The Machine Gun Corps Memorial

It has recently become much more widely known that the sculptor Francis Derwent Wood RA (1882-1926) spent the war years from 1915-19 developing and making prosthetic masks for facially mutilated servicemen. In August this year his work was discussed in an episode of the BBC Radio 4 documentary, World War One: The Cultural Front (Series 4, ‘Reality and Reconstruction’). 2017 marks the centenary of the publication of Derwent Wood’s paper, ‘Masks for Facial Wounds’ (The Lancet, 23 June 1917). As Armistice Day has just passed and this year’s poppies have been laid, it seems timely to look closely at Wood’s Machine Gun Corps (MGC) memorial, generally regarded as one of London’s most problematic Great War memorials, sited at Hyde Park Corner.

Machine Guns and Howitzers at Hyde Park Corner

The MGC memorial was unveiled on the 10th of May 1925, more than four years after sketches and models were first approved by the Machine Gun Corps Memorial Committee and the government’s Office of Works. The over life-size bronze of the naked biblical David, crowned with laurel, stands with downcast eyes, leaning on the hilt of Goliath’s huge sword. He is flanked by bronze machine guns. Wreathed and silent, the weapons are attended only by the folded kit, abandoned packs and helmets of the absent gunners – hollow material reminders of mutable living flesh. On the face of the stepped plinth, in large bold capitals is the inscription ‘Erected to commemorate the glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps who fell in the Great War’. Beneath this, in subordinated lower case, is a text from the Book of Samuel. Small in its lettering, but lethal as a live round or a slingshot between the eyes, it reads ‘Saul hath slain his thousands but David his tens of thousands’. Wood’s statue is located within sight of Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery memorial, and the monuments were unveiled only weeks apart in 1925. 

Since the 1980s a standard art-historical view deployed the MGC memorial and Jagger’s Royal Artillery memorial as opposites illustrating a critical binary: Jagger’s work was the appropriate modern response of a young soldier-sculptor to the horrors of war, while Wood’s Renaissance inspired Davidexemplified the reactionary, irrelevant, even sickening, attitude of an ignorant middle-aged non-combatant (and a Royal Academician, to boot). Jagger depicts warfare in a highly aestheticized visual realism in stone reliefs showing barbed wire, tanks, weapons, the wounded, the dying and the dead. The rugged bronze figures flanking the giant Portland stone howitzer stand firm and proud. Onto their stern features mourners and surviving veterans could project the faces of loved ones, old comrades and themselves. Late in the design process Jagger added the striking shrouded effigy of a dead soldier, his face hidden beneath rain cape and helmet. On the catafalque is inscribed a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry V ‘Here was a royal fellowship of death’. 

Undoubtedly Jagger’s memorial embraces a modernity that befits a soldier artist radicalised by his experiences at the front, its visual realism privileged not only by its artistic power, but also because as viewers we immediately recognise its provenance and meaning. All of us whose knowledge of the war has come through grainy film and sepia photographs can sense its appropriateness. Importantly, although the inscription refers to the ‘fellowship of death’, the slaughtering power of the Howitzer is silently arrested in the petrified gun. Set so closely to Jagger’s craggy soldiery there can be little argument that the silky sensuousness of David could appear little more than a simplistic allegory of youth. Significantly, however, the reputation of Wood’s memorial was also tainted by its inscription. Commentators often conflated the reference to the ‘glorious heroes’ of the Corps with the glorification of war itself. We must look beneath the surface of this monument to try to understand what makes it so unsettling, and to unravel a tangle of meanings.

The biographies of soldier-artists such as Jagger were usually cited by critics as evidence of their bona fides as witnesses of war. The moment of war was seen as pivotal, explaining either a rejection of the traditional in favour of more avant-garde practices by some artists or, equally, the return from the avant-garde to tradition by others – as in the French post-war ‘rappel à l’ordre’. This applies not just to memorial making, of course. War somehow needed to manifest its impact in an artistic change of some sort in order to interest commentators. The impact of the war on civilian or non-combatant artists is often discounted, particularly when they were middle aged and their work did not coincide with art critical interests. Continuing as a traditionalist in the making of art was often seen as evidence of unthinking, unmoved depravity. Realism trumped allegory. If Jagger was seen as the Wilfred Owen of Hyde Park Corner, Derwent Wood’s David represents the collision of a late Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic with the bitter, bone-splintering realities of modern war.

Death and Killing

Wood was by no means averse to producing acceptable, moving realism himself. It is extremely unusual for primary sculptural figures on war memorials to portray the dead, but one such rarity, unveiled in 1920, is Wood’s bronze effigy in the parish church at Ditchingham, Norfolk. The recumbent officer, his face uncovered, in full uniform complete with muddy puttees, lies on a low black granite catafalque, inviting viewers to bow their heads and engage directly with him. No wound is visible. In this ecclesiastical setting, for Christian worshippers the soldier lies in expectation of resurrection; for Wood, who had never really accepted the faith of his highly religious parents, the battle was over. The effigy predates Jagger’s recumbent and shrouded artilleryman by five years.

‘If we are to be judged by the wishes inside our unconscious, we are, like primitive man, simply a band of murderers…War strips us of the accretions of civilisation and lays bare the primal man in all of us’, wrote Sigmund Freud (Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, 1915). In her book An Intimate History of Killing (1999), Joanna Bourke tells us that ‘the characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing…warfare was as much about the business of sacrificing others as it was about being sacrificed’. War required men to band together to perform sanctioned acts of atavistic bloodletting; post-war, the aggression had to cease. Freud believed that when the war was over, the ‘primal man’ would subside once more ‘every one of the victorious warriors will joyfully return to his home, his wife and his children, undelayed and undisturbed by any thought of the enemy he has slain’. The slain, of course, were subject to commemoration, and a war memorial was intended to be a site of consolatory memory and mourning for those left behind. As Joanna Bourke explains in an earlier book Dismembering the Male (1996) ‘consolation required the invention of a language and aesthetics of death that denied the realities of war’. Whereas Jagger’s memorial deploys a permissible visual realism, and reference to death, the trouble with the MGC memorial is that the inscription starkly breaks the rules of consolation with its impermissible textual realism ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands’ reasserts the existence, even necessity, of sanctioned killing, thus disrupting the peacetime repression of such memories and, out of appropriate time, draws attention to the unpalatable truth about men at war.

War Work

‘This sculptor is like a physician in his diagnosis of character and like a surgeon in his execution of it’, wrote the critic Kineton Parkes in Sculpture of Today, published in 1921. Parkes was a friend of Wood’s, and well understood the nature of his wartime work, so the medical imagery of his description of Wood’s uncanny skill as a portraitist was both incisive and apposite. Wood’s facial prostheses functioned as carapaces of protection for the wearer and the viewer. The sculptor was painfully aware that his masks could not repair the flesh itself, but camouflaging the physical damage could at least help to restore the psyche and prevent suicides, which were all-too common. A soldier could be disturbingly aware of the terrifying sight of his own face from the behaviour of visitors (if he could bear to see them) and the appearance of fellow patients. The lack of mirrors on wards for the facially injured was a distinguishing feature in England and France. Even an accidental glimpse in a window might induce a man to vomit at his own reflection. 

The use of Wood’s jigsaw features to complete the face could perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the physical, psychological, social and economic reintegration of the individual. Yet such camouflage both masks and marks horror and a prosthesis invites speculation about what lies beneath the surface. An accurate mask may have helped to restore the gestaltimage, but the convex surface always signified the concavity beneath. The metallic shell was a punning metonym for the skull’s lost integrity – ‘a part for the hole’; a symbolic memorial to the missing. Indeed, the idea of the soldier’s missing face as ‘dead’ is implicit in Wood’s Lancet article: ‘As they were in life so I try to reproduce them, beautiful or ugly; the one desideratum is to make them natural’. Images of the plaster casts themselves have unsettling qualities, the white inertia of the fragments seem suspended between sleep and death. Even the apparent resurrection of lost features only commemorated the past, petrifying the face, its expression permanent and final. Sitting for a photograph was usually one of the last things a soldier did before going to the front, and these sepia images became venerated and even idealised when the face was damaged. Sitting for an artist, however, was usually an elite activity, but in this context the sculptor not only observed his sitter, but had to touch the face itself in direct intimacy between artist and subject. We might hope that perhaps this close scrutiny by the artist assisted in some healing mechanism of understanding in the patient through the acknowledgement of loss. The artist himself found his daily engagement with what he called ‘the sad sights of mangled youth’ very difficult to endure.

Machine guns and slingshots

Was Derwent Wood’s David really the sickening retardataire irrelevance that some scholars have claimed? Even David’s biblical back-story reinforces his allegorical credentials: David as ‘conscript’, chosen by God through Samuel as King of Israel; a boy ‘ruddy and withal of a beautiful countenance and goodly to look to’, called from his occupation as shepherd and musician to do his military duty. Faced with the foe and valiantly fighting against the odds, slaying Goliath in a justifiably defensive act that he likened to the killing of a marauding bear or wolf threatening the flocks (and the irony of lambs to the slaughter should not be lost here), David rejected armour and submitted his flesh to the challenge. So, David represents five aspects of the soldier: dutiful conscript; loyal comrade; a defender of his fellows – particularly appropriate for a machine-gunner whose role was to defend the trenches behind him; a young, vulnerable man; a killer. And might Wood have read Robert Graves poem, ‘Goliath and David’, published in Georgian Poetry 1917? Here, in a cruel reversal of the story, it is David who falls:

Shame for beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, his ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre cut –
I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries,
Throws blindly forward, chokes…and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

The high diction deployed in the main inscription on the memorial is well within the conventions. Even the provenance of the quotation is irreproachable: it is the precise reference to slaying that is impertinently subversive. So, who chose the subject matter for the statue and the inscription it? Ultimately the committee, of course, though Wood may well have contributed his ideas, and it certainly fits with his preference for the Old Testament. There were art aficionados on the committee, including Samuel Courtauld who was on the board of the British School at Rome. Another, who married the daughter of William Reynolds Stephens, that pillar of the sculpture establishment, was Lt. Col. Graham Seton Hutchison. He was a senior commander in the MGC, and as Graham Seton later wrote adventure novels and spy stories. He wrote the training manual for the MGC and was renowned for his vigorous enjoyment and determination in combat. His most infamous moment occurred during the crisis in April 1918 that precipitated Haig’s ‘backs to the wall’ message to all ranks. The tale is too long to tell here, but as the situation became increasingly desperate he felt obliged to issue orders that any fleeing British troops from any regiment should be shot in order to avoid rampaging surrender. Thirty-eight were killed. To a soldier committed to military discipline and duty, the quotation from the Book of Samuel could be read simply as a factual statement of the vital destructive power of the small machine gun in settling the bloody score line of a great battle. Hutchison’s character and behaviour have been seen as disturbingly unusual, but in fact – although an extreme case – he may have been just one of the many soldiers that recent histories have shown went willingly to war and, like the poet Julian Grenfell, actually liked fighting.

Whatever the provenance of the inscription, archive documents do not reveal any apparent offence at the Office of Works in 1921. After the unveiling, however, questions were asked in the House of Commons prompted by a request from a pacifist group. When asked by Major Crawfurd, a Liberal MP, to replace the inscription with one ‘more in keeping with the spirit in which these men fought and died’, the minister declined, saying that the inscription was designed to draw attention to the figure of David. When Crawfurd followed up: ‘is not the inscription an offence to everyone concerned?’ Hansard reports that rousing shouts of ‘No!’ arose from the House. A Labour wag concluded the exchange by suggesting that the name ‘Lloyd George’ should be added after ‘David’. Just as these parliamentary questions originated with pacifist MPs, letters to The Times suggesting less bloody Davidic inscriptions all came from clergymen, and none of them would have fitted the bill; all attempted simply to remove the direct references to slaying. In the end, the Office of Works wrote to the committee asking if they felt that the inscription was the most appropriate: no reply survives, and certainly it was not changed. By the time it was unveiled, the memorial commemorated not only its dead heroes, but the Machine Gun Corps itself, which was disbanded in 1922.

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’?

Perhaps we should see the MGCmemorial as Wood’s Wilfred Owen moment, the beautiful David his elegiac ‘anthem for doomed youth’. Wood himself said, according to a memoir written by his son, Oliver, that if we must have war memorials, they should at least not be hypocritical. His experience of the gruesome consequences of mechanical warfare might seem to be repressed by the idealised figure, but it is possible to read this memorial as a metaphor for Wood’s very particular experience of brutalising injury and traumatic death; the beautiful shell of the bronze David masks this experience of horror and presents a perfected, youthful face to the world. The acknowledgement of man’s brutality to man, the stark reality that war involves killing, lies literally beneath this shell, in the small but vital text – shocking as it is to read. Although Davidcomplies with the general preference for traditional aesthetic imagery in the commemoration of the dead, the text undercuts the soothing malleability of the allegory. It stated out loud, and continues to repeat, a truth about war that society requires to be repressed: here is no euphemism, no hypocrisy – and no mercy. Mourning is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering and this memorial refuses to allow the bloody purpose of the Corps to be forgotten. By the time of the unveiling in 1925, almost seven years after the armistice, the general public’s views of the war were not the same as in the immediate aftermath. This memorial is no site of consolation.

The Machine Gun Corps memorial can also perhaps be read as an exposition of Eros and Thanatos as described in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920: the visually erotic bronze signifying the libidinal bonding that is essential to life and the text representing its necessary opposite, death. The dissonance of perfected male beauty, encoded as the heroic embodiment of bravery and civilisation, a symbol of youth overcoming tyranny, combined with the arresting textual reference to David as mass killer, pulls us up short. If an acknowledgement of the necessity and capacity for killing was a symptom of wartime, then the Machine Gun Corps memorial exposes that troubling aspect of the psyche in perpetuity, even in peacetime. The conflation of image and text indicates that the Machine Gun Corps memorial is still at war.

Main image: Francis Derwent Wood, Machine Gun Corps Memorial, 1925, Hyde Park Corner, London (photo: Sarah Crellin)

Aurora Corio