As the sad anniversaries of battles in World War I roll by, and as we now head into a war caused, as wars always are, by the stupidity of politicians, perhaps we should take a moment to think of how we remember those who died in these wars.
Not with the pompous statues and empty mottoes of former times, not with the teddy bears and hashtags and coloured floodlights and easy tears of today, but properly. To respect them we need to know who they were and what they did.
Hyde Park Corner in London is a place of war memorials, old and new. It takes its present form from Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, after which he was given a fine new mansion, Apsley House, with a view over memorials commemorating his achievement. There is a colossal arch topped with a bronze statue of the Goddess of Victory driving a four-horse chariot, and a conventional equestrian statue of the Duke staring into the front windows where the real Duke would have been looking out at his effigy, probably with wry amusement as he was not a pompous man.
The statue is given a human, and interesting, touch by four figures at the corners, realistic sculptures of soldiers of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Remembering ordinary fighting men, rather than their leaders, was something new.
After the costly victory of World War I, with its huge loss of life, there was a need for memorials — not giant arches bragging about victory, but sober memorials to those who fell. How could this be done without falling into pomposity on one side or mawkishness on the other?
There are two monuments to this war at Hyde Park Corner. One is deeply conventional: the Machine Gun Corps memorial. It has a nude statue of the boy David, whose shapely buttocks facing the traffic have made him a gay icon, though his lack of endowment behind the fig leaf on the other side is regretted.
This is flanked, rather oddly, by realistic models of Vickers Mk IVa machine guns wrapped in laurel wreaths.
Between them is a Biblical motto (1 Samuel 18:7) which may reflect what machine guns are for, but seems ghoulish even by the standards of the time.
This monument may provoke indifference, or a mild giggle, or distaste. Anyway, it seems a clear example of what not to do.
The other memorial is utterly different. It is to the 49,076 men of the Royal Artillery who were killed in the war, and was designed by the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger. It was unveiled in 1925 to public shock, followed by growing admiration.
There is a gigantic block of Portland stone, cruciform in plan. But instead of a figure of Christ it supports a huge and realistic sculpture of a BL Mk 1 9.2 inch howitzer.
Around this are four stone reliefs showing scenes of action, vivid and fascinating.
The image on the east side, showing a wounded man being rescued, is particularly striking, and resonates with me because my grandfather died in this war trying to bring back a wounded man from in front of his trench. My father was four months old.
Between these reliefs stand four larger-than-life statues of artillerymen. These are Jagger’s greatest works: massive strong men, clanking with the strange tools and chains of their service. Three are dog-tired.
The fourth is dead, on a stretcher with his greatcoat hastily thrown over him back to front. This frank depiction caused much public protest.
The inscription ‘Here was a royal fellowship of death’, is from Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the king recites the long roll of French noblemen who died at the battle of Agincourt. Inside the stonework is a list of the fallen artillerymen.
There are no glorious mottoes on this monument. Only the names of the many places where the Royal Artillery fought in that war are inscribed around the top of the plinth.
Looking at it, we learn what the men of the Royal Artillery looked like, what they did, where they went, and what weapons they used. Without spin or sloganeering, we begin to understand them and remember their courage and achievement, and above all to be grateful to them.
That is what a monument should do.
Text and pictures by Tachybaptus ©