|Publications : Chapters
'The Living, The Dead and the Imagery of Emptiness
and Re-appearance on the Battlefields of the Western Front'
Pre-publication version: 'Dead
Troops Talk: reviving the dead in the work of Stanley Spencer, Will
Longstaff and Jeff Wall’, Chapter
14 in Deathscapes: New Spaces for Death,
Dying and Bereavement (Eds. Avril Maddrell
and James Sidaway) Ashgate, 2010 pp.263-281.
Taking as its field of enquiry the trenches of
the First World War, this chapter explores the processes of death,
burial and exhumation on the Western Front. Deserted by daytime,
yet crowded with action at night, the Great War battlefield was
a lethal tract where death was often random and anonymous. However,
the battlefield could also be a phantasmagoric, at times enchanted
place, replete with myth, superstition and sublime moments of dread
and fascination. By looking at the war through the eyes of a number
of artists this chapter examines the role of painting and photography
in appearing to bring the dead, the disappeared and the dying back
to figurative life. Possibly the best known work of this kind is
Stanley Spencer’s vast panorama of post-battle exhumation
The Resurrection of the Soldiers, a mural-scale panorama of earthly
redemption which was painted in the 1920s at the same time as vast
tracts of despoiled land in France and Belgium were being brought
back from apparent extinction, and planted with thousands of military
gravestones. While salvage parties recovered and re-buried thousands
of corpses, Spencer and such artists as Will Dyson, Otto Dix, Max
Beckmann and Will Longstaff were conjuring up images of barren and
blighted landscapes populated by phantom soldiers emerging from
The chapter opens with an examination of how soldiers populated
an apparently emptied landscape which was actually teeming with
subterranean activity, how they died, how they were buried, and
how they were made to ‘re-appear’ through art, film,
and poetry. Having examined the crowded emptiness of No Man’s
Land, the chapter briefly explores the complex processes and iconography
of remembrance, including the ritual surrounding the exhumation
and re-burial of the 'Unknown Warrior' in Westminster Abbey. Focusing
on Stanley Spencer and his fascination with the ideas of redemption
and resurrection, the chapter explores how different artists created
images that appeared to revive and resurrect the battle-dead. Finally,
through a reflection on Jeff Wall’s epic photographic battlescape
‘Dead Troops Talk’,
the chapter connects Spencer’s ontology of reconciliation
with Wall’s bleaker montage of debacle and death.
One was tall, gaunt Tom Gunn, the Limber-gunner
of F. Sub-section. As we stood by his corpse someone lifted the
blanket that covered his face. It was
Presented statistically, the loss of young life
in the First World War is quite overwhelming. Even when broken down
into smaller numbers the scale of loss is numbing: in 1916, Richard
Tawney went ‘over the top’ on the Somme battlefield
with 820 fellow Manchesters; 450 men died in the initial attack;
after the second, just 54 answered the roll-call (Tawney
1953: 78). During the same battle the
1st battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment - 801 officers and men
- were reduced to 68 uninjured men after a single day’s fighting
(Gough 2004: 238).
However, as many historians warn, these raw and terrible statistics
must be treated with some care. Figures for the hardest hit units
must not be projected onto the whole war, nor should one battle
be regarded as typical of the experience of every foot soldier.
While it is estimated that four and a half percent of British fighting
soldiers died during the Second World War and five percent in the
Boer War, some ten percent died during the Great War. The daily
attrition rate on the British stretch of the Western Front was over
two hundred soldiers (Terraine 1980).
emaciated and the colour of pale ivory. The other man had died
from shell shock. He stood upright by the wheel of his gun unmarked
but quite dead. Just
a short while before he had invited some of us to share in a parcel
of food he had just received from home, but the party had to be
(Roberts 1974: 13)
Death came in various guises. For many it came anonymously and suddenly.
Artillery was the most lethal killer. While front-line soldiers
dreaded the prospect of hand-to-hand fighting, it was the awesome
power of cannon and mortar that was the real killer (Sheffield
2001: 110). A wounded man was three times
as likely to die as a result of a shell wound to the chest as of
a bullet wound. Not only could distant guns pound a specific tract
of earth for hours, sometimes days on end, but a direct hit from
a heavy metal shell would completely obliterate the body, reducing
a living being to little more than a putrid whiff of air (Conrad
1999: 215). To troops under sustained
heavy shelling, artillery destroyed not only the body, but the mind,
inducing new depths of fear by its random anonymity.
Death by bullet was equally hideous. Sniper fire nearly always targeted
the head. Machine-gun fire was less clinical, tearing capacious
holes in the body. Obscene and random, death was like black magic:
..bodies continued walking after decapitation;
shells burst and bodies simply vanished. Men’s bodies ‘‘shattered’’:
their jaws dropped and out poured
Death from gas brought an entire new realm of
suffering. Chlorine gas acutely irritates the lungs and bronchial
tubes, causing vomiting, violent coughing and breathing difficulties.
Heavy doses would cause the lungs to deteriorate in seconds, the
victim would cough up blood and die in minutes, ‘doubled up,
fists clenched, in agony’ (Slowe
and Woods 1986: 28).
‘‘so much blood’’. Aeroplane propellers
sliced men in to pieces.
(Bourke 1996: 213).
Many, however, died without any visible sign of death, perhaps from
shell percussion or from a hidden wound, though experienced soldiers
would be able to detect the ‘tell-tale blood drips on lips,
in ears or lungs’ (Winter 1978:
206). Siegfried Sassoon came across one
unmarked body which he lifted upright from its prone state in a
Propped against the bank, his blond face was
undisfigured except by the mud which I wiped from his eyes and
tunic and mouth by my coat sleeve. He’d
What happened next depended entirely on the ebb
and flow of the battle, and the specific conditions pertaining at
the moment of death. Individual soldiers killed by sniper fire or
shell explosion whilst holding a front-line post or near a road
behind the lines would be easily identified and buried in small
or individual plots near the front or reserve lines. Artilleryman
William Roberts’ drawing Burying the
Dead after a Battle captures the poignant
scene of gunners, heads bowed gathered around their comrades grave,
while in the near-distance a town burns, an aeroplane falls from
the sky, and tanks pitch about under billows of shellfire. ‘We
buried our own dead’, he wrote, ‘together with some
left over from the infantry’s advance, shoulder to shoulder
in a wide shallow grave, each in his blood-stained uniform and covered
by a blanket. I noticed that some feet projected beyond the covering,
showing that they had died with their boots on, in some cases with
their spurs on too’ (Roberts 1974:
14). During the static years of siege
warfare on the Western Front graves were dug in advance, some regiments
setting aside plots of land for their own dead, even barring others
from ‘trespassing’. Many of these regimental plots would
later be retained by the Imperial War Graves Commission as small
and compact cemeteries dedicated to particular units - Gordon’s
Cemetery near Mametz, for example. Most of these small and isolated
plots would later be dug up; the bodies exhumed by Graves Registration
Units and brought into one of the vast ‘concentration’
cemeteries, located nearer villages and roads so as to allow ease
of access by visitors after the war (Longworth
evidently been killed while digging, for his tunic was knotted
loosely about his shoulders. He didn’t look to be more than
eighteen. Hoisting him a little
higher, I thought what a gentle face he had.
(Sassoon 1930: 112)
Not all of the dead would be buried intact. Souvenir hunters would
strip a body of its every article, especially if the dead were the
enemy, and the further from the front-line the more cleanly picked.
As Guardsman Stephen Graham later recalled: ‘Those (bodies)
nearest our encampment at Noreuil all lay with the whites of their
pockets turned out and their tunics and shirts undone by souvenir
hunters.’ He remembered in particular, a well clothed six
feet three inches tall dead German, whose boots were taken first,
then his tunic, ‘A few days later he was lying in his pants’
(Graham 1921: 67).
After a major set-piece battle, the work of the burial parties was
unrelentingly grim. Those who had been killed during an attack or
patrol might be less easily identifiable, having lain in No Man’s
Land or other parts of the battlefield exposed to enemy fire. Mass
clearance was attempted even when a battle was in progress or where
a front was still strewn with the recent dead. In the aftermath
of the Battle of Loos in autumn 1915 Scots officer George Craike
spent nights with groups of his men scurrying into No Man’s
Land to hastily cover the bodies of East Surrey soldiers who had
died in large numbers a week earlier:
We crawled out of the trenches with caution in
small parties, and dealt with the dead simply by putting them
into depressions in the earth, or into shell holes.
Once the worst of the fighting had passed over,
larger burial parties would be organised. Often consisting of soldiers
from different units, motivated by the need to maintain morale,
to achieve some modicum of hygiene and out of common humanity, they
combed the former battlefield, their noses and mouths covered by
fragments of gas masks, removing the identity discs if they could
be recovered, the red disc destined for the orderly office, the
green one left on the body to ensure accurate identification. Pockets
would be searched to uncover paybooks and other personal effects.
There was little time for niceties: ‘you put them in a hole
ready dug with boots and everything on. You put in about 10 or 15,
whatever the grave will hold, throw about 2 feet of earth on them
and stick a wooden cross on top’ (Winter
This was not a pleasant task and occasionally the arms disengaged
from the bodies. However, the bodies were placed as far as possible
in these holes and
covered over with a light layer of earth, this earth being brushed
or dug in by the entrenching tools. All the work had to be done
on all fours, for to stand erect
was courting disaster. … The work was slow, laborious and
(Arthur 2002: 105)
Fragments of British dead were collected in empty sandbags and buried
in mass graves as quickly as possible; their grave markers often
listing little more than ‘an unknown soldier’, or possibly
some indication of the regimental or unit title. Sapper Richards
remembered gathering the remnants of one ghastly bombing accident,
rescuing ‘bits from telegraph wires where they’d been
blown at great velocity’, and burying them in a common grave
(Arthur 2002: 106).
Sometimes the interval between death and discovery was too long
and bodies had literally fallen to pieces ravaged by rats, weather,
and biological processes:
As you lifted a body by its arms and legs, they
detached themselves from the torso, and this was not the worst
thing. Each body was covered inches deep
Under these extreme circumstances every effort
at conventional decency was attempted. Burial parties tried to give
‘these poor bleeding pieces of earth’ a Christian burial
by reading sections form the Book of Common
Prayer. Even if a Minister, chaplain or
priest could not attend all combatants felt it important that ‘you
buried your comrades and saw to it that their graves were marked
with a wooden cross and a name…’ (Carrington
1965: 127-28). The hope of creating a
more decent burial improved with distance from the front; whereas
a loose covering of earth might be all that was possible at the
trench lines, ‘some old sacking’ was considered an adequate
and appropriate covering further from the front, while canvas sheets
were regarded as a suitable substitute for coffins in the military
hospitals located in the rear zones (Bourke
with a black fur of flies, which flew up into your face, into
your mouth, eyes and nostrils as you approached. The bodies crawled
with maggots. There had
been a disaster here. An attack by green, badly led troops who
had had too big a rum ration – some of them had not even
fixed their bayonets - against a
strong position where the wire was still uncut. They hung like
washing on the barbs, like scarecrows who scared no crows since
they were edible. The birds
disputed the bodies with us. This was a job for all ranks. No
one could expect the men to handle the bodies unless the officers
did their share. We stopped
every now and then to vomit… the bodies had the consistency
of Camembert cheese. I once fell and put my hand through the belly
of a man. It was days
before I got the smell out of my hands.
(Cloete 1972: 121)
Enemy dead were often left until last to be cleared from a battlefield.
As Charles Carrington (1965: 128)
coolly noted they ‘came last in priority, and more than once
I have cleared a trench of its defunct tenants by throwing them
over the parapet where someone might or might not find and bury
them.’ Experienced soldiers could estimate the date of death
from the colour and condition of corpses left out in the open, Caucasians
turned from yellow to grey to red, and then to black. In death,
white soldiers turned black and black Senegalese soldiers turned
white (MacDermott in Bourke, 1996: 214).
Official War Artist William Orpen was astonished at the weird colours
of the enemy corpses he stumbled across while roaming the abandoned
Somme battlefields in 1917, and made a number of precise drawings
describing the polished skeletons of German soldiers ‘bleached
white and clean’ by the fierce summer sun. As he wandered
over the emptied downlands of the Somme everything shimmered in
the heat; abandoned clothes were baked into strange combinations
of colour, ‘white, pale grey and pale gold. The only dark
colours were the deep red bronze of the “wire”, wild
flowers sprouted everywhere… in the evening, everything golden
in the sunlight’ (Orpen 1923: 23-4).
His only companions on these sojourns were distant burial parties
who were diligently digging up, identifying, and re-burying thousands
of scattered bodies in the larger concentration cemeteries. Orpen
passed one such group near Thiepval Hill, resting from their unpleasant
work, and trying to identify the dead from their meagre finds -
a few coins, pocket knives, an occasional identity disc - garnered
from their long labour. Perhaps it was only artists who, commissioned
to seek out the novel and unique faces of war, sought the imagery
of death in extremis:
Then suddenly round the bend in the trench I
came to a great bay which was full of dead Germans, but they weren’t
a bit horrible. They had been dead for
The Desert: Deserted but ‘Populated’
about six weeks and weather and rats and maggots and everything
else had done their stuff. Now they were just shiny skeletons
in their uniforms held
together by the dry sinews, that wound round their bones... It
was a most weird and extraordinary picture and I was absolutely
(Talbot Kelly 1980: 5)
Not far from where Orpen sat drawing the picked remains of soldiers
in foul-smelling trenches, Charles Carrington scanned the scorched
earth of the southern battlefield, its few remaining trees snapped
short with splintered ends ‘like monstrous shaving brushes’,
everywhere the smell of burnt and poisoned mud, every yard of ground
‘ploughed up by shell-fire and …tainted with high explosive,
so that a chemical reek pervaded the air … and through it
one could distinguish a more biotic flavour - the stink of corrupting
human flesh.’ In fact, Carrington reckoned that the best part
of 200,000 men had been killed in the last few months somewhere
in the 30 square miles around his trench. Buried hastily in shallow
graves, or buried and subsequently blown out of those graves, he
estimated ‘7,000 corpses to the square mile [was] not much
of an exaggeration, ten to the acre shall we say, and your nose
told you where they lay thickest’ (Carrington
To the scrutinising eye the landscape may have seemed deserted but
the dead lay just beneath its ruptured surface and the living led
an ordered and disciplined existence in underground shelters and
deep chambers (Redmond 1917: 39).
It was one of the greatest contradictions of modern warfare, a landscape
that gave the appearance by daylight of being empty but was emphatically
not: it teemed with invisible life. Few paintings have captured
the immensity of that void; even words failed to convey the intensity
of its emptiness. Faced with the phantasmagoric lunar face of the
Western Front, the imagination froze:
It seemed quite unthinkable that there was another
trench over there a few yards away just like our own …Not
even the shells made that brooding watchfulness
One writer who visited the Western Front - Reginald
Farrer - suggested, that it was quite wrong to regard the ‘huge,
haunted solitude’ of the modern battlefield as empty. ‘It
is more’, he argued, ‘full of emptiness… an emptiness
that is not really empty at all’ (Farrer
1918: 25). Paul Nash visualised this idea
- borrowing Farrer’s phrase the ‘Void
of War’ and populating its emptinesses
with latent violence. The very concept of space as an undifferentiated,
homogeneous void which surrounded solid objects had already been
challenged by contemporary artists; cinema was revolutionizing the
visual arrangement of time; the act of film editing fractured continuous
events, reshaping and compressing story-lines into new patterns
of narrative. Just as geographers were developing regional approaches
on the interrelationship between people and their local environments,
so scientific research pioneered by Einstein argued for a number
of distinct spaces equal to the number of unstable reference systems.
Braque and Picasso smashed forever the belief in a neat pictorial
system based on the single static eye of one-point perspective.
It was a period of extraordinary innovation, as if ‘an earthquake
had struck the precisely reticulated sidewalks of a Renaissance
street scene’ (Kern 1983: 179).
War accelerated these changes: when Picasso saw trucks heading out
of Paris towards the Front he is said to have pointed at their camouflage
and exclaimed ‘yes, it is we who made that, that is cubism’
and to a degree he was right. Deceptive and disruptive camouflage
is the perfect exposition of the new way that the world’s
spaces had to be seen, or to be more exact, not seen (Stein
more easy to grasp; they only made it more grotesque. For everything
was so paralysed in calm, so unnaturally innocent and bland and
balmy. You simply could
not take it in.
(Farrer 1918: 113)
By contrast, the benighted battlescape was always busy as troops
set to work repairing their entrenchments, reinforcing the wire,
bringing forward fresh troops, food and provisions, or setting out
into No Man’s Land on raid or patrol. The tract of land between
the trenches was a ‘debatable’, fluid and near-mythical
zone that soldiers learned to fear, but which also exercised a dread
fascination with many. The poet David Jones captured its liminal
qualities, the threshold between two different existential spaces:
The day by day in the wasteland, the sudden violences
and long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of
that mysterious existence profoundly
At the intersection of these two worlds - the
dangerous emptiness of the daylight battlescape and the crowded
busy-ness of the benighted No Man’s Land - came one of the
critical moments of any soldier’s experience of war: the moment
he left the relative safety of the front-line and stepped up into
the danger zone. One soldier remembered it thus:
affected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place
(Jones 1937: x)
The scene that followed was the most remarkable
that I have ever witnessed. At one moment there was an intense
and nerve shattering struggle with death
Moving from the horizontal to the vertical, from
subterranean security to maximal vulnerability, was an ultimate
transformation for every combatant. It compounded the central tenet
of militarised service; the transformation from civilian to soldier,
from innocence to experience, and, in many cases, from youth to
adult. Indeed, every level of the military experience seemed to
be permeated by the rhetoric of transformation and conversion. One
officer, for example, relieved from an exposed front-line outpost,
described how marvellous it was to be out of the trenches: ‘it
is like being born again.’ (Plowman
1927: 54) Another described those who
survived one particular battle as ‘not broken, but reborn’
(Williamson 1988: 10).
Throughout the memoirs of the Great War, (and perhaps maybe all
wars) there is a common language of initiation, of ‘baptisms
of fire’, of inner change and transmutation brought about
by ecstatic experience, of ‘immense exultation at having got
through the barrage’ (Owen in Fussell
1975: 115). Edmund Blunden, returning
to his lines after a desperately dangerous patrol in no-man’s-land,
recalled how ‘We were received as Lazarus was’ (Blunden
1928: 172). When Siegfried Sassoon discovered
that his friend Robert Graves was not dead and had in fact survived
an artillery barrage, the news was celebrated as though he ‘had
risen again from the dead’ (Sassoon
1930: 128). As Paul Fussell has written,
it was this plethora of ‘very un-modern superstitions, talismans,
wonders, miracles, relics, legends and rumours that would help shape
the dominant mythologies of the war.’ It was a world of ‘conversions,
metamorphoses, and rebirths in a world of reinvigorated myth’
(Fussell 1975: 115).
screaming through the air. Then, as if with the wave of a magic
wand, all was changed; all over ‘No Man’s Land’
troops came out of the trenches, or rose
from the ground where they had been lying.
(Stuart Dolden 1980: 39)
The transformation of the body through moments of extreme tension
was matched by the transformation of the pulverized landscape both
during and after the war. Hampshire’s officer Paul Nash saw
how war wreaked its havoc, but was astonished that nature should
prove so extraordinarily resilient. He wrote of walking through
a wood, or at least what remained of it after the shelling, when
it was just ‘a place with an evil name, pitted and pocked
with shells, the trees torn to shreds, often reeking with poison
gas’. Two months later this ‘most desolate ruinous place’
was drastically changed. It was now 'a vivid green':
..the most broken trees even had sprouted somewhere
and in the midst, from the depth of the wood’s bruised heart
poured out the throbbing song of a nightingale. Ridiculous mad
incongruity! One can’t think which is the more absurd, the
War or Nature...
(Nash 1949: 33)
In 1919 Paul Nash and his brother John, were provided with a truck
load of shards from the Western Front - metal fragments, sheets
of corrugated roofing, concrete blocks and other detritus - delivered
to their studio in the Chilterns to jog their memories as they embarked
on paintings commissioned by the British War Memorials scheme. Both
were encouraged to revisit the old battlegrounds, but having served
on the front-line they chose not to, accepting that its cruel complexion
was impressed indelibly on them. How could they forget the state
of northern France and western Belgium after years of siege warfare.
Objective measurements attest to the utter scale of desolation across
a great tract of northern Europe where some 333 million cubic metres
of trench had to be back-filled, barbed wire covered an estimated
375 million square metres, over 80,000 dwellings had been destroyed
or damaged, as were 17,466 schools, public buildings and churches,
and the population of the devastated regions had diminished by 60
per cent (Clout 1996).
A map drawn up by the British League of Help for Devastated France
superimposed the scale of war damage onto the Shires of England
with the startling prediction that no fewer than twenty-one English
counties would have been severely blighted by war - a swathe of
destruction that reached from Kent to the north Midlands (Osborne,
While the native populations in France and Belgium toiled to reconstruct
their homes and land, pilgrims and veterans roamed the former battlegrounds
to locate places that might contain the memory of significant events.
Outwardly there was nothing to see; the landscape that drew them
was an imaginary one. It was a place of projection and association,
a space full of history, yet void of obvious topography, where physical
markers had been obliterated but the land overwritten with an invisible
emotional geography (Gough 1993).
When the painter Stanley Spencer travelled to the Balkans in 1922
he was undertaking a journey made by thousands, indeed tens of thousands,
of travellers who were uniting intense memories with places that
no longer existed; indeed the wasted landscapes in France, Belgium,
the Dardenelles and Macedonia were outwardly empty places ‘you
take your own story to’, bereft of identifying landmarks except
for painted signposts indicating where things once were - former
villages, churches or farmsteads - and littered with war refuse
and unspent ammunition (Shepheard 1997).
By 1920, some 4,000 men were daily engaged in combing the battlefields
in the search for human remains. On the Western Front, the ground
was divided into gridded areas, each searched at least six times,
but even ten years later up to 40 bodies were being handed over
each week to the French authorities (Middlebrook
and Middlebrook 1991: 3). In France a
ten franc bounty was given for each corpse returned to the authorities.
A systematic method to identify graves and locate shallow burials
had been put in place by the British as early as September 1914,
although initial attempts to co-ordinate the burial and recording
of the dead were somewhat haphazard. It was the zeal of Fabian Ware
and his Graves Registration Unit that laid the foundations of a
systematic audit of British and Empire dead and their place of burial
Once it had been decided that bodies would not be exhumed and repatriated,
Ware began to establish a method for graves registration and a scheme
for permanent burial sites. He also arranged that all graves should
be photographed so that relatives might have an image and directions
to the place of burial. By August 1915 an initial 2,000 negatives,
each showing four grave markers, had been taken. Cards were sent
in answer to individual requests, enclosing details that gave ‘the
best available indication as to the situation of the grave and,
when it was in a cemetery, directions as to the nearest railway
station which might be useful for those wishing to visit the country
after the war’ (Ware in Hurst 1929:
vii). Nine months later Ware’s makeshift
organisation had registered over 50,000 graves, answered 5,000 enquiries,
and supplied 2,500 photographs. Little over a year later the work
to gather, re-inter and individually mark the fallen had become
a state responsibility. The dead, as Heffernan states, were no longer
allowed ‘to pass unnoticed back into the private world of
their families’. They were ‘official property’
to be accorded appropriate civic commemoration in ‘solemn
monuments of official remembrance’ (Heffernan
1995: 302). Ware’s band of searchers
took to their work with zealous diligence. One described it as requiring
the patience and skills of a detective ‘to find the grave
of some poor fellow who had been shot in some out of the way turnip
field and hurriedly buried.’ After the war, local people,
especially young children, joined in the searches with sometimes
It occasionally happens that the grave which
we believe to contain the remains of a certain person is, in fact,
a pit into which large numbers of dead bodies
According to Longworth, a good registration officer
quickly came to know intimately the ground allotted to him: he knew
its recent military history, every raid, skirmish or significant
action, the regiments involved and in which fields unmarked or unrecorded
graves were likely to be located. Following up every scrap of information,
sometimes gleaned from veterans who had served on that part of the
front, he pieced together the scanty evidence so as to identify
burials. Graves Registration staff had actually undertaken such
work during the war, often within range of enemy gunfire, but after
the death of one staff member working in an Ypres cemetery they
were ordered back from the front-lines into the safer areas where
battle had moved on. This necessary, but unfortunate, decision may
explain ‘the extraordinarily high proportion of unidentifiable
graves when the count came after the war’ (Longworth
have been thrown by the enemy. When such a grave is opened we
are able not only to identify the body for which we are searching,
but also by their discs,
the bodies of many others. One example - the latest – will
suffice. The trench containing the bodies of Colonel _ , Captain
_, Lieutenants __ __, held also
the bodies of 94 non-commissioned officers and men. Of these 66
still wore their discs, etc., and thus their deaths were certified,
and their graves
ascertained. The trench was then prolonged, the bodies laid side
by side, and the burial service read over them.
(Report in Longworth 1967: 4-5)
Known and Unknown
Between 1921 and 1928 some 30,000 corpses were dug-up from their
last burial place, and re-interred. Each body was marked by a standard
stone headstone, which carried a modicum of military detail, as
much as could be gleaned from the corpse or from its first grave
marker, usually name, rank, regimental number (except for officers)
military unit, date of death, and age (if supplied by next of kin).
Personal inscriptions paid for by the family of the dead man were
allowed to a maximum of 66 characters, including the spaces between
words (Batten 2009).
It is reckoned that only a quarter could be identified because fibrous
identity discs issued before 1916 had disintegrated. In those instances
the headstone would simply state ‘A
Soldier / of the Great War / Known Unto God’.
In some cases the inscription indicates that the body was known
to have belonged to a particular unit, but could be identified in
no greater detail, or that the body lies not directly beneath the
stone but somewhere within the plot of the cemetery. Despite the
occasional attempt to have an individual body brought home for private
burial, the principle - approved by the Imperial Conference of 1918
and endorsed by the British government in May 1920 - that all bodies
were to be buried near to where they fell was rigorously applied.
There was, however, one notable exception - the exhumation and burial
in Britain of an ‘Unknown Warrior’.
Many individuals have been credited with the idea of exhuming the
body of an unknown soldier and entombing it in the sacred centre
of the British State, ‘the Parish Church
of the Empire’, at Westminster Abbey.
Most scholars agree, however, that the idea originated with a young
army padre, the Reverend David Railton MC who wrote first to Sir
Douglas Haig, and then to the Dean of Westminster, the Right Rev
Herbert Ryle (Inglis 1993)
in August 1920. Our Empire
later explained his motives:
He was worried that the great men of the time
might be too busy to be interested in the concerns of a mere padre.
He had also thought of writing to the King
The popular press railed against ‘weird
artists’ and were aghast at the exhibitions of official war
art that were being shown in London. Railton’s letter, however,
struck a popular chord, and the Dean soon gained the approval of
the Prime Minister, who in turn convinced the War Office and (a
rather reluctant) King. Cabinet established a Memorial Service Committee
in October. It was hoped that the entombment would take place at
the unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall that November.
but was concerned that his advisors might suggest some open space
like Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park etc ...Then artists would come
and no one could tell
what weird structure they might devise for a shrine!
in Gavagan 1995: 9)
Necessarily a sensitive act, the selection of a single British body
was clouded in secrecy. Historians differ as to the number of bodies
actually exhumed, whether four or six. (Wyatt
1939) Whichever, a number of unknown bodies
were dug up from the areas of principle British military involvement
in France and Belgium - the Somme, Aisne, Arras and Ypres. The digging
parties had been firmly instructed to select a grave marked ‘Unknown
British Soldier’, one who had been buried in the earlier part
of the war so as to allow sufficient decomposition of the body.
The party had to ensure the body was clad, or at least wrapped,
in British khaki material (Inglis 1993).
Funeral cars delivered four bodies in sacks to a temporary chapel
at military headquarters at St Pol where at midnight on 7th November
1920, Brigadier General Wyatt, officer commanding British forces
in France and Flanders, selected one of the flag-draped figures
(described later by Wyatt as ‘mere bones’) by simply
stepping forward and touching one of them. Before this ultimate
selection each sackload had been carefully picked through to confirm
that they were British (or at least British Empire) remains and
that no name tags, regimental insignia or any other means of means
of identification remained.
While the single selected body was made ready to embark on its highly
ritualised journey, the others were quietly reburied. Other countries
followed suit: having chosen their ‘Warrior’, the Americans
returned three bodies to the soil without ceremony; in France, at
precisely the same moment that the single chosen body was being
buried to great ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, seven
other bodies that been dug up but not chosen, were re-interred under
a cross in a Verdun war cemetery.
After an extraordinary choreography of ceremony and ritual the coffin
- freshly constructed by the British Undertaker’s Association
from an oak tree that had stood in the parks of Hampton Court Palace
- reached Westminster Abbey. After the clamour of the crowds that
lined the railway lines from Dover to Victoria Station, and the
masses gathered on the streets and squares of central London, the
Abbey was hushed, if not tense with anticipation. Here, as Geoff
Dyer has observed ‘the intensity of emotion was reinforced
by numerical arrangement’: one hundred winners of the Victoria
Cross lined the route to the burial place; a thousand bereaved mothers
and widows stood behind them. (Dyer 1995)
Lowered into a grave dug in the entrance of the abbey, the coffin
was sprinkled with soil from Flanders. Later the earth in the six
barrels would be added - ‘making a part of the Abbey forever
a part of a foreign field’ - and the grave sealed with a large
slab of Belgian marble.
On Armistice Day that November over a million people passed by the
Cenotaph in Whitehall in the week between its official unveiling
and the sealing of the tomb. By way of lending a sense of proportion
to the nation’s loss, it was estimated that if the Empire’s
dead could march four abreast down Whitehall it would take them
over three days to pass the monument, a column stretching from London
to Newcastle. Not long after, this incredible idea was rendered
actual as endless columns of troops marched past memorials all over
the country. The Times intoned: ‘The dead lived again’.
In these memorable images it seems as though the soldiers are the
dead themselves ‘marching back to receive the tribute of the
living’. (Dyer 1995: 24)
It is an insight that provokes memories of Eliot’s lines in
The Waste Land:
A crowd flowed over Westminster Bridge. So many,
In post-war Britain it would have been almost
impossible to avoid the intensity of remembrance. One authority
declared it the greatest period of monument-building since Pharaonic
Egypt, (Ware 1937)
and Stanley Spencer’s painting of the unveiling of Cookham
war memorial captures an event that was repeated countless times
as the nation sought to mourn the common man. Indeed the line of
young men who crowd the foreground of Spencer’s painting seem
less concerned with paying homage to the dead as vicariously acting
out their missing townsmen, a surrogate army of ghosts returned
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The Dead Rising
In the decade after the war, the image of the dead rising from the
tortured landscapes of the old battlefields became a familiar part
of the iconography of remembering. During the war, artists had created
occasional images of a ghostly figure wandering wraith-like across
no-man’s-land; poets and the popular press had played with
the notion of guardian angels or spectred hosts. There were many
legendary (and largely apocryphal) tales of ‘mysterious Majors’,
or benevolent phantoms who return to help, warn or merely stand
alongside comrades in the twilight hours of stand-to. Many combatants
found this entirely understandable; sudden departures and unexplained
absences were common experiences, in battle soldiers literally vanished
into the air, dematerialised before their comrades’ eyes,
every trace gone. Sudden absences, emptiness and invisibility became
the hallmarks of the war. Despite the scale of commemoration in
stone, many of those who returned to the former battlefields craved
some form of spiritual connection with their vanished loved ones.
In part this explains the upsurge in séances and similar
activities in the years after the war, (Winter
1995) and perhaps also the fascination
with battlefield pilgrimage and the need to gather ‘mementos’
or relics from the same landscapes that had apparently swallowed
whole the sons, brothers and fathers of the massed armies, and which
persists today (Gough 1996).
In film, in painting and even in photography, however, the disappeared
and the dead could be made to live again and images of the dead
rising from the earth gained a wide currency. In 1927 the Melbourne
Herald published a drawing - A Voice from
ANZAC - by war artist Will Dyson, which
depicted two Australian soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli, one
of them asking, ‘Funny thing, Bill.
I keep thinking I hear men marching.’
That year another Australian artist, Will Longstaff, had attended
the unveiling of the Menin Gate at Ypres - with Plumer’s rhetorical
message ‘the dead are not missing, they are here’ –
and in response had painted Menin Gate at
midnight which depicts a host of ghostly
soldiers emerging from the Flanders battlegrounds and walking, as
one, towards the massive monument through fields strewn with red
poppies. So struck had Longstaff been by the ceremony at Ypres that
he later had a vision of ‘steel-helmeted spirits rising from
the moonlit cornfields around him’. He returned to London
and, it is said, painted the canvas in a single session while still
under ‘psychic influence’ (Gray
Reproduced in tens of thousands of copies the painting had an extraordinary
reception. It was displayed in London, viewed by Royal Command,
toured to Manchester and Glasgow and then sent to Australia where
it is still exhibited in a darkened chapel-like room at the Canberra
War Memorial. Its appeal was strong in part because spiritualism
was in vogue, but mainly because those who wished to communicate
with the war dead found some consolation in its pictorial verity.
His work was championed by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who
endorsed the spiritualist message it evoked. Longstaffs’ work
carried none of the venomous acrimony of Siegfried Sassoon’s
post-war poetry, which by comparison was populated with ‘scarred,
eyeless ?gures deformed by the hell of battle ... supernatural ?gures
of the macabre’ whom he pitied for the loss of their youth
(Dollar 2004: 235).
The poets’ bitter realism was perhaps more fully shared with
the filmmaker Abel Gance, whose 1919 film J’Accuse ends when
vast hordes of French soldiers - the unjustly dead - materialise
out of the tortured earth intent on terrifying the complacency of
those who could, if they wished, have ended the war (Gance
1937, Van Kelly 2000).
Having a studio in London, Longstaff may have been aware of Stanley
Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham
(which was on show during February 1927). Spencer had been 23 at
the outbreak of war, a student-prodigy and an inspired innocent
who would go on to become one of Britain’s greatest twentieth
century painters, famous (indeed infamous) for two things: the celebration
of his home town of Cookham - his ‘heaven on earth’
as he lovingly called it, and the fusion in his paintings of sex
and religion, love and dirt, the heavenly and the ordinary (Hauser
Spencer’s visionary imagination was realised through many
hundreds of paintings, endless drawings and thousands of letters,
written to both the living and the deceased. They exposed a complicated
reading of his world and an ability to transform the menial and
the banal into intense images of joyous delight. Through his work
Spencer transformed Cookham into a visionary paradise where his
family and neighbours would daily rub shoulders with Old Testament
figures; and where it seemed entirely appropriate that Christ would
wander in the garden behind the local schoolyard.
In 1915 he had left his protective homestead to serve first as a
medical orderly in a converted asylum in Bristol, then in a Field
Ambulance on the Macedonia Front - a forgotten theatre of war, where
a hybrid Allied force faced a strong Bulgarian army reinforced by
German troops. Spencer served at the front until the Armistice,
joining an infantry regiment in the latter stages of the war (Carline
1978). Some seven years later, as Longstaff
was having his vision of exhumed troops marching on Menin Gate and
German artists such as Otto Dix were revisiting their Flanders nightmares,
Spencer translated his war experience into an extraordinary series
of murals on the walls of a private memorial chapel in Hampshire,
which are ostensibly about war, but where death is the ‘absent
referent’ lingering in the wings, not even relegated to a
walk-on part (Hauser 2001: 64).
The Sandham Memorial Chapel is perhaps the most complete memorial
to recovery and redemption ever completed in the aftermath of the
First World War. There is nothing like it anywhere in Europe. Spencer
referred to it as his ‘Holy Box’, an affectionate reference
to the Renaissance chapels in Padua and Florence, whose simple exteriors
and busy interiors he revered. Commissioned by two patrons of the
arts as a memorial to a relative who died of illnesses contacted
on the Macedonian campaign, its panelled interior depicts Spencer’s
tedious chores as a medical orderly in Bristol; his field ambulance
work near Salonika, and on a vast endwall - some 4 m wide by 7 m
high - an epic panorama of recovery and redemption, the ‘Resurrection
of the Soldiers’. For nine months Spencer toiled on this endwall,
his small, tweed-suited figure lost high in the scaffolding amongst
the dozens of animated painted figures. After the chapel was opened
in 1932 a visitor was heard to pronounce: ‘My
dear, the Resurrection is not in the least like that!’
(Behrend 1967: 27).
However, Spencer’s idea of resurrection was not one of judgment,
nor of the revival of the dead, or the re-appearance of Christ.
Instead, it embraced the more holistic idea of the Resurrection
of the body and the mind. Spencer’s social background and
his concern for the ‘common man’ (and woman) meant that
his interest lay in an egalitarian and inclusive notion of the body,
one that was indifferent to social hierarchy and ignorant of external
trappings and trophies of wealth and position. The Oratory was not
a resurrection solely of the dead, nor for that matter a resurrection
merely of the soul, rather it was ‘resurrections of his state
of mind at different times’ (Glew
2001: 11). For Spencer it was a time of
‘release & change’ whereby even the mules &
the tortoises come in for some sort of redemption, or re-finding
of themselves from their experiences. Even the soldiers under mosquito
nets seem to be caught in an act of spiritual transubstantiation,
altering from one state to another, and everywhere soldiers emerge
from the earth to return their now-redundant crosses to the Christ-figure,
just as they had, at the end of hostilities, returned their blankets
and kit to the Quarter-Master. ‘In the resurrection’,
said Spencer, ‘they have even finished with that last piece
of worldly impedimenta’ (Carline
In a complicated accumulation of ideas Spencer thought of Resurrection
as a ‘Last Day’, a time of reconciliation, not judgment.
It was without doubt momentous, but it was entirely peaceful and
calm, with no need for clarion calls or lofty pronouncements. In
his interpretation, Resurrection
was a redemptory act, a re-finding of oneself freed of the burden
of experiences, and a reconciliation of friends, lovers, peoples
of all creed and colour, and of course, their belongings. One soldier,
for example, takes a small red book from his pocket, identified
by Spencer as ‘a little red leather-covered Bible’ that
he had been given by his sister Florence but which he had lost.
‘Being the Resurrection’,
he writes simply and matter-of-factly, ‘I
find it’ (in Hauser 2001: 153).
However, despite his protestations of innocence, there is an air
of apocalypse about elements of the chapel, traceable in its sombre
mood, inexplicable incidents and suppressed fears. Not easily could
Spencer ignore the terrible past and the recent present, with tens
of thousands of displaced and maimed veterans wandering the land,
stranded by the fiscal gloom of the late 1920s.
During the war Spencer had buried dozens of soldiers. He painted
the chapel during the years when the former battlefields were being
combed for the dead and concentrated into cemeteries. In the early
1920s, when he was originating the murals in Dorset, quarrymen in
nearby Portland were hacking out vast slabs of the shelly, coarse
white stone to be chiselled into tens of thousands of headstones
bound for the battlefields. The Resurrection wall at Burghclere
is a testament to those thousands of unknown soldiers who were blown
into pieces and who are remembered only in their names carved on
panoramic slabs of stone.
Spencer’s figures emerge from the torn earth intact, unsullied
and calm, almost beatific; very different from the homunculi embedded
in the Flanders mud as devised by Otto Dix. In his apocalyptic canvas,
Flanders, the dawn
may be epic, but the demise of the small troupe of soldiers is tawdry
and banal, their bodies enmeshed in a thicket of webbing, wire and
waste. Far from emerging from the glutinous mud, the soldiers are
immersed in the land, becoming a part of its subsoil, embedded in
their totendlandschaft - the dead landscape - where there may be
biological metamorphosis, but there is absolutely no hope of resurrection
(Eberle 1985: 30).
At least the skyscape holds an element of tentative promise, however
ironic; in Jeff Walls vast panorama of an Afghanistan ambush even
the redemptive possibility of a horizon is stripped out (Wall
1992, Chevrier 2006). Instead, in place
of Spencer’s serene and demilitarized figures, we find a platoon
of traumatized soldiers with bulging eyes and contorted faces, tearing
at each other, horsing around and stuffing their spilled entrails
back into their soiled uniforms. Wall’s dystopia shares more
in common with Sassoon’s bitter verse or Abel Gance’s
film in which the dead don’t merely wander the earth, they
are disgorged in rotting uniforms with mutilated bodies and torn
faces, or Max Beckmann’s savage panorama ‘Resurrection’,
which is dominated by a black-sphered sun. In their common scale,
their subdued tonal range and their powerful sense of camaraderie
there is some common ground between Wall and Spencer. But Wall’s
gurning and abandoned infantrymen appear to bear nothing in common
with Spencer’s mute and elegiac armies. Dead soldiers don’t
talk; but in Wall’s visionary photo-piece they do. In fact
it’s hard to shut them up. His thirteen slaughtered soldiers
cavort, play with strips of flesh, smile knowingly at each other,
and chat from casual slouching positions. But their pain is palpable.
How far is this from Spencer’s notion of a reverential resurrection?
In its unexpurgated depiction of pain it draws from Callot and Goya,
whereas Spencer takes his inspiration from the Italian Primitives.
Yet, like Spencer, there is no eye contact with us; no accusation
outwards, no one turning into our world. As Susan Sontag says:
There's no threat of protest. They are not about
to yell at us to bring a halt to that abomination which is war.
They haven't come back to life in order to stagger
Perhaps Wall, like Spencer and Dix before him,
knows that we are unable to fully empathise with these wretched
souls; we will never understand the dreadfulness of war. We can
only peer in and glimpse these momentarily reprieved lives. However,
where Wall re-imagines the Day of Judgment
as something horribly Sisyphean, Spencer dreams a vision of reconciliation
and arbitration, even though the figures in his haunted Macedonian
hillside appear isolated, disengaged and rather sedated when compared
to the livid lunacy of the doomed Russian platoon capering in their
off to denounce the war-makers who sent them to kill and be killed.
... Why should they seek our gaze?
(Sontag 2003: 112)
This chapter has addressed some of the key visual and phenomenological
tropes of the British experience of the Western Front during the
Great War. By focusing on the apparent emptiness of the face of
the battlefield, I have been able to deconstruct the nature of absence,
invisibility, and the void, suggesting instead that both during
and after the conflict the battlefield was in fact a crowded emptiness,
crowded with soldiers hidden in noisome labyrinths and ‘occupied’
for ever after by the bones and bodies of the dead. Quite literally
there is many a corner of some foreign field saturated with their
limbs and blood and these ‘memoryscapes’ became the
figurative contexts for a succession of artists, photographers and
film-makers who brought the battle dead back to ‘life’.
This approach to re-visualisation has many parallels in the literature
of bereavement with its fascination for absences, presences and
continuing bonds of place, body and tragic narratives. In re-visualizing
the dead, I have offered a brief background to the cycle of death,
dying, disposal, and in some cases, the ritual exhumation for national
causes. Many of those images still resonate today, even if the work
of Jeff Wall is unrelentingly dark, the work of Stanley Spencer
in particular is highly regarded as an unparalleled icon of redemption,
recovery and reconciliation.
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