Conceptual art cannot capture the tragedy of the Great War
Four years of official remembering reach their climax tomorrow at the Cenotaph and at humbler memorials all across the United Kingdom. In London Prince Charles will lay the wreath, the Queen will watch from the balcony of the Foreign Office, and the band will lead the parade with its jaunty selection of first world war songs. Big Ben will ring out once again to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and the end of a war that has had a tighter grip on Britain’s cultural (though not political) imagination than any other. But as we come to the end of the centenary commemorations, I wonder how much they have changed or enlarged our understanding of this great catastrophe.
I am old enough to know a time when the Great
War was an everyday memory. One or two of my secondary schoolteachers had fought in it. My maternal grandfather, a sniper with the Royal Scots, was wounded in Flanders, while a paternal great-uncle, a company sergeant major in the same regiment, died at Passchendaele. This is a common enough story. My grandfather would speak wryly but briefly about his experience on the western front, while my father would talk fondly of his sergeant major uncle, who did daring things such as leaping from a slowing train before it reached the station so that he could run down the embankment and be quicker home for his tea.
I knew of the Great War from these anecdotes and also from a few keepsakes in the house: a Glengarry cap and a tattered book of Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons (“Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it!”). Gen Douglas Haig was hated; because armistice poppies were produced in his name, we never wore any. But only with the coming of Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War and the BBC series marking its 50th anniversary did the war assume a clearer shape in the eyes of a generation born nearly 30 years after it had ended.
This was the shape we still know: the war as a tragedy that ended or ruined millions of lives. It was easier then to keep this idea alive because so many survivors still lived among us – though long before the last of them disappeared, in 2009, the old rituals had begun to seem emptier and timeworn. The 100th anniversary needed new ways to stimulate public interest, and it found them by turning commemoration into a more artful experience, liberating it from the confines of the little crowd that surrounded the local war memorial on a November morning.
The spectacle of the multitude arrived in 2014. Possibly inspired by Ai Weiwei’s installation of millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern four years before, the ceramic artist Paul Cummins and a team of assistants planted the moat of the Tower of London with 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each flower to represent a life lost in the conflict by Britain and its colonies. The installation was a tremendous popular success – over four months, more than 5 million people are thought to have visited it – and now the war’s end is being marked by several examples of the similarly multitudinous.
At Ypres 600,000 little clay figures have been spread densely across open land to mark the war’s victims on Belgian territory. At the Tower of London the moat has been filled with 10,000 burning torches, which are lit one by one every night to the sound of choral music. And at Stratford, in east London, 72,396 shrouded plastic dolls stretch out on a strip of the Olympic park to represent the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died at the Somme and have no known grave.
Idon’t know about Ypres, but this week I went to the displays at Stratford and the Tower and found they touched nothing in me. Shrouds of the Somme is an odd idea made odder by the sale of more shrouded dolls in the gift shop – £75 in a frame and £35 in a box, where they lay as if intended to encourage little children to play with the dead. At the Tower, marshals in hi-vis jackets organised large crowds into winding queues that shuffled slowly towards the lights and the music. Earlier in the week I saw Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, his restoration of footage from the trenches, and found it a thousand times more moving.
In fact, more moving and informative things are everywhere present and everywhere forgotten. The people hurrying towards the Tower strode past the memorial to merchant seamen that spreads across Tower Hill; and, so far as I could tell from five minutes’ observation, not one of them paused to look at its bronze plaques, which list the dead by ship they sailed in (“Athenia, Glasgow; Ausonia, Liverpool”) under a general dedication to the 12,000 sailors of the Great War “who have no other grave but the sea”.
At Liverpool Street station, the memorial to the dead of the Great Eastern Railway was likewise ignored. I sought it out on my way from Stratford and discovered something beneath it I had never noticed: a bronze relief of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, the chief of the imperial general staff at the war’s end, who according to the inscription had died on 22 June 1922 “within two hours of his unveiling the adjoining memorial”. What the inscription didn’t say was that two IRA men had shot him outside his house in Eaton Place as he left the taxi that had taken him from the ceremony. His assassins were quickly captured, and on the day two months later when they were hanged Wilson’s big house in County Longford was burned to the ground. He had always considered himself an Irishman as well as a unionist.
The memorial that owes its inspiration to conceptual art can never reflect such complexity, nor is that its intention. But even at the level of the big, bold statement it suffers by comparison with its precedents. What could be more disturbing or multitudinous than the apparently endless ranks of real graves in Flanders?
What, as an event that involves you, could be better than to visit the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey, and there give some money and in return take a cross or some other remembrance and write the deceased’s name on it, and then borrow a mallet and drive the little piece of wood softly into the piece of lawn reserved for his military unit or regiment?
I have done this occasionally in memory of my greatuncle, the company sergeant major, and did it again on Thursday. As the field was a stunt invented by Earl Haig’s poppy factory in 1928, my little ceremony flies in the face of family prejudice and I never feel completely at ease. This year I noticed that the Royal Scots plot looked as neat and crowded as a miniature version of those white cemeteries across the Channel. Conceptual art before the term was invented, and no art involved, thank God.