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A British Way of Remembering

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In a thousand years time archaeologists will judge the British to have been a most pugnacious nation. Scraping away the silt, they will find in at least 150 countries, memorials and war cemeteries, which testify to military expeditions and long term garrisons emanating from this island. But hopefully these remains will also show that,  as well as a capacity for war ,  the British have dealt with their war dead in a spectacularly graceful manner.  The narrative of our  overseas exploits  is written in stone in every British church and town centre, and across the world in 23,000 cemeteries and garrison grave yards, from the huge war cemeteries  in France to  the tiny battle field sites which remain on the African veldt after the Boer war .  


Following the exceptional carnage of the 1914-18 war the Royal family, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and our greatest poets, writers and architects all played a personal part in establishing a British way of dealing with the war dead.  The leading architects of the day Lutyens , Baker and Blomfield with the pioneering garden designer Gertrude Jekyll were commissioned to design the first permanently maintained war cemeteries which would be the final resting place for the hundreds of thousands of men killed in action at the Western Front . Frederick Kenyon , Britain’s leading classical scholar and palaeographer  was responsible for the consistency of approach and design. To this effect it was decided that the bodies should not be repatriated, that in the burial ground there should be no separations of  rank, race or creed and  that the headstones should be uniform but nevertheless personal with the addition of  what sometimes turned out to be heart-breaking messages from parents and wives that were left behind. Each head stone, mostly in white Portland stone stood erect above the grave, but in geologically unstable places they were smaller and carved in a local stone that rested on the ground. They bore the same information:  name/rank / decorations , age , date of death, regimental or service crest, a religious symbol of choice and at the foot the optional message from the next of kin .   


This initiative, which began directly after the armistice, set a template for the future. The dead were reburied close to where they fell in gardens and fields that were set out with great attention to their design and to their visual impact. The aim in some places was to achieve the tranquillity of an English parish church yard,  and in some places, to exploit the dramatic landscape where they fell, for example in Gallipoli where in spring there is a profusion of wild flowers and self seeding poppies.  Directly after the 1914-18 war, while the gardens and memorials were still being constructed , thousands of families crossed the channel to visit the graves, a raw and emotionally exhausting experience that was well explained by Kipling in his short story The Gardener. 


In the 21st Century, British military graveyards across the world continue to exercise their emotional power. The gardens, the memorial altars and the cenotaphs, many  influenced by Lutyens in dramatic white stone, are now enthusiastically maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to the original specifications of their designers. The historical sense of the military action in which they died is preserved. Wherever possible they lie not far from the beach or the section in the line of trenches where they fell and if they had been killed together,  wherever possible the fallen were arranged into their ship’s companies , infantry platoons and air crews, so that they remained in the tightly forged groups in which they had lived and fought.  


Reading stone after stone, absorbing the scale of  loss , the agonising youthfulness of the dead , the sorrow that was scarcely expressed in the messages from the next of kin, even the most detached visitor cannot resist the emotional tide which flows from these places. Ninety years later  families still crossed the Channel to lay flowers and messages on particular graves, for someone who remained alive and forever young to them.  In this way the war graves are part of our Britishness .  


They still remain splendid and graceful,  and continue to spell out the enormous personal  cost of war in a way that nothing else can.  But, as their personal significance to particular families begins to erode, with the passing generations they take on a wider function as national monuments. In contemporary art terms they are art installations, spectacular , massive and loaded with narrative and emotion. 


The social expectations of the 20th century were destined to overtake the concept of the garrison cemetery and the war burial scheme.  During the Cold War transport technology, shrinking post-colonial responsibilities and the demands of the public brought to an end the no-repatriation rule.  The numbers killed in action were now greatly reduced and individual burials in the parish of the next of kin became more feasible. This allowed the family to influence the burial, which was good , but it ended the era of the British war grave as a national monument or an installation which centuries later could convey the scale and place of a military action. In the post colonial era the absence of a mandate for a long term British presence overseas ruled out permanent burial sites close to where the action had taken place. British forces continued to serve and die in Asia and Africa but the concept of resting forever in some “corner of a foreign place that is forever England”  was now over. The national memory of our war dead was no longer fastened to war cemeteries overseas. Instead the nation watches funeral processions pass through Wootton Bassett as they drive from RAF Lynham to their destination in Oxford. In time however these spontaneous ceremonies will be forgotten. And although the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire succeeds in providing a generic memorial for those who have lost their lives in service of the country, it could not exert the emotional power of a war cemetery close to the battlefield. 


When Steve McQueen was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 2003 to respond to the war in Iraq, he went to Basra with the intention of making a film. Since 1914-18 the British government has commissioned artists to record all aspects of war from the homeland factories to the frontlines. The purpose of war art was therefore to look “resolutely at daily life of the work place, the street and the city , as well as the trenches , the mud and the long journey home”and McQueen’s project was a 21st century continuation of that arrangement. However when he arrived in Basra the British garrison was engaged in an intensive operation and he was unable to film. Nevertheless he was did spend a seminal six days as an embedded artist and was inspired by the men and women that he met, by their camaraderie and by their spirited behaviour under appalling conditions. On his return to Europe he resolved to commemorate their sacrifice; but instead of a film he made an installation. Although Queen and Country has not the scale and therefore cannot exert the same physical presence as a war cemetery, it does achieve a similar emotional impact. By consciously or unconsciously borrowing Sir Frederick Kenyon’s guiding principles for the design of the  great war cemeteries, Steve McQueen’s installation embodies a similar concept.  


In its present site at the National Portrait Gallery , McQueen’s installation takes up an entire room of its own. It consists of a rectangular oak chest ten feet long, five feet across and two to three feet deep which is raised to eye level on a black metal frame . Arranged down each side of the chest are sixty (total 120) vertical wooden drawers, which can be pulled out smoothly and effortlessly one after the other and because they are vertical, when fully extended become picture frames that can be viewed sequentially. McQueen’s concept was to approach the families of each serviceman and woman killed in Iraq to obtain an identifying face-photo of their choice, which he recreated as a stamp, in the style of a Royal Mail postage stamp. Each vertical drawer was allocated to one sheet of 168 stamps all showing the same image of a man or a woman killed in Iraq. In the white space at the edge of the sheet is the name, rank, regiment or service, date of death and age of the featured person. McQueen’s vertical drawers are as headstones, bearing the same information that Kenyon had decreed ninety years ago. But by allowing a wide disparity of photo styles , McQueen’s arrangement had become more personal.  Some images show young men and women in desert kit , some dressed in suits , mess kits , sweat shirts or even bare-chested. Some are studio photos taken professionally and some are snapped against sandbag walls of their fortified  base . They  wear berets, number one dress hats, steel helmets or remain bare-headed. Some grin jauntily and some look anxiously into the camera lens . Some were only eighteen years old . Looking through McQueens cabinet ,  slowly , drawer after drawer , begins to have the same emotional effect as walking through a cemetery. Each drawer is a life and inside the chest they remain in the cohesion in which they lived. 


McQueen’s campaign to persuade the Royal Mail to issue versions of these sheets as postage stamps is superfluous. The ephemeral nature of a licked postage stamp seems to be at odds with the intended longevity of the project. A stamp fastened onto a letter briefly proclaims the life of someone killed in action  before being thrown into the litter bin, whereas the cabinet and its contents have been made to last for generations. 


Thank God that the British do not presently have wars in which several hundreds are killed each day, and thank God we do not therefore need to bury our war dead in huge war cemeteries. Nevertheless our armed forces are intensively engaged in operations and do take casualties almost every week .  So it is right that a top Turner prize artist has engaged so successfully with the scale and emotional cost of Britain’s continuing military operations. Visually Steve McQueen’s cabinet is not arresting; but his concept is , and the receptive viewer will be moved.    True - his project doesn’t fit the  conservative image of what a war memorial should be like , but intentionally or unintentionally it serves that  purpose .  Its scale and  ambition are of its time .   Young men and women of the face-book generation are at war, they need to have memorials that are made by the best creative minds of their era, and Steve McQueen has provided one. 

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