Laura Clouting, Curator of Imperial War Museum North’s new exhibition Lest We Forget, explores the changing nature of remembrance and the First World War
During the First World War, bar a very limited number of exceptions early in the war, the British and Empire dead weren’t repatriated, and because so many of them went missing, it meant that during and after the war people had to find different ways to mourn and remember, in what I would call different “orbits”.
There was the family, which was the personal approach to remembrance; the community, which involved people with a common bond – of geography, a club, a school or a workplace; the national, which is the idea of how as a country pays tribute to the sacrifice that was made; and finally, pushing the concept of remembrance elastically, there’s popular culture, which embraces everything from the enduring symbolism of the poppy to going to see a play like War Horse.
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But before leaping into preconceptions of what remembrance means, we want to root visitors in the very practical and often distressing aspects of what death meant during the First World War.
Dealing with the dead
Early in the war an official decision was made not to bring the bodies of the British or the Empire war dead back home or permit privately funded repatriations – several of which had taken place in the war’s early months. Bodies were buried in relative haste and with only very limited due reference to mourning rituals.
Yet thousands of British men and Empire soldiers were never recovered, because the power of artillery had the capability to atomise a man, to pulverise human flesh and bone. That dreadful reality meant that it was not always possible to recover and pay tribute by burying human remains.
To help identify them, soldiers wore identity tags giving very basic details of name, number and often religion round their necks. These little innocuous objects, a red tag and a green tag, were the means of reconciling their identity with their flesh. The idea of becoming an anonymous body was quite a big fear for many men so they were keen to wear their military tags, and some went further and had their own personal identity bracelets made.
The red tag was removed from the dead body and taken away by officialdom in order to register the death (name and burial site) and the green tag would stay on the body. If somebody came across a body where the red tag was removed they would understand that it was in the process of being reported.
Many men were never identified – whether they were wearing their tags or not – but tags are a very striking illustration of the scale of death.
Before you even think about how every life was commemorated, paid tribute to, or indeed even forgotten, you need to think about the idea that people died in such a way and on a scale that it posed an incredibly difficult task for the military to stay on top of it. We have on display an example of an original grave marker, which was the primary means for the Graves Registration Units (GRU) to record where bodies had been laid to rest. During the first years of the war, a Red Cross volunteer called Fabian Ware was working with the GRU and he became instrumental in persuading the army to take responsibility for recording the places of death.
In the war’s early months, expectations of a swift victory meant that the army was ill-prepared for this task. Few imagined the scale of fatalities that came to pass – and the logistical difficulties this posed.
Ware became the vice president of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) when it was founded in 1917 so he’s a very instrumental character who appears throughout the exhibition.
If you have been on a battlefield trip to France or Belgium or any of the other former fighting fronts across the globe you’ll likely have visited one of the many cemeteries and seen the uniform rows of gravestones in British cemeteries. It was the birth of the IWGC that led to what I would call a ‘democracy of death’ with regards to the design of and planning for these cemeteries.
If your body was recovered you were commemorated as an individual with a uniform headstone, regardless of rank, race or religion. If your body was missing your name would be inscribed on a memorial. There are issues, for example, with African labourers whose names were never inscribed on memorials because there’s no complete record of their service or their names, which is something that today many would regard as completely unacceptable.
The idea that families were not allowed to determine how their own loved ones were to be commemorated on these headstones meant some were very hostile to the IWGC. If they had the money, families could provide three lines – up to 66 characters for a personal inscription at the bottom of the headstone – but if the IWGC didn’t like it, they could veto it and so it was a very strictly controlled process. The IWGC was clear in its view that it ‘is clearly undesirable to allow free scope for the effusions of the mortuary mason, the sentimental versifier, or the crank’ in these personal inscriptions.
“The news of death could be very blunt, “died, gunshot wound to head””
The one funeral that did take place after the war – out of all those men who were never repatriated – was that of the Unknown Warrior. This was meant to be a solace for all the families denied the traditional mourning rite of a funeral. The fact that he was unknown meant that in some ways everybody could lay claim to him – but also nobody could.
That duality means that the Unknown Warrior’s resonance with British people was enormous and the idea really took hold emotionally in this country. We have on display an order of service for the funeral and a very fragile dried rose that was originally on one of the wreaths that accompanied the coffin on its journey from France to England in 1920.
Personal and family remembrance
So what tangible means were there for families to channel their grief? What did people do in homes all across Britain and the Empire? How did they deal with the death of their loved ones?
The news of death could be very blunt. People were sent a telegram; we’ve got a couple of examples on display and one of them is just so stark: “died, gunshot wound to head,” and that’s it. These little bits of paper were the beginnings of families having to find ways of coping with this devastating news.
The personal effects of the person were also sometimes returned, if their remains were located, and we have an example of one of our best complete sets of personal artefacts from a soldier from the Manchester area – those of Private Albert Tattersall. His cigarette tin, his clasp knife, his little pocket bible; these things that Private Tattersall had on him on the day of his death were sent back kept by his family, as so many families kept hold of everyday items turned treasured relics.
This is where you start to get that idea of subjective remembrance, it’s not just about gravestones, and about formal tributes in churches. We also display what we would call condolence letters sent back from commanding officers or comrades.
Some channelled their fury at the Germans, others were very consoling, trying to offer comfort by referencing the upstanding character of a man. Others sought to console by saying ‘your brother, husband or son died for a good cause’ and one of the most well-worn lines was that he died an instant death and he didn’t die in pain. To what extent those letters are truthful about the final moments of a man’s life we’re not able to judge, but families, kept hold of them.
Often, quotes from these letters are reproduced on things like memorial cards and on memorial silks, which we think may have been used in bibles. Other people had inscriptions on silverware or fire screens, but one of the most ubiquitous personal mementos was the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’.
Up until 1921 the families of the dead received a plaque which had been designed in an open competition and featured the classic Britannia icon, an empire lion and the name of the man, or the woman. About 600 were made for women who died.
We have an example on display that has been personalised by being put into a clock with a photograph of the dead man as a kind of “mantelpiece memorial”.
Another very personal example of remembrance comes via photo of a woman with a tattoo on her forearm; she’s a munitions worker in her overalls and you can see her tattoo very clearly. It’s in the shape of a memorial cross and it’s to her sweetheart who died on the front.
Many communities were very strongly linked before the war – towns, villages, cities but also as schools, universities, sports clubs and church congregations. Many of them were shaken and dislocated by the losses they experienced during the war.
We have a poster on display for a public meeting in Chiswick about their war memorial. Interestingly the Chiswick War Memorial Committee decided to raise public funds to have one to remember the dead and another to benefit the living.
Memorials could be a big source of tension for communities deciding how to spend the money they raised from donations. Sometimes it would be an elaborate stone memorial – and of course you get thousands of war memorials springing up across the country on village greens and town squares – but unlike the 19th century empire wars where you’d have elaborate memorials to the famous generals, these are very, very personal, inscribed with the names of local people.
Today, we take it for granted that these memorials are on our village greens and in town centres, but there were lots of debates about the form they should take. That’s why you get such an amazing diversity. They range from stained glass windows through to water fountains to the classic Christian cross.
We also have lots of plaques on display from work places that have subsequently closed down or or churches where the building no longer exists.
We also look at civilian communities forged as a result of the war – war workers remembering fatal accidents in munitions factories and workplace communities shaken by the grief that they feel for the loss of their workmates and it’s the same with the civilian casualties which are inflicted by German air raids upon communities.
One of the most notorious raids killed 18 schoolchildren, who died in the first daylight raid on June 13 1917 by an aircraft on London. A direct hit on their primary school in Poplar crashed through a classroom of five and six year olds.
Their funeral was one of the most elaborate of the war; 15 of the children were buried together in an East London cemetery and thousands of people came out on to the streets to pay tribute. We are displaying a commemorative cloth napkin that gives the names of the children and their teachers as well.
Then there were the veterans who developed a camaraderie serving together and came back to quite an alien civilian world. You get the rise of veterans associations throughout the 1920s, where men could remember their lost comrades but also to retain their soldiers’ humour. These men were tied together by their own experiences that civilians couldn’t necessarily understand.
A flag from the Manchester and Salford branch of one of the most famous veterans associations, The Old Contemptibles, is on display. It was used on parades, which were an important way to remember lost comrades together
One of the reasons we remember as we do is because the numbers of the dead have never been surpassed for Britain. We’ve never lost so many men in a war, as a result there was a need by the state, and people felt it was the duty of the state, to pay tribute to those who had died for ‘King and Country’. We look at some of the different ways that happened.
One of the most integral to Imperial War Museum is what was known as the ‘Great Memorial Gallery’ or the ‘Hall of Remembrance’, which was ultimately never built because of pressures of time and money.
During the war the government commissioned both photographers and artists to head off to the front to create a visual record. But as the war came to a close they commissioned works for a very specific memorial – a bespoke gallery with hopes to build it on London’s Richmond Hill.
Around 32 works were commissioned and completed, most of them paintings, with a couple of sculptural friezes, and these eventually ended up in the collection of the IWM when the plans for the bespoke gallery came to nothing. Ten of them are on display in the exhibition and they include some of the most iconic works of art from the war including John Singer Sargent’s Gassed , together with works by John Nash, Paul Nash, CWR Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, and Percy Wyndham Lewis.
The idea for the Memorial Gallery faded but the works themselves remain as tributes to the different kinds of war work, military services and the different fighting fronts of the First World War.
You get the more natural approach that many expected from memorial art, and then there’s somebody like Wyndham Lewis whose very dramatic Vorticist approach is edgier – certainly for people at the time it might have been quite difficult to deal with. Similarly when people were confronted Nevinson’s painting, with dead bodies in the foreground, they were shocked. Singer Sargent’s Gassed provoked similar reactions. But collectively they are an incredibly powerful record of the war and one of the jewels of our collection.
We also look at the Cenotaph. Its designer was Edwin Lutyens, whose secular design did not please everyone. But he felt passionately that it had to represent everybody and that it would be quite wrong to overcomplicate the Cenotaph with detailed adornments and embellishments. The simplicity of the Cenotaph continues to draw people to it.
It was only ever intended to be temporary, but the public reaction to this tribute, which was originally a wooden monument, was so intense because it was seen as a way for everybody to project their grief. It was rebuilt due to public demand, in permanent stone in 1920 – and that is the Cenotaph that we still have with us today.
Popular culture and remembrance
If you think about remembrance, the poppy is the thing that most comes to mind. But there was nothing guaranteed about this flower becoming such an enduring tribute to the war dead. We have a lot of examples of pressed poppies in the IWM collection – there was such a proliferation of poppies on the Western Front, particularly because the artillery churned up the soil to such an extent, that this colourful weed became rampant.
Soldiers were quite taken by the splash of colour and began sending petals home and families were very pleased to receive these little souvenirs. But it’s the John McCrae poem, In Flanders Fields, that gets into the heads of the public and by the time the war ends the connection with the poppy as a symbolic emblem of remembrance has gained momentum.
In America a woman called Moina Michael reads the poem again, gets inspired by it and takes her idea of the flower becoming a symbol of remembrance for the war dead to the American Legion. Then a French woman, Anna Guerin, picks up the idea and persuades the British Legion to buy a big tranche of poppies made by French war widows. The first Poppy Appeal in 1921 is so successful that the next year the British Legion decides to make and sell their own poppy – fabric ones at first and then the paper ones that we know today.
By the early 1920s the remembrance poppy is solidified in the public imagination. Field Marshal Haig lends his backing and name to the appeal but there are challenges. Alternative botanical symbols arise – with the white peace poppy’s creation in the 1930s.
The red poppy has had an interesting journey, and we look at how it has been appropriated by far right groups, like the English Defence League. We also look at other alternative poppies, like 2014’s special edition centenary Shamrock Poppy in Ireland. Soldiers of both nationalist and unionist political persuasions fought and died for Britain’s Empire during the war, which left a complex legacy in terms of remembrance as war erupted in Ireland in the 1920s.
It’s become almost the norm to wear a poppy on air now, to the extent that most TV presenters wear one because there’s pressure to do so. There are some notable examples – such as Channel 4’s Jon Snow – who chooses not to wear a poppy, for a variety of reasons.
Some people would argue that the poppy has become contentious because it has now started to represent conflicts with far less consensus and we might even find it hard to understand why the First World War was fought.
But the poppy has become such an abiding symbol and in the 21st century, you can put a poppy on your car, you can wear poppy jewellery, the symbol of the poppy is far reaching and that is all driven by public demand. The public clearly believes both the fund raising aspect and the wearing of the poppy are still really important things.
“We make choices to go to war, we make choices to remember.”
The concept of remembrance for me is a very elastic and subjective one. From reading a novel, a First World War poem at school, going to see a play like War Horse or – back in the day Journey’s End, or listening to music – from the famous marching songs of the war, which we know so well, to the songs that have been inspired by the First World War written by everybody from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Iron Maiden. So you will Joey, the puppet from the National Theatre adaption of War Horse on loan from the V&A and we’ve got Sebastian Faulks’ original manuscript of Birdsong on display.
All of the issues this exhibition raises: what to do with the dead, how to design remembrance architecture, the decision to write a book or a song to help remember the fallen and the experience of fighting – all of that is very active. There’s nothing passive about it and I’m very keen to encourage people to think of remembrance in that way. There was nothing pre-ordained about the remembrance rituals with which we are so familiar today.
Many people would say up to this point that we have paid heed to the popular warning “lest we forget” but actually there is no guarantee that we will always remember. We will remember if we choose to. We make choices to go to war, we make choices to remember.
Lest We Forget? is at Imperial War Museum North from July 27 2018 to February 24 2019
Manchester, Greater Manchester
The multi-award winning IWM North is a great day out for all ages. Designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind to represent a globe shattered by conflict, it reveals how war shapes lives through personal stories and powerful exhibitions; the Big Picture (a 360 degree light and sound show), tours, object…