On Remembrance Day, I was talking to visitors to the Artists Rifles Exhibition at Gosport Gallery about their reaction to the exhibition and the First World War. A small group of us observed the two minutes silence together. It was very moving to be surrounded by paintings and drawings created by those who fought in the trenches. What people had to say brought home to me how much WWI still matters to the descendants of those who suffered both on the front and at home. Here are some examples –
What has really struck me has been the futility and the enormity of loss during World War One. We’ve been so focused on the Second World War that it’s only really with this year that WWI has been made properly known. It’s wonderful to see how it was recorded through art and poetry.
We’ve just come from a church listening to children read poetry about the war. I think it’s so important that even though it was a hundred years ago that children understand the enormity of what happened. How even now so many families have stories of relations that were lost. They say that war is remembered for three generations but I think it can be more, it should be more.
What we’ve been trying to trace is a kind of map of where our ancestors joined up and why. Because sometimes they joined regiments quite far from where they actually lived. Maybe it was to do with wanting to be with pals or some kind of job connection but it’s fascinating to follow the routes they took to war.
The wonderful thing now is the computer. We were sat at home on a Saturday afternoon and we put a name in. Twenty minutes later we had a photograph of his gravestone, where he died fighting in Belgium. You could even see the plaque left by his wife when she went to visit the grave.
We go on the Cenotaph march every year. No matter what the weather. Because the war didn’t stop for rain or snow or anything, they still had to fight so we still have to remember. It’s like a sort of family event where you catch up with people you only see once a year. When the silence ends and the band starts, it’s really so powerful. This year more than ever because of the focus, the depth of feeling around World War One.
I think it keeps the older people alive, finding out about the previous generations. You have to talk to them because they remember the little details, small stories that will be forever lost, precious snippets like the fact he used to go for walks on a Sunday with my great grandfather. He fought in World War One and died years later of his wounds, physical and psychological.
My grandfather was a balloonist, a spotter in Northern France. They went up and spotted where the shells fell, quite high observation. I imagine it was quite dangerous as they could have been blown out of the sky. He signed up as a private and became an acting corporal. He was a teacher who survived the war and went on to be headmaster of Leytonstone Grammar School. It shows how educated men were prepared to sign up as ordinary soldiers, not necessarily go through the military college. I think he saw it as just something I must do, he didn’t think shall I be somebody in this war, he just did his duty.
What I get from looking at this exhibition is an insight into how little they knew what to expect. There’s a sense of profound bewilderment, like they knew they were expected to do it but they didn’t quite know what they were expected to do. They had such implicit trust in the chain of command. But when you look at this painting of all the officers at the station you wonder how much they really knew. Certainly a lot of the boys just did it because they had this terrific sense of patriotism. I remember seeing a children’s book called Me and My Empire, to be British was to be identified with the Empire. It was a very different time. And you get the sense of loss and bewilderment. It’s very important to have exhibitions like this so you can get under the skin of it.