings made of shell fragments and decorated their trenches with crucifixes in a mixture of Catholic piety and superstition. Protestant Tommies, on the other hand, appear to have been too iconophobic either to generate their own symbol or adopt the Catholic one. And yet, British soldiers were attracted to the wayside calvaries of northern France, and even requested crucifixes and rosaries from the nuns of Albert on the Somme.

The complexity of human responses to the extreme pressures of war are reflected also in the fact that while Becker records some postwar British churchyard memorials as having been modelled on French crucifixes, King notes that in the all-but-forgotten wartime "street shrines", the use of crucifixes was discouraged as it was a sectarian symbol exclusive to Catholicism. By contrast, while one might encounter a cross anywhere in Britain, a French law of 1905 prohibited their use except in churches and cemeteries.

The vexed issue of the postwar interment of the dead also had implications for the social life of monuments. In Britain, where the authorities refused repatriation, November 11 saw people gathering around symbolic empty tombs, cenotaphs, in acts of remembrance - distanced from killing fields and bodies. In France, where many of the dead did eventually return to their home towns, the day was set aside for visiting graves, the deceased celebrated as saviours of their own land. Yet it was the British response that created a unique architectural form that illustrates wider issues. Sir Edwin Lutyens's original cenotaph of wood and plaster was a temporary affair. Its simple, abstract form, nevertheless focused a nation's mourning and fired public imagination. By November 1920, the permanent obelisk of Portland stone was in place. The fragility of the temporary memorial had solidified in public consciousness and had then been made a concrete reality, which, in turn, has given shape to the forms of national mourning and remembrance to the present day.

The 20th century was forged in the furnace of industrialised war. The evils Europe had visited upon other less technologically advanced cultures had been turned inwards with a vengeance. By 1918, the wealth of empires lay scattered as junk and corpses across the battlefields of Europe and beyond. What these books reveal is the painful birth of the modern world - the pull of past spiritualities, the limits of positivism and the enduring materiality of ideas, hopes and dreams.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Memorials of the Great War in Britain

Author - Alex King
ISBN - 1 85973 9881 and 9830
Publisher - Berg
Price - £39.99 and £14.99
Pages - 224

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