I must admit that animals have never really interested me that much. I was always far too excited about Ladybird history books to pay anything else much attention. By contrast, some of my school chums were obsessed with them. They and their families watched all the David Attenborough documentaries and one was a very enthusiastic member of the RSPB and did his bit of weekend ‘twitching’. Now, I have children of my own and so animals, and worse still, pets, have come home to roost, as it were.
However, once over the channel the situation is transformed for there is a very particular menagerie that I find absolutely entrancing: the animals, real and mythic, carved into the war memorials and headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. In essence every animal becomes mythic as all are either absolutely perfect specimens or look like an advertising agency’s idealised version. That is, of course, precisely why they exert such a grip on the imagination. But, it goes beyond a simple surface wow factor. For these creatures, particularly those that are part of memorial schemes, inspire awe at the artistry and skill of the sculptors who crafted them. And, that then leads us to the latent message contained in these beasts; the anthropomorphic allegories that they contain; the cypher key unlocking the whole meaning of the memorial. Reaching this point also leads us to realise that the architecture of the IWGC contained a very different set of ideas, and ideals, in its essential encoding to those found in the now famous war poets of the Great War. What Robert Graves called the ‘big words’ such as ‘Honour’, ‘Glory’, ‘Majesty’, and were rejected as meaningless by those now famous poets, are the stone DNA chains formed with such lapidary care by the creators of these animals.
Let’s start with an obvious British symbol: the lion. As a quick dip into medieval, as well as football, history will show, the lion has long been associated with both Scotland and England, and so the hybrid British lion emerged. Perhaps its most potent plastic expression came in the late nineteenth century in Edwin Landseer’s four great lions guarding each corner of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. It is therefore not surprising to find them on IWGC sites on the Western Front. Refining that geography down, Flanders is the place to find the stone Serengeti of British imperial commemoration. Sitting on top of the Menin Gate at Ypres/Ieper is William Reid Dick’s marvellous lion, which is also probably the one whose aesthetic lineage to Landseer’s pride is most apparent. The great lion sits calm and passive staring down the Menin Road out towards the German lines. He is the indomitable spirit of the BEF, particularly its first contingent of ‘old contemptibles’ which held back the enemy invader.
The Menin Gate lion. © Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Not far to the north and south are my particular favourites: those designed by Charles Sargeant Jagger for the Nieuport memorial and the Ploegsteert memorial to the missing. In both instances the wondrously graceful and clean flowing lines of the Art Deco can be detected. The hard geometric angularity of the modern meets the organic in beautiful fusion. There is also something of the Wembley Empire Exhibition lion crest in them, particularly those at Nieuport, which is hardly a surprise, and the message is the same: the Empire is here, solid, immovable, and entirely unthreatening to those who do not disturb its peace. But, the other side is also present. At Ploegsteert, Ledward’s massive pair of lions have different expressions. One is passive and at rest: the usual state of the British Empire is the message. The other looks as if someone has just yanked his tail. His teeth are bared revealing terrifying fangs capable of savaging any enemy: don’t mess with the British Empire. This element of latent power is intimately connected with gender: the lions are anatomically correct, as an investigation of its nether end will reveal. At the risk of pushing this lewd element too far for you, it conjures up the memorable lines from Withnail and I: ‘Imagine getting into a fight with the f***er. Imagine the size of his balls.’ You only have to do the former with Gilbert Ledward’s specimens.
The two lions on the Ploegsteert Memorial designed by Gilbert Ledward. © Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The other beastly wonder of the British Western Front, and perhaps even surpassing the lions, are Charles Wheeler’s tigers for Herbert Baker’s stunning Neuve Chapelle memorial to the Indian Corps. Flanking the column topped by the Star of India, the two tigers are magnificent in their grace. But, they are also fascinating for what they reveal about the power balances of the Empire, for stare at those ravishingly beautiful animals long enough and another message seems to come through. For a start, both look out with perfect calm guarding the column, but also content in its shadow. And then you begin to wonder: do these two creatures seem as if they have been somehow tamed? But perhaps that is too strong; perhaps it is better say harnessed or channelled in some way. They still have their inherent power and magnificence, but they loyally recognise their master: the Government of India, the Raj. Do these tigers sum up the whole allegory of the memorial: Indians and British in harmony, but with the British firmly in control?
Their opposites in terms of demeanour were the tigers on the now lost Indian Army memorial at Port Tewfik at the southern end of the Suez Canal destroyed in the Six Day War of 1967. Tragically from the architectural point of view, these appear to have been the best of the lot in terms of sheer sculptural fireworks. Executed by Charles Sargeant Jagger, his tigers are snarling, furious beasts crouching low and ready to pounce on their enemies, unsuspecting or otherwise. Looked at now, the photographs hint at something akin to the Jaguar motors logo, but with infinitely more savage power. Here was the pride and might of the Indian Army alright.
Top: The design of the tiger by Charles Sargeant Jagger for the Indian Army memorial at Port Tewfik.
Bottom: The memorial at the time of its unveiling in 1926. © Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
As might be expected, there are horses. The two I find most interesting are those on the memorials at Vis-en-Artois and Delville Wood. At the crux of the Vis-en-Artois memorial is a bas relief of a mounted St George slaying the dragon, sculpted by Eric Gillick. In its symbolism it brings together the mythic and the real. Rather than depict St George and his horse as medieval warriors like some Pre-Raphaelite vision, Gillick stripped them down. The warrior is naked and his horse has nothing in the way of bridle, bit or stirrup. This accentuates the flesh of both man and horse which is then made all the more arresting by the fact that the dragon has sunk its claws into the horse’s belly. The sensation of delicate flesh being pierced and ripped is palpable. Fragility, even in the legendary St George and his charger is suddenly, and somewhat shockingly, introduced through this sculpture of an animal.
The bas relief of St George and the dragon on the Vis-en-Artois memorial. © Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The other great horse tops Herbert Baker’s arched pavilion at Delville Wood. Cast in bronze, and flanked by Castor and Pollux, the mythical classical warriors, who hold hands across the horse’s back, the statuary encapsulates a very pronounced political allegory. Here the horse represents the essential, natural spirit of South Africa in perfect union with its people. And, of course, the two peoples represented as the equally natural collaborators and ‘improvers’ of South Africa’s inherent quality are white: Afrikaner and British have forgotten their turbulent past to become joint masters. Totally and utterly excluded from this narrative are the native peoples of South Africa. The flora and sculptural fauna here are clearly moulded to an imperial vision.
The South African Memorial, Delville Wood. © Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Finally, in terms of the memorials, are Basil Gotto’s caribous topping the cairns erected by the Newfoundlanders. The most famous is found at what is now called the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial on the Somme. Gotto’s wonderful sculpture was named the ‘Monarch of the Top Sails’ and there is something of the ships’s figurehead about it. Lunging forward, barking towards the enemy lines, the caribou is wild, and yet noble, conjuring up visions of forests and clear blue rivers tumbling down to the ocean where graceful ships lie in St John’s harbour. It’s as if Gotto engineered a snapshot from a James Fennimore Cooper novel or Jack London story. Every cliché we have about the wildernesses of the lands above the 49th Parallel are fixed in those caribou, and yet they don’t seem melodramatic or too literally obvious a symbol. Yes, they are very definitely romantic in their associations and yet they are also in every way a natural fit for their new environment.
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial on the Somme. © Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
And then comes what could be perceived as the common place and quotidian in the badges carved on the headstones in the cemeteries, but such is the precision of the carving and the details that can be picked out, that the animals almost literally leap out at times. Among them are the tigers of the Leicesters, the white harts of Hertfordshires and Warwicks, the white horses of the Liverpools, Berkshires and West Yorks, the eagle on its eyrie for the battalions of the Liverpools raised by Lord Derby. Then there are the sphinxes embedded in the badges of regiments that had fought against Napoleon in Egypt. The one that stands out most strongly on CWGC headstones is the sphinx of the Lincolns, which sits right in the broad roundel crux of the cross. My own particular favourite is the elephant on the Royal Dublin Fusiliers crest. It takes a bit of picking out, but is worth it for the wonderful tusks that almost reach the elephant’s feet. Such symbols are a reminder of the imperial origins of many of these units; in this instance, as a regiment of the East India Company. And these animals, as major components of the insignia of many regiments, remind us of the essential message of the headstones: the men died as soldiers imbued with their military identities and are honoured forever as such.
Thus, to paraphrase George Orwell, if all animals are equal, perhaps some are rightly more equal than others when it comes to the commemoration of the Great War.
Gateways would like to thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) for providing the images for this blogpost.
To find out more about the CWGC and its work caring for the cemeteries and memorials commemorating both the First and Second World Wars visit www.cwgc.org.