100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI and related art installations

Field_of_Crosses_Memorial_Drive_2012

Every year on this date (November 11) we take a minute at 11:11 to observe and pay our respects to the many people (both military and non-military personnel) who died during warfare.

These were predominately boys and girls (many of whom had never left home before they enlisted) paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their countries or state.

This year is a momentous one as it is the 100th anniversary of the beginnings of what many consider, with the advantage of having an historical lens to view its events through, was largely a pointless war – World War One – “The Great War”.

At the time, WWI was idealistically spoken of as being “the war to end all wars”.

We of course know how that ended up.

One only needs to open a newspaper or listen to the sabre-rattling and war-mongering from our political leadership on the news reports to know that war will probably not end anytime soon. These leaders are now increasingly painting war as being something that is both heroic and necessary. This while cynically holding on to the cautionary warnings of “Never Again” and “Lest we Forget” as being guiding truisms.

No one wins when war is fought – except maybe the economic beneficiaries – the armament manufacturers and arms dealers.

Now is the time to head warnings such as those given by Mikhail S. Gorbachev on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall two days ago on November 9th. He stated that, “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.”

It is also worth listening to those who have served their countries, like Harry Leslie Smith, a 90-year old veteran, who penned a well-written piece for The Guardian that should be required reading for all.

Included in the above referenced article, Smith penned these words:

I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.

Then there is this touching story of a 91-year old Canadian WWII veteran Frank “Johnny” Johnston who gives a first-hand account of his time as a PoW and the humanity of enemies toward each other near the end of the war. He states this:

“And this woman, she pulls back an eiderdown bed cover and there are these beautiful white linen sheets, on a beautiful bed, and the [soldiers] just threw me on it. I was bloody. I had muddy boots on. And this lady, she took my boots off, undressed me and she kept talking to me, and she gets a big bowl of hot water and cleans all this mess off. She bandages my hip and then, if you can believe it, she washed my face, my arms, my chest — everywhere — and left me lying there on that beautiful bed.

“Now, why would she do that? I was the enemy. And to this day, sitting here talking to you, I still can’t get over it. Then she goes downstairs and comes up with a big bowl of stew and every time I have chunky soup for lunch I picture that nice German lady. I picture her clear as day. Jesus. She was a wonderful person.”

He then goes on to talk about his own response shortly thereafter:

Mr. Johnson was liberated from a German POW camp six weeks after the nice German lady cleaned him up. He tried to find her after the war, to say thanks, but never did, and so he just went on living.

Looking back now all he sees are the dead.

“I am only really proud of one thing I did during the war,” he says.

He was flying patrol when his air traffic controller said there was a German plane above their airstrip.

“I was up about 4,000 feet and I look down and I see this guy,” Mr. Johnson says.

“Anybody who was an experienced fighter pilot would never be flying over an enemy airstrip and would never be flying in a straight line. But this guy was. He was obviously a rookie. Maybe it was his first flight in that goddamn aircraft and maybe he had gotten lost, and so I pulled out from behind him and came alongside and I looked over at him.

“He was just a boy. A kid. And I thought to myself, why the hell would I kill this kid? The war is almost over. He doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. So I [waved at him] and flew off. Back at the base they were all, ‘Did you get him? Did you get him? I said I let him go.

It is the only thing that I did in that whole goddamn war that I am really pleased about. We had to kill, see? I remember destroying a ferry where I must have killed 50 or 60 people. And it is human life, and you could say, ‘Well, what the hell, it is war.’ But it just shows you how stupid war is when a guy like me looks back at things and feels the way I do.”

Of course, not everyone returned. A few days ago CBC published a story about an underage soldier from Saltcoats, Saskatchewan named Roy Clarence Armstrong. He fought in Northern France and died when he was still 18. This is an interesting story, one that never would have been told had the family not kept his letters, and recognized their importance when they were found. In the story it also talks about the issue of underage boys who enlisted. There were many who did. I know this, because I have family members that also enlisted while underage. This quote from the article talks about this issue:

For a time the military fulfilled some parents’ requests to remove underage sons from the army. The practice stopped after a court ruled in 1915 that a pact existed between the army and an individual soldier regardless of age.

Though the issue of underage soldiers came up in the House of Commons in 1916, the matter doesn’t appear to have been pursued in the following years, says Black.

So boys continued to sign up. Two as young as 10 enlisted but never made it to the Western Front, according to historians. Many of the approximately 20,000 teens who lied about their ages were between 14 and 17.

Following in this theme, Calgary Opera will be presenting the Canadian Premiere of Kevin Puts’ and Mark Campbell’s Pulitzer Prize winning opera Silent Night this week. It tells the story of a spontaneous truce on Christmas Eve 1914, when combatant troops laid down their weapons to celebrate the holiday together and bury their dead.

Tickets are still available for the performances tomorrow and on Friday.

* * *

Of course, this blog is about art – not war.

To that end, public art often incorporates memorials for various reasons – one of those objectives is the remembrance of war and its victims.

Two recent public art installations were unveiled, or completed today, to honour those that fell during WWI. Each took a different perspective in how they portrayed a memorial to those that fell. The differences of perspective are interesting. One is located in northern France, near the town of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire; the other is attached to the Tower of London.

Philippe Prost’s International Memorial of Notre-Dame de Lorette

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Honouring the 579,606 soldiers from all nations who died on the battlefield in France. The names are all listed in strict alphabetical order, with no designation of rank or country of service in a large elliptical circle.

Noteworthy in the French installation is that part of the circular installation is left hanging above the landscape which serves as “a reminder and a warning about the fragility of peace.”

In the BBC story referenced above, there is a poignant story about one of those whose name is listed on this memorial – Geert Hindricks who served with the 3rd Hannover Infantry Regiment. I quote the article:

He described in a last letter to his wife how the German soldiers on the Western Front became friendly with their enemies in the British trench just 20m (65ft) away, warning each other when officers were passing by and sharing meat and cigarettes.

“When you think about it,” he wrote, “it’s a sad affair when there’s no animosity between the locals and the soldiers, and only those at the top can’t agree on anything.”

I digress, but in some respects this French installation bears a certain resemblance to a component of a planned, but certainly much more hackneyed, circular installation proposed to be located alongside the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island.

Paul Cummin’s and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Tower_of_London_poppy_installation

This temporary public art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies which only a few hours ago was finally completed through the placement of the final poppy in the moat surrounding the Tower of London. A 13-year old cadet, Harry Hayes, was selected. When one thinks about it, this was an appropriate choice as many of those British servicemen who served and died in action were only slightly older than this young boy.

The poppy installation has a populist appeal. Many will attend or have visited during the installation. However, it is not without its detractors. Jonathon Jones the art critic for The Guardian stated:

It is deeply disturbing that a hundred years on from 1914, we can only mark this terrible war as a national tragedy. Nationalism – the 19th-century invention of nations as an ideal, as romantic unions of blood and patriotism – caused the great war. What does it say about Britain in 2014 that we still narrowly remember our own dead and do not mourn the German or French or Russian victims? The crowds come to remember – but we should not be remembering only our own. It’s the inward-looking mood that lets Ukip thrive.

 

As we move forward from this 100th anniversary, let us reflect on change. It is safe to say that very few are still living who experienced the horrors of that war. Maybe it is time to finally move on and focus on what is truly important.

Will we choose to focus on peace, reconciliation and mutual respect – or will we focus on war, divisiveness and intolerance?

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