Readers of this blog and my book will know that I have an abiding interest in the lives of those who fought in the Great War. One particular aspect which has always aroused my deep compassion is the fate of those who survived, but were badly disfigured. Some lived as recluses for the rest of their lives, and others braved the looks of horror they encountered when venturing out in public.
There is a historic relationship between those injured and the skill, not only of surgical teams, but of artists too. The German artist Otto Dix was one of those who portrayed the unpalatable face of war that, while disturbing, allows us to look at an image which, in a photograph, is so much starker.
I have a copy of Ernst Friedrich's 1924 anti-war book Krieg dem Kriege. I have actually stuck a post-it note on the fly-leaf, inscribed 'Warning! Contains very graphic images', and I keep it on a high shelf as I would not want little ones to come across it while exploring our bookshelves. The photographs are shocking. It was Friedrich’s aim to bring to readers' attention the true cost of war. The only other place I’ve seen images like this is at the tatty profit-making private exhibition next to a cafe near Ypres, behind which is a wood including what is claimed to be an original trench system. It has made a fortune for its owners, and is abhorred by the local museums, although some teachers leading trips prefer it, feeling it shows pupils something the others have sanitised.
I recently visited the Faces of the Great War exhibition at Hall Place in Bexley, Kent (and heard there a talk on a related subject: blog to follow). The exhibition told the story of the pioneers of plastic surgery in Britain from the point of view of the medical staff led by New-Zealand born surgeon Harold Gillies and their patients, based at the Queen Mary Military Hospital in Sidcup, which opened in 1917. Gillies, who moved here from the Cambridge Military Hospital , was inspired by the pioneering skin graft French surgeon Hippolyte Morstin, and in the next World War, Gillies' cousin Archibald McIndoe went on to reconstruct the faces of badly burnt airmen at East Grinstead.
Gillies recruited leading artists, including Henry Tonks and sculptor Kathleen Scott, widow of Scott of the Antarctic, to help in the work of rebuilding the ruined faces of the severely-wounded. More than 5,000 wounded men from Britain and its Empire came to Sidcup, and more than 11,000 operations were carried out.
Henry Tonks, a trained surgeon himself, went on to become a celebrated Professor at the Slade School of Art. Gillies asked him to make a record of men's facial injuries which could be referenced for operations and subsequent recovery. Tonks chose to work in pastels, as it was a quick medium that could be easily blended with the finger, and he wanted the men to sit for the shortest time possible. Today, these pastels can be viewed, upon request, at the Hunterian Museum in London. A number had been loaned to Hall Place, and they were displayed in a curtained-off section, again with a warning that the images might disturb. If today, with all we can see on the media, this notice is still considered necessary, how much harder it must have been for those with disfigurements to step out from the safety of their hospital wards or homes.
I found these portraits, accompanied by biographical detail, very touching. They included the following:
Private Robert Davidson, RAMC Orderly, was wounded in April 2016. He was initially reluctant to mix with his fellow patients, but after his discharge in 1919 he continued to work at the Queen Mary Hospital in Sidcup until the 1960s, having married Sidcup resident Alice Wise.
Private George J Stone, 1st Newfoundland Regiment, suffered a gunshot wound to the upper lip in France on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, aged 21. He contracted a severe infection six weeks after wounding, so his first operation was delayed until three months after the initial injury. He underwent six operations at the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot and at Queen's Hospital, Sidcup. By August 1918, Private Stone declined any further treatment for facial injury, and returned home to Bell Island, off Newfoundland, to work as a machinist.
Private S Gardiner, a 35 year old New Zealander serving with the 7th Canterbury Regiment, suffered a gunshot wound on the First Day of the Somme which fractured his jaw. He underwent three operations, and ten months after his injury, surgeons tried to graft bone to bridge the gap in his jawbone. Because he lacked teeth, the wound didn't heal properly, and the graft was removed. In 1950, Gardiner returned to visit Gillies in the UK, reporting that six of his seven sons had served in the Second World War, all returning to NZ with their jaws intact.
Sadly, Lieutenant Dudley Grinlington, of the 48th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force, did not fare so well. He was admitted to the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, in August 1916 after a gunshot wound to his left cheek nine days earlier. Discharged in March 1917, he returned to active service and was killed in action on 17 October during the Battle of Passchendaele. Having been shot in the knee, he perished, in the same casualty clearing station he had passed through a year earlier. He is buried in Nine Elms Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe.
The exhibition was curated with a sure, light touch - not overwhelming or overstuffed. I was glad to see and learn of some new things, among them:
The GRI Silver badge, first issued in 1916, was worn by those not able to fight: discharged owing to wounds, ill-health, or had reached the age of 51. Hopefully these helped to fend off the advances of the white-feather brigade...
Steel helmets were not standard issue to soldiers until 1916; before that they had soft caps.
Blue benches were provided along the road from St Mary's hospital to the village of Sidcup exclusively for recovering patients to sit on when out for a walk, which could be avoided, presumably, by more squeamish local residents (though many treated the soldiers with great kindness).
Ironically, the MG08 machine-gun, which could fire up to 400 rounds per minute, and was used by the German Army in WW1, was an adaptation of Hiram Maxim's original 1884 Maxim Gun, manufactured in Crayford (6 miles from Queen Mary's Hospital) by Vickers at the time when Maxim was resident in Bexley.
Krieg dem Kriege: Ernst Friedrich - Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Munchen (reprinted 2004)
My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young (grand-daughter of Kathleen Scott)
A wonderful novel which I also learnt from.
War, Art & Surgery: The Work of Henry Tonks and Julia Midgley (Ed. Samuel JMM Alberti, Royal College of Surgeons, 2014)
The Tonks Pastels (Please note: graphic images)
Otto Dix - article with images from The Guardian
Vickers Factory, Crayford
I spent three jam-packed days last week visiting coach companies in Cumbria, Northumbria, Yorkshire, and Lincolnshire. As a southerner who has rarely ventured north, and a deeply curious person, I found it frustrating to have to drive past such tantalising sights as the sign for the village near Kendal which is the home of my Quaker ancestors, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Fountains Abbey, the Angel of the North and the beautiful Beverley Minster. One day I would like to do a tour of the great Cathedrals and ruined abbeys of Britain - Ely, Peterborough, Lincoln, Norwich etc.
I could not, however, forgo the opportunity, however brief, of driving alongside a mile or so of Hadrian’s Wall - longed-for sight since my early childhood. It didn’t disappoint! I stopped for five minutes at Birdoswald Fort (more of a butterfly kiss than a long embrace) and stood, exhilarated, facing into a fierce westerly, thinking of WH Auden’s wonderful poem, Roman Wall Blues. If you don’t know it:
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic, a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
I also relished the chance later that day to drive over the Humber Bridge.
“This is the first time I’ve driven over the Humber. I’m quite excited!” I told the nice lady at the toll booth, as I handed her my £1.50.
“Oh, well, enjoy the bridge!” was her friendly reply.
I’m grateful that at 60, I can still feel the wonder and excitement of a child at times like this. Life is good!
The American anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.
In the current climate, when so many of us feel almost overwhelmed by the cataclysmic changes occurring all over the world, many wise voices, Robert Reich amongst them, are urging us not to give in to the paralysing feeling that it’s all too much, and there’s nothing we can do.
One small change we have recently made in our house is to close up a loophole in our commitment not to eat factory-farmed meat. We have for years, as much as our domestic budget allowed, bought free-range meat, and have only used free-range eggs for decades now, but we had continued to eat meat when out and about in establishments where there was no claim made about how the animal was reared.
I won’t go into the horrors of factory-farming - there is plenty on the internet*- but share a couple of thoughts. To any woman who has gone through the intense tenderness of early breast-feeding, I think we can all empathise with a sow that is constrained in a metal pen while her piglets are allowed constant access to her teats, literally tearing them into a bloody state. And I recall an acquaintance who through economic misfortune was reduced, late in life, to collecting cracked eggs from a battery-farm barn. The smell was so overpowering, he said, that he frequently had to exit the barn to vomit.
We decided last autumn that we would henceforth buy organic meat wherever possible, given that organic farmers, committed to not using antibiotics routinely, have to give their animals more care in respect of room to breathe and roam etc. This meat naturally costs more, so we agreed to eating smaller portions - no great imposition, as we are already a family that by choice generally has more veg than meat on a plate!
When we bought our first organic free-range chicken, the flatness of the breast (no growth hormones!) was noticeable. It looked and tasted like the chickens we used to have on the table when we were children. It also had no red burn-marks on the legs from excreta-saturated barn-floors. It’s actually more economical to buy a whole chicken and joint it for casseroles etc than to buy portions, and the carcass makes great chicken-stock for soups, rice dishes, etc.
The second part of our commitment was not to eat meat when we were away from home unless it was clearly labelled as free-range, so actually we just eat vegetarian most times. The Toby chain’s a good option when travelling - they’re all over the place, and you can have a lovely plate of fresh veg and the vegetarian alternative to the Carvery meats - there are usually three choices including a vegan one.
So a win-win-win result! Less cruelty to animals, better health, increase in self-esteem resulting from sticking to our principles, and lastly better taste: we tried some of Helen Browning’s Organic dry-cured bacon for lunch today, and Martin commented it was the best bacon sandwich he’d ever eaten. Praise indeed!
*For an obviously authentically-researched fictional account of factory farming chickens, try Martina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans.
I've struggled to write my blog since the bombshell of the vote for Brexit in June, and in the face of all the suffering and upheaval around the world - not just in Syria, but in so many other places. I would sit down at the keyboard to write something, only to falter half-way through - my thoughts seemed irrelevant and simplistic. With the further shock, in November, of Donald Trump's elevation to President-Elect, I felt even more paralysed, by the constant flow of bad news.
But the most hopeful messages I've seen of late, from the sane voices of people like Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot, and Brendan Cox, exhort us to do what we can, where we are. I've joined the Green Party this year, and made contributions, where able, to charities which are out there doing the necessary work on the ground, both here and abroad. I hope to keep an open mind, make an effort to be informed of the facts, and offer service, where I can, to help others.
I took down my kitchen calendar off its peg yesterday to copy the birthdays onto my new one, and as I went through it I was reminded, once again, that while the larger joys and sorrows of mankind played out in the wider world, I was fortunate to have my annual share of good things, the everyday activities that make my world go round: haircuts in the kitchen, yoga classes, visits to family and friends, and hospitality reciprocated, fellowship with like-minded others, shopping and cooking, reading and cinema, music, occasional trips to museums and exhibitions, walking and talking, feeding the birds, working and resting, the sadness of those who we have cherished passing away mixed with the celebration and shared love of my niece's wedding, an old friend's 70th birthday party - the list goes on!
I try not to take these things for granted, knowing that there are many who don't benefit in the same way. I write a gratitude list every night before I go to sleep, and in the last year the gifts of being a grandmother have featured - our beautiful grand-daughter shows us, as my son did when he was a child, a picture of what we so often forget: the wonder, merriment and joy of living in the now, of bearing no grudge or bitterness in the heart, the pleasure of munching on plump raspberries ...we adore her!
I write at least three things, and very often there are more, but what crops up most are the basic building blocks of life, that we all must surely need in common: a quiet, peaceful, warm, dry, safe home; three nutritious meals; good health (which, if we have it, we can count, if we are wise, as the equivalent of having won the lottery every time we wake); doing our allotted work as well as we can; and a loving, kind, tolerant, patient companion (in this case my husband) - with whom I share so much laughter, still, after 40 years together. Life is not all plain sailing, but these things have got me through the difficult painful times, along with the help, as I believe, of something far greater than myself.
Of all the Christmas films I annually cry over (including It's A Wonderful Life) which encourage me to accept the things I cannot change, I naturally treasure most that which personifies my own cultural heritage and sums up the hope of finding redemption from darkness and hard-heartedness - Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. Whatever your higher power is, or is not - 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower', the love that will not let you go, or just what is larger than your individual existence, then I pray, in the year to come, as Tiny Tim does, "God bless us, every one".
Private Roland Eldrige, No 1945, 19th Bn Australian Infantry, AIF, died on 11 November 1916, age 31. He is Buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt l’Abbe, Somme, France: Grave ref V.E.3. He was the son of Ellen Eldridge of 21 Forge Road, Southborough, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Roland had emigrated to Australia at the age of 21 and worked as an agriculturist at Surrey Hills, Sydney, New South Wales. He had served with the Kent Volunteers in England. He embarked at Sydney on HMAT A54 Runic on 9 August 1915.
From the Courier, 24 November 1916: Mr and Mrs Eldridge of Forge-road have received the following letter from a Chaplain of the Australian Forces: “I am very sorry to say that your boy was brought in here last night hopelessly wounded. He was unconscious, and did not live long after leaving the ambulance. I have just buried him in our little cemetery, where so many of our brave lads lie. His grave will be marked with a cross.” Private R Eldridge is the fourth son of Mr and Mrs Eldridge, and he joined the 19th Battalion Australian Forces in December 1914. He was twice wounded while serving in the Dardanelles. It is a coincidence that he should have been killed four days after Sergeant Parker (whose death was reported last week) with whom he went to Australia about seven years ago. Mr and Mrs Eldridge have three other sons serving in the Army.
There were lots of things that scared the hell out of me when I was little: earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanoes, tarantulas, and then perhaps the more likely things, in our corner of Kent, like the idea occurring to me of my mother dying. Then there were the books and pictures I came across on the shelves around the house. One of these which left a lasting impression was a volume of Hieronymus Bosch paintings - scenes of giant men cut in half with little demons sticking pitchforks into them. They held a horrible fascination for me.
When on a walking holiday in the Wildschonau in the Austrian Tyrol this summer, I popped into a small chapel at the side of the parish church in Oberau and found a series of truly gruesome depictions of the hell that awaited unrepentant sinners. Blimey, I bet these kept the congregation in line!
But for all the representations of the Devil and his works that mankind has pictured, surely the only true manifestation of evil on our beautiful planet is when human self-will runs riot. Events in the world so far this year have led many of us to wring our hands in despair -“What can we do about it?” But surely, each of us can do something, however small, each day, right now. For example, the Romanian nurse who, though very busy, gave her full attention to kindly soothing and aiding my mother yesterday when Mum, suffering from a chest infection, couldn’t breathe properly.
It always surprises me when people say that if there is a God, how can he let things like famine, war, natural disasters and pestilence happen? Well, disasters and disease are part of the natural world, surely, and as for the other two - it’s not a Higher Being, surely, who hoards more food than he needs, who adjusts the price on the market so he can get a higher profit, or appropriates more than her fair share?
This summer on holiday in Niederau in the Austrian Tyrol I was amused to read the above sign put up by an exasperated farmer. It reads: This is my cows’ salad-bowl, not your dogs’ loo! In that part of the world, there are still farms in the middle of villages, even towns, and our hotel was right next to this small area of pasture. The hotel allowed guests to bring their pet dogs, so perhaps some owners had been allowing them to soil the grass.
This week I went out with my trusty poop-scoop to pick up several small turds (to use a time-honoured English word), which an irresponsible dog-owner had neglected to remove after allowing their dog to defecate on the pavement. Further up the street, outside the home of a lady whose multiple sclerosis means she has to get about assisted by a mobile scooter, was a larger pile, right in front of her gate. Bad enough, you might think, that she has to steer her scooter out on to the road occasionally when thoughtless car-owners have parked their car across the pavement... (anyone remember that brilliant GLC infomercial from the 1980s featuring an old lady kicking a car off the pavement?).
Across from us, there’s been a running battle going on between a resident and an anonymous dog owner who leaves little plastic bags containing dog poo, neatly tied up, at the base of a lamp-post. Polite printed notices are pinned up, asking for them to be taken away, which only elicit more offerings. Who, for goodness sake, would do this? it’s hard to imagine exactly what form of sociopathy leads someone to leave health hazardous filth in their wake to be slipped on, smeared on passing pushchair wheels, children’s shoes etc. I guess it must be down, in the main, to sheer ignorance.
I’ll finish on a confession. When I was very small (maybe two?) I climbed up on to a wide window-sill and left a little present behind a vase. I can see it now. Perhaps I’d been caught short, or perhaps I was influenced by the tales my older brothers had told me about the witch who lived down the toilet bowl and came up when you pulled the chain! Anyhow, I remember thinking that no-one would ever know it was me, or they would think our Shetland Sheepdog had left it. I can’t remember the outcome, but it can’t have taken Sherlock Holmes to work out who had done the evil deed!
I’ve always suffered from piles! Yes, you’ll find them all over my house. I’ve recently been waging war on them using Marie Kondo’s decluttering methods, but have called a temporary truce, with other demands on my time intruding! My newspaper/magazine/newsletter pile recently yielded up a copy of The Guardian from late July. I enjoyed reading Lauren Elkin’s article Reclaim the Streets, on the subject of the flâneur, a figure of privilege and leisure, with the time and money to amble round a city at will, and developments since the 19th century, when the flâneur was something of a phenomenon. Elkin writes: “For a woman to be a flâneuse, first and foremost, she’s got to be a walker - someone who gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards.”
Well, I’m not a figure of privilege and leisure, but otherwise I reckon I fit the bill, and reading the article prompted me to dive into another pile to find a wallet of photos I took in 2002 on a work trip to Berlin. It was my first visit, a three day educational development conference on editing alumni magazines. For a history-buff like myself this was a heaven-sent opportunity to see something of a deeply fascinating city. In order to make the most of it, I decided to get up at the crack of dawn each day and walk its streets, a favourite strategy in an unknown place.
I’d arrived courtesy of Lufthansa at the old Tempelhof airport, where the US Air Force hangars were still visible, and was thrilled, in an Indiana Jones moment, to see a Zeppelin airship warming up ready for take-off on one of the runways. I had some time before the introductory seminar to catch the bus to the British Military Cemetery near Charlottenburg. It was established in 1945 as a central burial ground for aircrew and prisoners of war who were interred in the Berlin area and East Germany. About 80% are aircrew, killed in action over Germany, the remainder prisoners of war, and two Southborough men, Edwin Cooper and Cyril Wickens lie buried here.
Early the next morning I visited the old Jewish quarter, easily reachable from my hotel at the northern end of Friedrichstrasse. I walked over the Montbijou Brücke and down streets including Georgenstrasse, Ackerstrasse, Oranienburgerstrasse, Gross Hamburgerstrasse, Koppenplatz and Turstrasse. Whenever I saw a doorway open to an old courtyard, I nipped in and looked round (incurably nosey, ask my husband!). I saw a memorial to Berlin’s Jewish dead, and a lovely little Jewish school right by it. In 2002, there was, just fifteen years after re-unification, a huge amount of building and renovation going on. The array of wonderful old buildings (some in the old East Berlin still pockmarked with bullet-holes from 1945, or with plaster still missing from the bare brick walls) mixed in with the ultra-modern, the Spree meandering through, but underlying it all, for me personally, was the knowledge that while it’s a great and elegant city, in Nazi times it was full of terrible violence, hatred and fear for those daring to oppose the regime.
The next day I walked down to Checkpoint Charlie and beyond, then up via Leipzigerstrasse, Jerusalemstrasse, Hausvogteiplatz and Oberwallstrasse to Unter den Linden, past the German Historical Musem and Lustgarten to the Berliner Dom, where creative beer-drinkers had left an impromptu art piece on the steps of the Cathedral. An old man was doing some early-morning fishing from the Eiserne Brücke. Later that evening I ducked out of a suggested drinking session with colleagues and instead heard a beautiful concert in the Cathedral, which has sublime acoustics, given by a choir from Bonn, of Spiritual Choral Music from the last 300 years.
On my last morning I walked up to the Brandenburg Gate (covered up except for the Quadriga) and back past the Russian Embassy, down to the Marx-Engels Platz (now Schlossplatz I believe), where a woman in shorts roller-bladed round the Platz and down the tree-lined paths beside it. The Neptune Fountain was dry, no doubt a temporary casualty of ongoing works. I bought my son a Russian surplus army beret at the flea-market along Am Kupfergraben, had breakfast at Cafe Chagall, then caught the U-Bahn to Luftbrücke Platz, and walked through the little park, which includes a memorial to those who died in the Berlin Airlift, to Tempelhof, just in time to snap a Zeppelin taking off. Flying home, I knew I would definitely want to return and see more of Berlin.
If you’d like to read more around the subject, some of my other related blogs:
The Casualties of War
Holocaust Memorial Day - Anita Lasker Wallfisch
Berlin in October
Through a Glass, Darkly
We recently visited Eltham Palace for the first time - a birthday treat for the pot and pan - with our son, daughter-in-law and baby grand-daughter. It was a lovely summer’s day, and the beautiful grounds around the old palace and its adjoining 1930s house were full of happy visitors - other multi-generational families were having fun too, listening to jazz on the lawn, or with kids playing in the adventure playground next to the cafe, relaxing and enjoying the cameraderie of their fellow human beings.
There is something for everyone here: mediaeval architecture, 1930s modernist style, unusual garden plants, and in the distance a wonderful panoramic view of London - from Alexandra Palace across to the City, with many of its famous landmarks clearly depicted against the skyline. When Stephen and Virginia Courtauld had their 1930s Art Deco mansion built, incorporating the Great Hall where Henry VIII and his forebears once resided, there were critics abounding, but today, since its restoration by English Heritage after the Army Education Corps vacated the premises in 1992, most of its visitors would no doubt agree it is a splendid house.
Having both recently read William Woodruff’s wonderful memoir The Road to Nab End, it struck us, seeing the opulence here of a house created by its millionaire owners, with money no object, that there was, of course, another vastly different side to life in 1930s Britain. I urge you to read his book if you haven’t yet. It will remind you of what has been achieved in the last eighty years, and what we stand to lose if we are not careful...
Wandering out into the sunshine, we wondered what the strange-looking berries were on the tree at the end of the lawn. They looked like large, luscious raspberries crossed with blackberries. We had the good fortune at this point to bump into an Iranian family, who explained that they were mulberries; the family told us they had, on various outings in and around London, mapped most of its mulberry trees. I love this kind of serendipitous encounter, all the more so on this occasion, after discovering we were fellow bloggers, making the acquaintance of Mehrdad Aref-Adib, whose websites are treasure-houses, boxes of delights, which will bear many hours of happy browsing!
Lifelong bookworm, love writing too. Have been a theatrical agent and reflexologist among other things, attitude to life summed up by Walt Whitman's MIRACLES.