Remembrance Sunday. Fine and sunny, a clear cold morning. Overcoats the order of the day. In Cambridge a large crowd gathers around the war memorial, ‘The Homecoming’, at the end of Station Road.
This memorial has recently been moved: no longer marooned on a traffic island, it is now well set in a paved segmental concourse beside the road and bordered by the Botanic Gardens. You can at last walk safely all round it. You can even sit and contemplate this striking image of the young soldier striding home, with a backward glance towards the station and those comrades who have not returned. Close reading of war memorials matters more than ever, now that the Great War has passed out of personal reach into cultural memory.
I am interested in what figures on war memorials wear, or don’t wear. This isn’t just a matter of uniform. I have spent a lot of time recently studying the Great War Memorial in Northernhay Gardens, Exeter. It’s one of the most impressive anywhere, and one of the most unusual. Its iconography is complex, and what the five figures on the memorial wear is an important part of this complexity.
On top of a high pedestal an 8ft-tall female figure of Victory stands triumphant over the dragon of Tyranny. Her dress is diaphanous, her bare-breasted figure strongly eroticized. Half amazon, half Isadora Duncan, in one hand she holds a sword, in the other a sprig of laurel.
This, then, is technically a victory memorial (as is the Cambridge memorial), celebrating the successful outcome of the War. Nevertheless, the inscription around the plinth reads
“IN PROUD AND GRATEFUL MEMORY OF THE MEN AND WOMEN OF EXETER AND DEVON WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR 1914- 1918
THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE”
which means this is also a memorial to the fallen. At the foot of the pedestal sit four figures, one on each compass point, forming a guard of honour for Victory herself. At first glance, it looks as though the figures represent the Services: a soldier faces you; two other male figures, one clearly a sailor, sit either side; the fourth figure, a woman, is out of view at the back.
So you walk around the plinth, and you notice that while the soldier and the woman (wearing nurse’s uniform) are fully clothed, the other two figures are half or wholly naked. The sailor is bare-chested and barefoot but wears breeches, with the legs rolled up; it’s clear from the nets, ropes and glass buoys surrounding him that he is a Devon fisherman, not a sailor in uniform at all. In his lap, however, is a document (perhaps a chart) as if to indicate that he must now travel into unknown waters, leaving his familiar coast behind.
The other figure, naked but for a drape, is manacled. No other clue identifies him, but he represents – very unusually for British war memorials – prisoners of war. So why, and why in Exeter? Here some context helps. This memorial was erected by public subscription (it cost £6,000 in 1923), the appeal being launched by the Lord Mayor of Exeter. During the War itself, the Lord Mayor had been Sir James Owen; Lady Owen, as Mayoress, had co-ordinated a scheme for sending food parcels and other comforts to British servicemen held as prisoners-of-war. Exeter in fact had become a national centre for POW relief. The memorial therefore commemorates not only the POWs but the contribution of those who worked locally during the War for their relief.
What of the soldier and the nurse? Well, the soldier is depicted with utmost realism: every detail of his uniform and equipment is accurate, down to the hobnails in the sole of his boot. He is dressed for winter: not only is he wrapped in a heavy army-issue great coat, upturned collar all but hiding his face, he sits on a ground sheet and his legs are clumsily bound in sacking. By contrast, the muzzle of his rifle is carefully bound with oilcloth to ensure damp and dirt do not enter the barrel - a detail I’ve never seen on any other war memorial.
Hard, next, to tell whether it is simply patination, or whether the surface of this soldier’s clothes has been scuffed and smeared to look as if mud has frozen onto them. Whereas the sailor is idealized, and with his muscular torso even glamorized, the soldier is represented with an unflinching realism. He is enduring the worst that weather can make him suffer.
By contrast again, the nurse on the opposite side of the monument sits in sunlight. At her feet lies a sheaf of corn and discarded behind her is a great coat she has shrugged off. It is a coat of the same design as the soldier’s, and indeed it is a man’s (not a nurse’s) coat she has been wearing. The sculptor, John Angel – himself from Exeter, has been careful to let us see that she has had to turn back the cuffs because the sleeves are too long. Whose coat might it have been? A boyfriend’s? More likely a dead soldier’s, though these suggestions aren’t mutually exclusive. Yet the nurse is not in mourning: her expression is placid. She is absorbed in what she is doing – making bandages out of a sheet of cloth. The winter of war, signified by the great coat, is literally behind her. There is a better future ahead. The sheaf of corn peeping from under the hem of her uniform reminds me of Edith Sitwell’s lines:
Love is not changed by death
And nothing is lost
And all in the end is harvest.
Clothes (and the lack of clothes) are, of course, always signifiers, but they are not necessarily what we look at first on war memorial sculpture. Perhaps they should be: they add text and texture. We should read a war memorial as closely as we read a war poem.
[Photographs: (i) Remembrance Day, Cambridge, 11.11.12
© Adrian Barlow (ii) Exeter War Memorial, Northernhay Gardens