Sitting on the western edge of Constitution Hill at Hyde Park Corner in London is a huge lump of white Portland Stone punctuated by the deep black bronze of large figures. Protruding from the top is another piece of stone set on a 45-degree diagonal facing south. On approaching, it can be seen that the figures are soldiers framed by scenes of military activity carved into its sides and the crowning piece is actually the barrel of a gun; a 9.2 inch howitzer, in fact, for this is the memorial to the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Designed by Lionel Pearson with sculptural features by Charles Sargeant Jagger, the memorial was unveiled in 1925. It caused quite a stir at the time due to its symbolism and form, and for those who take the time and trouble to examine it closely, it remains a truly remarkable war memorial.
Royal Artillery Monument, Hyde Park. Credit: Michael Arrighi.
Seeing the Royal Artillery memorial in situ, as opposed to in photographs, is a powerful experience. The mark of its power is that the experience never lessens no matter how many times it is revisited and much of that is due to the perfection of balances in the scheme combining sculpture, bas reliefs, bulk and delicacy. Such qualities means that the awe of seeing it never fades; the fascination and wonder become more intense. It also tends to throw down a challenge because the memorial does not seem to embody (and when it comes to Sargeant Jagger’s sculptures that is surely the right term) the sentiments and ideas that so many people associate with the Great War today.
Thus, for people who have grown up immersed in Wilfred Owen’s pitying-protesting cry that the dead at the front were mockingly mourned by the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’, the Royal Artillery memorial is disquieting. For, here the figures spaced round the plinth seem to be made subordinate to the instrument of hideous, long-range destruction: the gun appears to be glorified and magnified. Further, it cannot be said to be a statement made in protest, as the figures of the soldiers are clearly not prostrate before it cowering ‘like old beggars under sacks’, to quote Owen once again, but they stand tall and solid apart from one mysterious recumbent figure at the back of the memorial.
And here is where this particular memorial begins to unfold its own particular narrative. Far from being primarily a statement of grief and regretful sorrow – the emotions we today perhaps overwhelmingly, and subliminally, believe to be the most appropriate message for a war memorial – the Royal Artillery memorial represents the pride of the regiment in its achievements which sits alongside, and is integral to, the honouring of its dead. Unlike infantry units, the Royal Artillery does not have Standards; instead, the guns themselves act as the Colours of each regiment. This then explains the brooding and dominating presence of the gun: it is the unifying element of corporate pride and martial prowess. On the plinth, Sargeant Jagger carved scenes depicting the typical activities of the gunners. Men and weaponry are captured in great detail with the eye not only of a master craftsman and artist, but of a veteran who understood the roles and ethos of the artillery perfectly. As with the statuary, the viewer is struck by the physical demeanour of the men, the perfection of their male forms and the sheer hard work demanded of their human frames. One of the panels shows a group of men hauling ropes as they free a gun stuck in the mud whilst others push on the wheels with all their might. The power of their arms and the tautness of the rope stand out strongly. We are therefore presented with a potent reminder that although the Great War was one of technology, with the artillery arm being one of the most technically sophisticated components of the armed forces capable of using chemical energy to dish out death from many miles away, much of this was realised by the sheer hard work of the gunners themselves.
Relief of the Royal Artillery Memorial. Credit: Metro Centric.
The figures then provide another challenge. They are massive and hyper-masculine. As Stephen Fry said of Victorian and Edwardian photographs of sports teams, they will ‘always seem more capable of growing a bigger moustache and holding more alcohol… the air of maturity they give off is unmatchable by you. Ever’. These whole, huge, square-jawed men are by no means triumphal; instead they are something more worthy: they are resolute. Looking at them, it is clear that they have taken everything the enemy and war can throw at them and have stood firm. At the front, southern end of the memorial – a neat inversion of what we would take to be the frontward facing element of north, deliberately done so that the gun points towards the Western Front – an officer holds his cape and equipment. On the eastern face is a shell carrier wearing his pannier-apron complete with shell cases. He is holding this weight with ease. There is no sign of strain just a tautness of body. On the western face is a driver under his gas cape holding the bridle bits of the horse-team with arms outstretched providing a subliminal hint of the crucifixion of Christ, and with it the suggestion of redemption through sacrifice. Then comes the biggest shock. On the north face underneath the royal crest of the regiment is a low plinth which is actually a catafalque for stretched out on it is a dead gunner covered by his greatcoat. Under the folds of his coat it is just possible to see a little of his head – an ear, some hair. The effect is sobering now: imagine the impact on a society still dealing with the first pangs of mass bereavement. It makes the viewer want to pull back the cape and see the soldier’s face, perhaps identify him, but, like Scrooge unable to lift the sheet covering the body revealed to him by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, we lack the courage and power to do so. Being brought face to face with a solitary dead soldier is too shocking. As Stalin said, ‘one death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic’. And then comes the final tremor. Carved on the plinth are the words: ‘A Royal Fellowship of Death’. Drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry V, they seem a strange challenge, particularly to us now caught in a culture which perceives the war as a ghastly, futile experience. Was Sargeant Jagger being ironic? Could he truly mean it?
And here is where we return to the essential strangeness and wonder – you might think that word odd, but I think it is apt – of the memorial. It seemed strange and wonderful on its unveiling; it remains so through its amazingly delicate balancing act. The memorial tells a story of the realities of war: the equipment and roles of the men are depicted in great detail, but the effect of their activities is almost entirely absent. The men are whole, perfect and full of latent power. They are not shattered in body and mind. They are not the pitiful, impotent figures of Owen poetry. And the dead man is reassuring: his body has not been desecrated by war; it has not been smashed to pulp by the very instruments he served. With unwitting irony, the memorial does encapsulate the message of a famous war poet: Siegfried Sassoon’s insightful insistence that ‘in remembering we forget much’.
So, if you ever find yourself at Hyde Park Corner have a good look at the Royal Artillery memorial and consider its form closely. It is well worth it. It tells us that the war was perceived in far more complex ways than we perhaps realise today.