Thursday, January 26, 2006

In memoriam

click photo to enlarge
What should be on a war memorial? Names? Dates? Soldiers? Most memorials in Britain were erected in the early 1920s - the years soon after the end of the First World War. Almost all include the dates of that war, the names of local men (and occasionally women) who died in the conflict, and a military figure (or figures) in stone or bronze.The treatment of the figures varies. Sometimes a soldier leans on an upturned rifle. On other memorials an infantryman cradles his wounded comrade. Often the figure is a symbolic warrior of no particular war, service or time. Rarely is the enemy depicted, and rarely are the figures engaged in the act of fighting. One can see why, after the carnage and sorrow of a World War, that the tone is subdued, thoughtful and principally commemorative.

However, The Waggoners' War Memorial (1919) at Sledmere, East Yorkshire, departs from these conventions with a vengeance. On the faces of the cylindrical centrepiece the sculptor, Carlo Magnoni, illustrates the setting up of the one thousand strong Waggoners' Reserve, their enlistment, their journey to war, and their action against an enemy shown as beastly in the extreme. The German soldiers are depicted as a grimacing, inhuman foe, dragging women by the hair and torching buildings. Perhaps the different tone is due to the comparatively early date of the memorial, or to the massive impact of the loss of men on a small rural community. Or perhaps it was the wish of the landowner, Sir Tatton Sykes, who was the employer of the men, the instigator of the Waggoners' Reserve, and the patron of the memorial. Whatever the reason, we cannot deny the skill of the artist and the passion of the representation. And we must accept that this memorial represents the feelings of many who experienced that dreadful war. But perhaps we can question the appropriateness of the sentiments on display, and wonder why this memorial is so different from the others.

My photograph shows one of the four faces of the memorial.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen