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Category: World War I

MIMOSA

Genova, 25 February 2016

We’re in Italy at the moment, spending a week here to get things in order for my impending retirement. We decided to make a quick visit to our apartment on the sea, by Genova, to check if all was well but also to see the mimosa in flower. The flowering of mimosa on the Ligurian coast is a wondrous sight to behold
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especially when you’re toiling up a hill like these hikers are and find yourself in front of a flash of canary yellow, a harbinger of the Spring to come.
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All was well with the apartment but alas! we were too late for the mimosa. It had reached its peak some two weeks before and the flowers were already very much past their best.

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Disconsolate, I decided to do the next best thing, a little internet surfing to learn more about mimosa.

I had half expected to discover that mimosa originally came from China. After all, that had already been my experience with several plants, from wisteria to the willow. But no! I was delighted to learn that mimosa comes from south-eastern Australia. Here is a photo of it in the State of Victoria, in what is probably its natural state, cohabiting in this case with mountain gums.

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Mimosa is actually a bit of a misnomer, for which it seems we have to thank Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system for giving scientific names to living things.
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What I call mimosa is actually an acacia (or perhaps was an acacia; more on that in a moment). For some reason, Linnaeus decided to also give the genus acacia the name mimosa. The confusion was cleared up later, but not before this particular type of acacia got stuck with the name mimosa. Confusion on nomenclature doesn’t stop there, for it seems that acacia is also a misnomer in this case. I don’t follow taxonomic decisions with bated breath, but Australian acacias should apparently now be called racosperma. The august scientific body which makes these kinds of decisions decided so back in the late 1990s or thereabouts, but the Australian botanists, indignant at the thought of having to change the name of their cherished acacias, managed to get the vote reversed in 2005. However, I now understand that the vote was re-reversed. In all of this confusion, I think we should just go with the common name, the wattle. Since there are nearly 1,000 species of wattle in Australia, I have to be a little more specific and say that the “mimosa” planted here in Liguria is the silver wattle.

How mimosa got to this part of the world is not that clear – at least, I didn’t find any clear description of that journey. Another distinguished botanist, Joseph Banks
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who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post on kangaroos, brought the wattles to the attention of the Western world. But who actually brought the living plant back, or its seeds, and propagated it I don’t know. Whoever it was, the peoples from Portugal to the west all around the rim of the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean Sea and on into the Black Sea to the east have a huge debt to him (or, who knows? her). Every spring, they can enjoy magnificent bursts of yellow, like this one in Odessa in the Ukraine.

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Actually, given that the golden wattle, another member of the large wattle tribe, is now the floral emblem of Australia, I was expecting to find a photo on the net of a mimosa in flower in the ANZAC cemeteries of Gallipoli. But no. Photos there are of the cemeteries
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but none with a flowering mimosa. Perhaps no-one visits the cemeteries in the early Spring. But if instead it’s because mimosas are not planted in Gallipoli, I think a move in this direction is in order. Should not an earlier immigrant to Europe from Australia welcome the Spring every year in that corner of the Mediterranean where Australians lie in their eternal sleep?

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Mimosa in Liguria: http://helpilivewithmyitalianmotherinlaw.com/2013/03/07/the-magic-of-liguria/
Mimosa on the hills: http://lemiegite.escursioniliguria.it/gita_per_gita/gita_per_gita_2014_2016/2015-02-01_sori_cordona_nervi.html
Mimosa in Australia: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/foto/mountain-gums-and-silver-wattle-victoria-australia-fotografie-stock/128394637
Linnaeus: http://linnaeus.sourceforge.net
Joseph Banks: http://lggardendesign.com/it/linvasione-della-rosa-banksiae/
Mimosa in Odessa: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/365143482264046608/
ANZAC cemetery, Gallipoli: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/621860/FIGGIS,%20SAMUEL%20DOUGLAS%20JOHNSTONE

REMEMBERING THE “OTHER RANKS”

Vanuatu, 11 November 2015

At this time when we are commemorating the end of the First World War (“the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”), I thought I could do my modest part to remember those who fell in that War, by recounting my English grandfather’s role in the conflict. It was not, I hasten to add, a heroic role. In fact, when all is said and done, it was very much less than stellar. But he tried to do his part to the best of his abilities and he regretted for the rest of his life that he was not able to have done more.

Until recently, I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s war record. My grandmother had a standard story which she trotted out to all her grandchildren, to the effect that he was a Captain in the Army, that he had gone to France in 1916 a few months after marrying her, that he had gotten food poisoning almost immediately, that he had been shipped home, and that a few months later he was invalided out of the Army. My father never talked about his father’s war record. The only thing I ever remember him saying was that my grandfather always got depressed at after-dinner sit-arounds in the living room when his peers began to tell stories of their days in the trenches, because he had not been there. That was the sum total of what I knew.

All of that changed a few months ago when, cruising the Internet, I stumbled across a cite to my grandfather’s War Office file, now in the UK’s National Archives. Much intrigued, I asked for, and received, a copy. The story it told, through the dry, matter-of-fact medical board reports, letters, and other bits and pieces which it contained, confirmed my grandmother’s tale. My grandfather went before three medical boards between July and November 1916, he couldn’t shake off the symptoms of whatever nasty bug it was that he had caught in France, and the Army eventually decided to let him go. But the papers in the file also told me some other things. They told me what battalion and regiment he had belonged to: the 11th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, the St. Helens Battalion, so called because it had been raised in the autumn of 1914 in St. Helens, Lancashire, a gritty coal and heavy industry town not too far from Liverpool. They also told me when he had joined up. One of the pieces of paper in the file was his sign-up sheet, which showed that he had joined up in late October 1914, I suppose as part of that mad rush of volunteers which the first months of the War witnessed. Why he joined up in St. Helens is a bit of a mystery to me. He wasn’t from that part of England, and he was working in Wolverhampton, in the Midlands, when the War broke out. Perhaps it was easier to join up in St Helens than elsewhere; there are tales of huge queues at sign-up stations as literally millions of men tried to all join up at the same time.

In any event, by early October 1914, he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion, part of Kitchener’s New Army. Of course, the Battalion wasn’t sent immediately to the Front. Since the UK didn’t have military service, unlike just about every other country in the War, very few men had any military training. So the new recruits of the 11th Battalion were subjected to a year of training, after which, in November 1915, they shipped out to the Western Front.

They went without my grandfather. At some point in the intervening year, he had become a Captain, and at the end of September 1915 he was made Commanding Officer of a new Battalion that was created, the 13th (Reserve) Battalion (I discovered this because of a little research done for me by the Lancashire Regiment Museum). Like all Reserve Battalions, it remained based in the UK and had the thankless but very important task of training up new volunteers (or conscripts by the middle of 1916) and of retraining men, who because of wounds or disease, had been taken out of the line for recuperation. My grandfather wasn’t in the new position for very long. By November, the Army had dragged some retired senior offices out of their retirement and they began running the 13th Battalion.

I lose track of my grandfather’s movements at this point. My guess is that he made his way back into the ranks of the 11th Battalion and was on his way to joining them when he fell sick in Rouen, before getting anywhere near the trenches, in the middle of July 1916. And that was the end of his military career. He might have regretted this twist of fate all his life, but I have to say it was lucky for me and my siblings, as well as for my numerous cousins. If my grandfather had made it to the Front, I don’t suppose he would have sired the children he eventually did sire – assuming he would have survived the holocaust of the Western Front in the first place.

If my grandfather had made it to the 11th Battalion in that July of 1916, he would have found himself caught up in the Battle of the Somme, which had already started on 1 July and finally petered out in November. As usual, the casualties were enormous (on the first day of the battle alone the British Army suffered its worst-ever casualties in one day of fighting: 570,000), although after intensive involvement in the first few days of July the Battalion played quite a modest role in the whole wretched affair. I should explain that it was not an infantry Battalion but a pioneer Battalion, which means that it spent most of its time on the Western Front digging trenches, maintaining roads, putting up Nissen huts, that sort of thing. Not a very glamorous job, but a necessary one. Thinking about it, it can’t have been coincidence that a Battalion raised in St. Helens was a pioneer Battalion. Most of the rank-and-file must have been miners since they made up the bulk of the local population, and who better than miners to dig trenches and fill shell craters in roads?

I found out what the Battalion did exactly when I came across the Battalion’s War Diary on the Internet. It gives you a fascinating picture of its day-to-day life at the Front, Company A off to dig this communications trench, Company B to fix that forward road, Company C to help the Royal Engineers do something else. All very humdrum, yet all the while a steady bleeding off of its troops was occurring, one man here, another there, a third the next day, no doubt as individual soldiers got hit by bullets, shrapnel, or other pieces of metal flying around the battlefield. From time to time, the numbers of men “killed in action” or “died of wounds” would spike, as it did in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme, as it did again in the third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and as it did for a final time during the last German offensive in the Spring of 1918, when the Battalion just happened to find itself in the way of the German attempt to punch a hole in the Allied line (it was during these desperate days of trying to hold the line that the Battalion earned its one and only Victoria Cross).

Armies, at least in those days, were made up of lots of rank-and-file commanded by a handful of Officers. So the great majority of the Battalion’s dead were “Other Ranks”, mostly privates, a sprinkling of corporals and lance-corporals, some sergeants, all poor lads who were doing their best under very difficult circumstances and who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t them who had precipitated this stupid, pointless War, but it was them who bore the brunt of the suffering. So it is them that I remember most particularly today, and not so much the Officer class to which my grandfather belonged.

THE ARTIST AND THE SELFIE

Beijing, 19 January 2014

There is a phenomenon which my wife and I both agree is on the upswing in China, which is the taking of selfies.  We are proud to know this word, by the way, which is so new that it hasn’t made it yet into the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary – although the Urban dictionary, which is obviously hipper, does contain a definition: “pictures taken of oneself while holding the camera at arm’s length”.   We might know what the word means, but it doesn’t mean that we approve. We actually find it sad to see young women (it seems to be preponderantly young women) taking photos of themselves. It is so narcissistic, we cry!

chinese selfies

But actually the phenomenon is not new, its amplitude is. New technology – the mobile phone with built-in camera – and its fantastic, phenomenal, global dissemination have allowed this. But the picture-makers of old – artists – have been making selfies for centuries now, since at least the Renaissance (in Europe anyway). They made selfies – self-portraits – to advertise their skills, or to allow them to exercise themselves without having to pay a model, or to comment on their or other people’s private lives, or in a more serious vein to explore their inner emotions. Anyone interested in the topic can go to the Wikipedia article on it.  At the beginning, they seemed to be a bit shy (or maybe just cautious; prisons were nasty then), and rather than executing free-standing portraits of themselves they preferred to include themselves (and their friends, and even sometimes their enemies) in the role of modest bystanders in their paintings. Here, for instance, is a painting by Botticelli, an Adoration of the Magi, where the person on the extreme right in the yellow cloak and looking out towards the viewer is said to be the painter himself.

Botticelli-adoration of the magi

And here is a fresco, by Filippino Lippi, The Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter, where Lippi is the person on the extreme right of the fresco looking out towards the viewer from behind the pillar.

Filippino Lippi-simon magus

But after a while some artists were having none of this modesty. For instance, Velázquez put himself very obviously in what is probably his most famous painting, Las Meninas, which hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Velázquez-Las Meninas

On the face of it, the painting is of the young Infanta Margaret Theresa, surrounded by her entourage of maids of honour, her chaperone, bodyguard, two dwarves and a dog. But actually, Velázquez is quite obtrusively in the painting too! You can’t fail to miss him standing behind the Infanta and working on a large canvas, looking out towards the viewer. Behind him, on the wall, is a mirror, which if you look carefully can be see to be reflecting a couple. These are the king, Philip IV, and his queen, Mariana of Austria. Aha! It is them that Velásquez’s is painting, while standing in a painting which he painted … All very clever – and quite cheeky on the part of Velázquez to put himself so central when there were all these kings, queens, and princesses around!

But in my opinion not as cheeky as Dürer, who in a self-portrait of 1500 portrayed himself as a wonderfully powerful Christ-like figure.

Duerer-self portrait

He was following a well-known type of painting, such as this one by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.

Christ by Jan van Eyck

I’m always surprised by the sheer effrontery of Dürer comparing himself so obviously to Christ. And not to some meek and mild Christ either.  The painting’s Latin inscription translates as “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, portrayed myself in everlasting colours aged twenty-eight years”.  Wow! Talk about someone being sure of his fame in posterity. I’m amazed that he didn’t get hauled in front of some ecclesiastical court for committing the sin of overweening pride with this painting, but apparently he didn’t.

And then there are those artists who used selfies to do a bit of character assassination. Take Cristofano Allori, an Italian painter I’d never heard of until my wife and I came across a painting of his a few years ago in the Queen’s Gallery in London. Well worth the visit, by the way; it houses part of the extensive royal art collection. The painting in question was Judith with the head of Holofernes

allori-judith with head of holofernes

It’s a story from the Bible: Holofernes was a general sent by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, to wreak vengeance on various nations along the Mediterranean sea board  for not having supported him.  This included Israel.  Holofernes is besieging a Jewish city, which is about to surrender. But it is saved when Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, visits Holfernes in his tent, seduces him, gets him drunk and then while he’s sleeping cuts off his head. Many painters liked this subject, no doubt because of all the blood and gore; they generally painted Judith in the act of cutting off Holofernes’s head. But Allori’s take is different. There’s no violence here. The head is already off and the blood has stopped running. Judith is holding it as she would a trophy, staring all the while at the viewer with a complacently triumphant look on her face. Anyone who saw the painting at the time and knew Allori must have tittered. Because Allori painted himself as poor Holofernes while his model for Judith was his ex-mistress Maria Mazzafirri and the servant in the background helping Judith was Maria’s mother. Poor Cristofano, they must have said, that harlot Mazzafirri and that hag of a mother of hers really screwed him over, got their claws into his loot (look at that beautiful dress she’s wearing!) and then dumped him. Or maybe they thought, what the hell did the beautiful Mazzafirri see in that dolt Allori? Good for her, good riddance to bad rubbish.

Michelangelo also included himself in a very personal way in a number of his works, the most famous of which must be in the fresco of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

michelangelo-Last judgement

In that huge drama, he painted his face on the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (I have written about the flaying of this saint in an earlier post).

michelangelo-Last judgement-detail

Scholars have debated the meaning of this since it was noticed in 1925. One scholar has suggested that Michelangelo was commenting on his extremely shabby and painful treatment (from his point of view) by the Pope and his minions during the painting of the Last Judgement. Amusing, along the lines of Allori’s painting, but I think other scholars are more correct when they see this as an excrutiatingly personal comment by Michelangelo on the precarious balance of his soul between salvation and damnation: it seems that the flayed skin is at an exact midpoint between the salvation of the Triumphant Christ and the horrified man who is about to be pulled into Hell. The poetry Michelangelo wrote at this time –  he was also a good poet – speaks a lot about his fear for the salvation of his soul.

And suddenly the selfie is an ussie. The artist is speaking for us all.

Personally, I like more the selfie in Michelangelo’s sculpture The Deposition from the Cross, which is in Florence.

michelangelo-deposition

I saw the sculpture during my first trip to Italy when I was a University student (I have also mentioned this trip in an earlier post). The old man, presumably Joseph of Arimathea, is said to be a self-portrait.

michelangelo-deposition-detail

A look of such sadness, such desolation he is giving the dead Christ! I was so struck by it that I remained transfixed in front of the statue. I stood there so long that someone in a group of tourists flowing by muttered to her neighbour “What’s he looking at?”

That look of intense sadness brings me to Caravaggio, who must be my most favourite painter. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I brought few books to Beijing, but one of these was the massive Caravaggio: The Complete Works by Sebastian Schütze, which I later complemented by Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the almost detective story of his life by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Caravaggio included himself in a number of his paintings. Take his Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, one of a cycle of three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew

The subject of the painting is the killing of Matthew, the author of one of the four Gospels. According to tradition, the saint was killed while celebrating Mass at the altar. And so we have the saint knocked to the ground, the assassin readying to deliver the fatal blow, an angel thoughtfully passing on to the saint the palm of martyrdom, and the crowd screaming and shouting and running about, the whole bathed in that chiaroscuro, that light and dark, for which Caravaggio is so famous.  A great painting, although in my opinion not as good as the other two in the chapel. In any case, what interests us right now is the figure at the back, picked out by the light, seemingly making an escape but looking back at the scene. It is Caravaggio.

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew-detail

Why did he include himself like this? And why that look of intense sadness? Graham-Dixon suggests that Caravaggio is saying, “I am no different from these people, who stand there instead of helping Matthew,  or even run away. I would have had no more courage than they.  I, too, would have run away”.

So different, this look, from the expression we see on his face in an earlier painting, the Taking of Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane, which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ

Caravaggio has painted the moment when Judas completes his betrayal of Jesus by kissing him in the Garden of Gesthemane, to indicate to the soldiers around him whom they should arrest. Caravaggio is the person holding the lamp at the back.

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ-self portrait

He is there to shed light on the scene, but he is also looking eagerly over the shoulders of the soldiers to get a better view.  Such a wonderful metaphor for every painter, of all ages, trying hard to visualize the scene which they are planning to paint, and which they can see only darkly.

And so we get to the last of Caravaggio’s portrayals, painted late in his career. The subject is another decapitation which was very popular with painters, David’s killing of Goliath. Caravaggio himself did at least three versions of this story, more or less all of the same moment, when David grasps the head of Goliath.  This last one, housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, is the darkest, the most tragic.

caravaggio-david with goliath

It is Caravaggio’s face we see in Goliath, as he was in the last years of his life, on the run from the law in at least two jurisdictions but also from enemies who had personal vendettas with him and were trying to kill him, desperately trying to have himself pardoned by the Pope so that he could return to Rome. It is said that Caravaggio intended the painting to be a gift to Cardinal Borghese who had the power to have him pardoned, a sort of “here is my head on a platter, please be merciful and forgive me”. And who modelled David, a David who strangely enough is not looking triumphantly at Goliath whom he has just overcome in battle, whose gaze rather is a mixture of sadness and compassion for his supposed enemy? One interpretation, which I like immensely, is that this is also Caravaggio, painted as he looked when he was a young boy! And so we have a scene where the young Caravaggio is looking on sadly at the old Caravaggio which he will become. Alas, this interpretation does not seem correct. More probably, the model is Caravaggio’s studio assistant, Cecco, looking on sadly as his master slowly falls to pieces before his eyes. And indeed Caravaggio died shortly thereafter.

Another artist whose powerful self-portraits have always fascinated me is the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. I must say, she was almost obsessed with herself, self-portraits making up a very large proportion of her oeuvre. Here is one of them

Frida Kahlo-self portrait

but there is one self-portrait of hers which stands out above all the rest and which I find truly gut-wrenching, Henry Ford Hospital.

Frida Kahlo-Henry Ford Hospital

She painted it shortly after her second miscarriage, when she realized she would never be able to have the children she so desperately wanted. You see her lying in the blood of her miscarriage on her bed in the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit (the city in the background; her husband, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, had been given a commission there by Edsel Ford). Above her floats the baby she has just lost, a baby boy. Also floating around her are a female torso, showing the anatomical parts linked to having children, her fractured pelvis, fruit of an accident she suffered when young and which made it impossible for her to have children, medical-looking equipment used during the miscarriage, an orchid which Rivera had given her, and a snail, depicting the slow pace of her miscarriage. All are linked to her by umbilical-like bloodlines.

I finish with a self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who was active before and after the First World War. It, too, is about the loss of a child, but this time of a child born.  Her younger son Peter was badly wounded in the first days of the war and died in her arms a few months later. She created this woodcut just after his death. It is of her and her husband, distraught at their boy’s death

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-woodcut

After the war, she distilled this image into a pair of statues, Grieving Parents, which stand in the German War cemetery at Vladslo in Belgium (I have written an earlier post about these cemeteries).

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-1

The two figures are based on Käthe and her husband Karl

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-2

They represent all the parents of the young men buried in the cemetery

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-3

although it is said that Karl is gazing directly at the tomb of his son Peter.

To parents like us with children still of age to be called up, incredibly moving.

 

POST SCRIPTUM

A few weeks ago (June 2014), I saw with great pleasure that my favouritest of favourite cartoonists in The New Yorker magazine, Roz Chast, had made the same connection as I had between the modern selfie movement and artists’ self-portraits

roz chaz selfie 001

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Chinese selfies: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/slides/images/attachement/jpg/site1/20131213/b8ac6f27ada21414a28412.jpg [in http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/slides/2013-12/13/content_17172459_6.htm%5D

Botticelli – Adoration of the Magi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/34/Botticelli_085A.jpg/942px-Botticelli_085A.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Magi_of_1475_(Botticelli)%5D

Filippino Lippi-The Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter: http://www.wga.hu/art/l/lippi/flippino/brancacc/crucdisp.jpg [in http://www.wga.hu/tours/brancacc/crucif_d.html%5D

Velázquez-Las Meninas: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/31/Las_Meninas%2C_by_Diego_Velázquez_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg/890px-Las_Meninas%2C_by_Diego_Velá1zquez%2C_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas%5D

Dürer-self portrait: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fc/Duerer01.jpg/740px-Duerer01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-Portrait_%28D%C3%BCrer%29%5D

Christ by Jan van Eyck: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-HSgyBuOLqog/T36J0B01fsI/AAAAAAAA8Ko/yhh8A_Rq5GQ/s1600/Jan%2Bvan%2BEyck%2B%2528Flemish%2Bpainter%252C%2B1385-1441%2529%2BChrist%2B1440.jpg [in http://bjws.blogspot.com/2013/03/early-portraits-of-jesus.html%5D

Allori-Judith with the head of Holofernes: http://cdn.royalcollection.org.uk/cdn/farfuture/JPL2-m0ogCUIVnYQgnX1GLNkeFf11XoRWGNrkNMHuQk/mtime:1373966874/sites/royalcollection.org.uk/files/col/404989_255798_ORI_0_0.jpg [in http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace%5D

Michelangelo-last judgement: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Michelangelo,_Giudizio_Universale_02.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_(Michelangelo)%5D

Michelangelo-last judgement-detail: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Last_judgement.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-portrait%5D

Michelangelo-Deposition: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c6/Pieta_Bandini_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n01.jpg/680px-Pieta_Bandini_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deposition_(Michelangelo)%5D The sculpture is housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.

Michelangelo-Deposition-detail: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/art/ren_italy/sculpture/10_97_5_30.jpg [in http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/art/ren_italy/ren_sculpture01.html%5D

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/57/The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggio_(c._1599-1600).jpg/874px-The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggio_(c._1599-1600).jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew_(Caravaggio)%5D

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew-detail: http://caravaggista.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/matthew-sp.jpg [in http://caravaggista.com/2013/09/happy-birthday-caravaggio-2013/%5D

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e6/Caravaggio_-_Taking_of_Christ_-_Dublin.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Taking_of_Christ_(Caravaggio)%5D

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ-detail: http://caravaggista.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Screen-shot-2012-05-25-at-12.49.30-PM.png [in http://caravaggista.com/2012/05/caravaggio-the-leader/%5D

Caravaggio-David with Goliath: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Caravaggio_-_David_con_la_testa_di_Golia.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_with_the_Head_of_Goliath%5D

Frida Kahlo-self portrait: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1e/Frida_Kahlo_%28self_portrait%29.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo%5D

Frida Kahlo-Henry Ford Hospital: http://0.tqn.com/d/arthistory/1/7/Q/1/1/Frida-Kahlo-Henry-Ford-Hospital-1932.jpg [in http://arthistory.about.com/od/from_exhibitions/ig/frida_kahlo/fk200708_03.htm%5D

Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-woodcut: http://scattergoodmoore.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/grieving-parents.jpg [in http://scattergoodmoore.wordpress.com/category/kollwitz/%5D

Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-1: http://www.judithdupre.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Mourning-Parents-kollwitz2-e1278340988804.jpg [in http://www.judithdupre.com/books/full-of-grace/full-of-grace-gallery/%5D

Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-2: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/1536597.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/1536597%5D

Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-3: http://www.eyes-and-ears.co.uk/squaredog/images/kollwitz_rear.jpg [in http://www.eyes-and-ears.co.uk/squaredog/details.asp?Title=The%20Art%20of%20Remembrance%5D

LEST WE FORGET

10 November 2013

I don’t think I’ll be able to wear my poppy this year.

Hoppe

Every year I pick it out of the corner of the drawer where I keep it, from under the paper clips and rubber bands. After four years in China, the paper petals are now sadly scuffed and creased, but I still like to give it pride of place in the lapel of my jacket. I am somewhat diffident to wear it here, because everyone stares at it wondering what it is. Several of my Chinese staff have asked me politely what it means. After I’ve gone through the explanation, they thank me nicely but I rather think they put my behaviour down to a form of British eccentricity.

It was the same in Vienna. You would have thought that Europeans would be more familiar with the British paper poppy and its symbolism but it seems not. Every year, I would be asked by two or three people what it was all about, and every time I would go through the explanation.

In Vienna, the enquirers would often start by commenting that they had seen the same poppy being worn by British politicians

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (

and indeed it is the sight of these politicians on my TV screen looking pious behind their poppies that reminds me that it is once again that time of the year … the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was on 11 November 1918 that the Armistice between Germany and the Allied Forces was signed. The guns finally fell silent on the Western Front and the First World War came to an end.

The habit in the Commonwealth countries of wearing a poppy to remember the end of that war, and to raise funds for the wounded who came home and the widows and orphans of those who did not, grew out of a popular war poem written by a Canadian officer, John McCrae, who fought on the Western Front. I cite its first two verses here.

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.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Anyone who has ever seen a field sprinkled with poppies will immediately understand their strong symbolic resonance. They look like so much blood sprayed across the land.

poppies in field-3

Earlier pious-looking politicians proclaimed that the First World War was the war to end all wars. Well, as we are all too aware, it wasn’t. As wars have continued to be fought, the poppy has become the way for the British and ex-British colonies of remembering their war dead. But I wear my poppy to remember all those who have died – civilians as well as soldiers – and continue to die in wars and other conflicts big and small the world over. Just this year we have the human tragedy of Syria, which is spilling over into Lebanon, there is the continuing conflict in Afghanistan which is spilling over into Pakistan, the continuing violence in Iraq and Libya, the growing violence in Egypt, the fighting in South Sudan, in Somalia, in the Congo, in Mali, in Myanmar, and on and on and on …

SYRIA-CONFLICT

When you see the sheer scale of the human misery which all this fighting engenders you understand why I did not cite the last verse of John McCrae’s poem.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I hate this glorifying of war, this coating in a veneer of sacred language what is simply a nasty, brutish fight. I prefer the following poem from that same war

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori..
[It is sweet and right to die for your country, a line from the Latin poet Horace]

dead soldiers

blinded soldiers

war-cripples

The poem was written by Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the Armistice was signed. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration …

I must find a few minutes tomorrow to wear my poppy. I must make my annual statement against war, even if I am the only one to understand what I’m saying.

_____________

poppy in jacket: http://wpmedia.o.canada.com/2013/10/remembrance_frustrated_vets_20121108_24958803.jpg?w=660&h=330&crop=1 [in http://o.canada.com/technology/internet/legion-asks-redditors-to-remove-poppy-symbol-citing-trademark-protection/%5D

Politicians with poppies: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-9GUo5YLH4iQ/Tr_Fb1rb4AI/AAAAAAAAInQ/qOXaLXKgfjg/s1600/a-9.jpg [in http://nobelprofile.blogspot.com/2011_10_16_archive.html%5D

Poppies in field: http://gallery.photo.net/photo/7644092-md.jpg [http://photo.net/blog/tag?tag=nature]

Wounded person: http://www.lapatilla.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/000_Nic6168584.jpg [http://www.lapatilla.com/site/2012/12/28/las-mejores-fotos-de-la-semana-5/]

Dead soldiers: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Q_004256GermanDeadGuillemont.jpg [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties]

Blinded soldiers: http://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/first-world-war/v-p-hist-03088-25.jpg [in http://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/first-world-war/overview-first-world-war.htm%5D

Crippled soldiers: http://www.ralphmag.org/CG/war-cripples640x432.gif [in http://www.ralphmag.org/CG/world-war-one2.html%5D

THE WESTERN FRONT

Beijing, 3 August 2012

These last few evenings I’ve been sorting through the photographs we took during our summer vacation. Much of our time was taken up with doing necessary things – checking repairs to our apartment, visiting relatives, that sort of thing – but we managed to squeeze in a three-day visit to the battlefields of the Western Front. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for at least forty years, since I first started reading the English poetry and prose of the War.

Because my knowledge of the War is primarily British, our visit ran along the line of the British sector, from the Ypres Salient – the battles of Passchendaele, Ypres, Messines Ridge – to the battlefields of Neuve-Chapelle, Loos, Vimy Ridge, and finally to the battlefields of the Somme.

I’m not a military historian; I’m not interested in the lay of the land, nor do I want to know which regiment swept over this hill to take that objective, or what weapons they used to do it. In any event, as you gaze across today’s peaceful countryside it’s hard to imagine the scenes of a hundred years ago. Even at Vimy Ridge, or Delville Wood, or the Newfoundland Memorial, where the land has been left as it was at the end of hostilities, the ground does not speak to you.

No, what really drew me to this strip of land is the iconography of death. How did the belligerents deal with the enormity of their military dead after the guns fell silent? 2 million dead in Germany, 1.4 million in France, 1.1 million in the British Empire.

Wilfred Owen wrote:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

But each country made sure that there would be memorials for their dead. Indeed, the length of the Western Front is thickly dotted with memorials and cemeteries. We visited only a handful of the bigger ones, mostly British Empire but also a few French and German. As we drove, signs to many, many others beckoned: Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, Post Office Rifles Cemetery, Crump Trench British Cemetery, L’Homme Mort British Cemetery, Dud Corner Cemetery, Happy Valley British Cemetery … “so many, I had not thought death had undone so many”.

How did Governments choose to present these dead millions to their citizens? As I flip through my photos, in the British Empire cemeteries I see a predominance of white and green: white stone and green grass, leavened by splashes of colour from the roses and other flowers planted at the base of each gravestone. I see few trees.

07 Tyne Cot memorial-cropped

The buildings echo those of that other, Roman, Empire that the British so aspired to emulate: columns, rounded arches, cupolas, brick mixed with stone.

Thiepval_Memorial-3

And I see grand phrases written on the walls, commemorating victory, heroic sacrifice, eternal remembrance, and the gratitude of a nation. But I also see scrolling on and on, from one wall to another, the names of the missing, those with no known grave, whose macerated flesh disappeared into the mud of the Western Front. And I see the ages of those who died – so young most of them, my children’s age.

Menin_Gate_names

The colours white and green are echoed in the French memorials. But here the Christian motifs are stronger: white crosses for the buried (or white gravestones for the non-Christians) and churches or church-like structures for the memorials. Here too grass dominates the green – trees are rare. And here too the grass’s green is splashed with colour from flowers at the base of the crosses. And here too grand rhetoric is carved into the walls.

notre_dame_de_lorette

German cemeteries differ radically. Everything about them is much more sombre. Black, not white, is the dominant colour of crosses, gravestones and buildings. Although as elsewhere green is ever present, it is a darker green, for trees grow throughout the cemeteries. Their leaves, their bark, their shadows darken hues throughout the enclosures. And there are no flowers to brighten the scene, no triumphant language on the walls.

Langemark_German_cemetery

I suppose the sombre tone of the German cemeteries reflects their defeat. The British and the French could at least claim that their dead were justified by their victory. But the Germans had nothing to show for their dead. Yet to me, the Germans show the better sensibility. For are the deaths of so many young people ever justifiable? They represent a terrible loss for us all, echoing down through the decades. And despite all the protestations to the contrary, they will be forgotten. Already now, how many of the soldiers lying in the soil of northern France and Belgium are remembered by family members or friends? They are just becoming names on a wall or gravestone, and even those names will one day erode away.  The poet Carl Sandburg caught the idea well in his poem “Grass”:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

77 Neuville St Vaast cemetery

__________________

Pictures:

Tyne cot memorial: mine

Thiepval memorial: http://www.euro-t-guide.com/See_Photo/France/NW_Amiens/Thiepval_Memorial_2011_16.jpg

Menin Gate names: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/ee/Menin_Gate_names.jpeg

Notre dame de Lorette: http://arras-france.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/notre_dame_de_lorette.JPG

Langemark:  http://www.euro-t-guide.com/See_Photo/Belgium/NW_Ypres/Langemark_German_War_Graves_2011_08.jpg

Neuville St. Vaast: mine