These are the videos I used in the lecture on 19 November
British War Posters
This video shows a selection of recruiting and other morale-boosting posters from the British. Compared with the German and Russian selection shown in the lecture, they are less aesthetically accomplished. However, it could be argued that because they used a visual language that was entirely familiar to its audience, borrowed from advertising imagery at the time (and largely produced by the same people who created commercial advertising) the posters were far more successful than some of their ‘better’ designed European counterparts.
Music: Pack Up Your Troubles
British War Artists
The British armed forces have a long history of official artists, what we would now call ‘embedded’ (nothing’s new, it seems).
They were commissioned to capture the atmosphere and story of battles and other engagements for regimental histories. Hundreds (thousands) of paintings and drawings were made which have rarely, if ever, been seen.
Many are kept in the archives of the Imperial War Museum but are now available to view online.
This video, a mood setter for the lecture, shows a small selection but they are much more impressive when viewed ‘properly’ on the IWM website. Some of the images are quite horrific and seem to bring home the true extent of the conflict much more than photography or film could do.
The music is the Agnus Dei, from Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ composed in the 1960s.
The work combines the Catholic requiem mass with the poetry of Wilfred Owen.
In this movement the tenor sings the poem ‘At A Calvary Near The Ancre’ while the choir sings ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserer nobis/ Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserer nobis/ Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’ (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace).
The words of the poem, together with an explanation, are below:
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate
The poem describes a ‘Calvary’, a crucifixion scene that was often placed at crossroads in France (examples still exist today). Owen uses the fact that the figure of Christ has lost a limb to describe some of the absurdities of religious attitudes to war.
“Near Golgotha strolls many a priest” refers to the chaplains who accompanied troops to the Front and who claimed that wounds gained in the fighting were things of which to be proud. “Flesh-marked by the Beast” refers to the Devil and to the enemy, the claim being that the war was a righteous one, and that God was on ‘our’ side (the same of course being claimed by all combatants).
“The scribes on all the people shove/And bawl allegiance to the state” is a description of how the pulpit is used to denounce those who object to the war.
The last two lines are ambiguous, and in his setting of the poem to music Britten appears to read them as saying that those who are willingly laying down their lives are doing so for love of their friends and family, and strangers back home – this is not a time for hate. This would be typical of Owen, who often used irony in his poems; he is saying that the priests are advocating hatred, which is exactly the opposite of the message embodied in the crucifixion scene that sparked the poem.
Wilfred Owen was killed at the age of 25, a few days before the end of the war. He had originally been sent back to Britain suffering from shellshock. Posted first to a hospital in Scarborough, and then to Ripon (scene of Britain’s biggest army camp) he chose to return to the Front, despite his opposition to the war, rather than accept a safer posting back home.