Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the contribution of Britain’s musicians, artists and poets to the First World War.
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum and a member of the council of the Royal College of Music, and by thanking all noble Lords who have taken the time to join in this debate today.
There have been some remarkable acts of commemoration this year, to mark the grim centenary of the outbreak of a devastating war. Like others here, I suspect, I shall never forget being in Westminster Abbey on 4 August, when the candles went out one by one until we were left in darkness to remember those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Many thousands of such acts of solemn commemoration, the length and breadth of the land, have allowed us all opportunities to remember the destruction of those years, the gallant fallen, the slaughter of the innocent and the pity of war. But as we draw to the end of this year, I want us for a moment to remember a special group of people who contributed not just with their blood but with their creative energy.
For our country on the eve of war was brimming with the talent of a generation of artists, poets and composers—a promise that all too often found its apotheosis not in the concert halls and galleries where it should have but in the trenches. We should never forget those young men who, finding themselves at the extreme edge of human experience, sought to convey the horror they saw in words, images and sounds.
The most obvious manifestation of this creative energy were the war poets, an entirely new phenomenon, unique to this conflict. From the very moment on Easter Sunday at St Paul’s in 1915, when Dean Inge read out these words:
“If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England”,
a new form of artist—the soldier poet—was born. In the following years, Rupert Brooke, the author of those lines, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and many others brought direct to millions the horror of war in a way that perhaps only poetry can. Those names were, in so many ways, the tip of an iceberg. According to Catherine Reilly’s exhaustive bibliography, some 2,225 poets from Britain and Ireland wrote war poetry during those years, alongside many hundreds more from what are now the Commonwealth countries. The significance of their output was perhaps best summed up recently by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, whose three great-uncles were killed at the Somme within six weeks of each other.
“Poetry is like time travel”,
“and poems take us to the heart of the matter”.
In this commemoration year, we should salute the many imaginative ways found in schools, on Underground trains and through social media to ensure that we remember the heart of the matter.
As harrowing as the poetry of the war were the paintings depicting its slaughter. A remarkable canon of war art began when many Belgian artists fled into exile in London in 1914 and started to recreate in art the appalling story of the ravage of their country. Inspired by their courage, many British artists volunteered for service, most joining the Artists Rifles. In 1916, the first official war artist, Muirhead Bone, was commissioned by the Foreign Office. In an extraordinary six-week period alone, he completed 150 drawings, depicting the ruination of the French countryside. It was, he said, “war as it is”.
As well as Bone, a young generation of artists with front-line service experience was similarly commissioned, among them those who would shape modern British art for decades: Paul Nash, Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and John Singer Sargent, whose extraordinary painting “Gassed” sums up so much of the horror of the trenches. Like that of the poets, their work bringing home the pity of war is readily available to us today. Much of it can be seen at the Imperial War Museum and, particularly this year, in galleries across the country. Many of them are running special exhibitions for this commemorative year.
The names of many of these artists and poets are very familiar to us all, but considerably less well known is the response to the war of classical musicians. In his director’s address shortly after the outbreak of the war to students at the Royal College of Music—then, as now, home to some of the most remarkable musical talent—Sir Hubert Parry, who himself in 1916 composed in just one morning for the Fight to Right movement perhaps one of the most famous of all British works, “Jerusalem”, had this to say:
“One thing which concerns us deeply is that quite a lot of our happy family party have been honourably inspired to go and chance the risks of a military life; and among them are some very distinguished young musicians. We feel a thrill of regard for them ... But then we must also face the facts with open minds. The College in relation to war is in a different position from other educational institutions. Our pupils ... are gifted and rare in a special way. Some of them are so gifted that their loss could hardly be made good”.
The audience that day would have included such talented students as Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells. Gurney returned after 15 months at the front, having been shot and gassed, but with five of his most enduring songs in place, some written practically at the front line. Some golden talents—those whose loss could “hardly be made good” such as George Butterworth—did not return to the Royal College of Music, along with many other fine musicians at other institutions, such as Ernest Farrar, Willie Manson and Cecil Coles.
Those who did return, shattered from their experiences, proved to be in the vanguard of a renaissance in British musical life in the post-war years, joining many more established composers who were too old or unwell to have served. They produced an extraordinary set of works commemorating the devastation of war, from Frank Bridge’s “Lament” to Gustav Holst’s “Ode to Death” to John Foulds’s epic “World Requiem”, which required a remarkable 1,250 performers.
In a year when it is right to remember the sacrifice of individuals as much as the scale on the horror that unfolded, I will highlight one small individual musical tragedy of the war. Sir Edgar Speyer is not a household name, perhaps because so much effort has been made to expunge his name from the history books. An immigrant to this country from Germany, Sir Edgar was an eminent philanthropist, a friend of Asquith and Churchill and a member of the Privy Council. It was his generosity before the war that single-handedly saved the Proms and guaranteed their accessibility to a popular audience. He was a patron of many early 20th century composers and, in another walk of life, he funded Scott’s expeditions to the Antarctic. Because he was of German birth, however, this remarkable man who gave British life so much fell from grace in 1914. He was eventually hounded out of Britain with his honours and even his British citizenship stripped away. A century on, when we can look back with calm perspective on some of the events that happened in the heat of the moment, it would be right to ensure that the record is set straight and that the contribution to music, science and the arts of this man, who was so unfairly treated, is properly recognised with a fitting memorial. I hope that this might be something that one of the many institutions—those that are so finely taking the events of a century ago and placing them in a modern setting—might be prepared to take on.
I hope that, in my opening remarks, I have been able to set out just a little of the flavour of the extraordinary contribution that so many artists, poets and composers made to the war; and how those who survived used their experiences of that horrible conflict to spur an artistic renaissance in our country in the years afterwards. Out of great evil, some good did come. Across the country, their work—not least thanks to the enormously successful Centenary Partnership of organisations, with the Imperial War Museum at its centre—is being recognised, remembered and refreshed for a new generation. I am delighted that 14-18 NOW, established by the Government, has taken its inspiration from this and is commissioning new large-scale projects across all art forms to encourage people from every community in the land to build a legacy that will last another 100 years.
It is usual in these debates to have something of a shopping list for the Minister. Today I am in the happy position—I hope that means he is in a happy position as well—of not really asking for very much. The Government, through their imaginative support of so many organisations and with the support of all parties in Parliament, have played a vital role in making this year a phenomenal success. Today I ask my noble friend simply to join me—and, I am sure, all the rest of us—in remembering the contribution and sacrifice of so much creative talent in the First World War, to congratulate communities up and down the land on marking that contribution, and to pledge to continue to support artistic and musical projects that ensure that we never, ever forget.
My Lords, I most sincerely thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for obtaining this debate and for his insightful and meaningful remarks.
I liked the reference to John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed”. It is a frightening, huge canvas, with much detail. I suggest that the noble Lord also considers the pendant to that painting, equally large, which is titled, “General Officers of World War I”. If one looks first at “Gassed” and the terrifying impact on the poor, bloody infantry, and then sees the immaculate, shining detail of “General Officers of World War I”, it provides a very helpful contrast.
I commend to the Minister one poet who was born on the Welsh border in Oswestry—Wilfred Owen. He was the poet of the trenches. This is his poem, “The Sentry”:
“We’d found an old Boche dug out, and he knew,
And gave us hell; for shell on frantic shell
Lit full on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime,
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And choked the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes from whizbangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses… There we herded from the blast
Of whizbangs; but one found our door at last,
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles,
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps thumping
And sploshing in the flood, deluging muck,
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged it up, for dead, until he whined
‘O sir - my eyes, - I’m blind, - I’m blind, I'm blind’.
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time they’d get all right.
‘I can’t,’ he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still, - yet I forgot him there
In posting Next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundring about
To other posts under the shrieking air.
Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good,
I try not to remember these things now.
Let Dread hark back for one word only: how,
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his shivered teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath,
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
‘I see your lights!’ But ours had long gone out”.
The noble Lord also referred to artists. I think it is CWR Nevinson’s “The 1st Kensingtons” which shows a dead beat, exhausted platoon; they are armed; they are burdened; they have balaclavas; it is freezing; some are lying, some are sitting and some are standing. It is a study in exhaustion and the grind and terror of the trenches. Another picture by Nevinson is “The Machine Gun”, which depicts the machine gun as its central character. That was, of course, the one destructive invention that ensured hundreds and thousands of deaths and countless maimings. I will mention one other artist before I sit down. Mark Gertler’s painting “Merry-Go-Round”, which is in Tate Britain, is technicoloured and shows a fair on Hampstead Heath. On the whirling horses are soldiers, buttoned up and erect. Every mouth is open; it could be entitled “The Scream”. It is a brilliant depiction of what happens to the soldier. Mark Gertler was a depressive and, ultimately, a suicide. Time presses and I must conclude.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, on securing this debate. The regiment in which my family served during the First World War was the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the headquarters of which were at Wrexham and which was known as the literary regiment. Robert Graves joined the regiment on the outbreak of war and later became a close friend of Siegfried Sassoon, who joined in 1915. Both served in the attack at Mametz Wood on the Somme in July 1916, in which the Welsh Division was severely mauled. Graves’s poem, “A Dead Boche” written at Mametz, demonstrates how much war had sickened him, but the picture he painted is too much for me to repeat today.
Sassoon’s exploits on patrol earned him the name of “Mad Jack” and the Military Cross. He once took a German trench on his own with handfuls of bombs, scattering some 60 German soldiers. He then sat down alone in the mud at the bottom of the trench and read a book of poetry. It is not surprising that he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers in Edinburgh to be treated for shell shock. There he met Wilfred Owen, a neighbour from the nearby town of Oswestry, and encouraged him to write the sort of war poetry that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, has just illustrated so well for us. Both returned to the trenches. Owen was killed in action, while Sassoon was shot in the head by friendly fire from a British soldier.
There were two other famous poets in the regiment. Ellis Humphrey Evans from Trawsfynydd, whose bardic name was Hedd Wyn—Blessed Peace—wrote a poem, “Yr Arwr”, or “The Hero”, while on leave helping on his father’s farm in June 1917. He was killed at Passchendaele the following month. His poem won the first prize, the Chair, at the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead six weeks later and the chair itself was draped in a black sheet and presented to his parents.
David Jones was another who enlisted in the RWF at the beginning of the war. He too fought at Mametz and tried to make sense of his experiences in his great work, In Parenthesis, although it is not as well known as it should be, which was published with a foreword by TS Eliot in 1937. Frank Richards, a Fusilier since 1901, with the encouragement of Graves, left a gripping record of the life of the ordinary ranker entitled, Old Soldiers Never Die. His eyewitness account of the Christmas truce in 1914, during which soldiers on both sides drank two barrels of beer together in no man’s land, is a classic. “French beer”, he declared, “was rotten stuff”,
“and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk”.
Despite his Distinguished Service Medal and Military Medal, he refused all promotion. There were other prose writers in the regiment, particularly Wyn Griffith and the medic Captain JC Dunn, who left vivid accounts of their experiences.
I am myself engaged in a project for the commemoration of the battle at Mametz Wood. Brian Hughes, Wales’s finest contemporary composer, whose cantata “Bells of Paradise” was performed by the parliamentary choir with the Southbank Sinfonia two years ago—I hope that everyone is going to the concert tonight—is writing another work. It will have settings of English, Welsh and German poetry to be sung by a tenor representing the Welsh soldier and a baritone representing the German soldier. The Germans are not to be forgotten and, curiously, it was mostly Jewish German soldiers who wrote poetry. There will also be a chorus of young male voices of the age of those who went to war. A full choir will contain more reflective pieces and I am pleased to say that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, the former archbishop and a very fine poet, has agreed to contribute a text. It is intended to present the work in the three regimental chapels in Wales: Llandaff Cathedral for the Welsh Regiment, Brecon Cathedral for the South Wales Borderers and Wrexham parish church for the Royal Welch Fusiliers, to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle. The project has the support of the Western Front Association, which created the striking memorial of a Welsh dragon that now surveys the Mametz battlefield.
It is appropriate and right, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, has said, that Her Majesty’s Government both here in Westminster and in Cardiff should continue to commemorate in the way they already have the dreadful events of those four years of war. CP Scott, the famous editor of the Guardian, recorded in his diary in December 1917 Lloyd George’s comments, which had been made privately to him in conversation:
“If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business”.
We must never forget.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Black, has initiated a thoughtful and timely debate. I congratulate him on doing so and on his excellent speech. In my view, George Butterworth was a most wonderful composer. I can hardly bear to think what he might have written on the evidence of what we still have. The noble Lord mentioned the Imperial War Museum. I often just walk around it because, strangely, it has the same moving effect on me as going to war graves in various locations. Doing so is to be reminded of those sacrifices, which was a very painful thing indeed. In fact, I congratulate the Government and the organisers of the many memorable events that have taken place over the past year.
I have to say, though, that what the debate has most inspired in me, as I suspect it has in many noble Lords, is very mixed emotions. It is hard to approach this subject without discomfort. If we listen to and look at the substance of the work of First World War writers, painters and musicians, we must heed a very serious note of warning. As we witnessed the extraordinary display of poppies at the Tower, and another moving ceremony on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month at the Cenotaph, a profound sense of grief and admiration for those who fell was, for me, peppered by a sense of the anger that fuelled so much of the creativity of the Great War: in the pictures of Paul Nash, Sargent and Lewis, in the writings of Housman, Kipling, Owen, Sassoon and Brooke, and in the influence of their words on subsequent generations of, for instance, composers like Britten and Tippett.
As we salute what we refer to as the nobility of the dead—we even say “the Glorious Dead”—I fear we must realise that those artists who actually saw action, and often died in it, could not find nobility or glory in the terrible, terrible waste that was born too frequently of arrogance, incompetence and foolhardiness. They wanted us to learn the lesson that I fear, arguably, politicians have failed to learn: strength and discipline are admirable qualities, but so too are humility and understanding. The two world wars, without doubt, had to be fought. However, in recent BBC programmes we have learnt not only that profoundly shell-shocked soldiers were executed but that distinguished military men have begun to acknowledge that, in much more recent conflicts, hubris and ill prepared adventures have forced them into situations where they now feel that they must beg the terrible question, “Was it worth the cost?”. Or, to borrow from Wilfred Owen:
“Was it for this the clay grew tall”?
“All a poet can do”, he said, “is warn”.
My Lords, there could not have been a better person to introduce this important debate than my noble friend Lord Black. Our sense of indebtedness to him is substantial. As he explained, he is closely involved in the work of the Royal College of Music and the Imperial War Museum, both of which benefit greatly from his dedicated support.
The Royal College of Music, working alongside other academic institutions and orchestras up and down the land, will surely help us to improve our understanding of the impact of the war on British music—one of its least examined aspects. Almost a generation of composers was killed. Those who survived were changed forever, whether or not they fought. Think of Elgar. The break with Germany must have been traumatic for him. He owed so much, as did many of his lesser known contemporaries, to German traditions. Deep friendships were suddenly sundered. My noble friend Lord Black has referred to the tragic case of Sir Edgar Speyer, who did so much for Britain before 1914. A strong sense of kindred united the two countries almost up until the point when it was severed. In 1900, the destination most favoured by British people travelling abroad was Berlin.
The sudden termination of Anglo-German accord and the catastrophic loss of life that followed will be recalled forever through the work of poets like Sassoon and Owen, who have entered the mainstream of our culture and become known to millions, evoking the successive generations’ mingled feelings of grief and gratitude evoked for us this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, feelings that must remain always in our collective consciousness:
“Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead”.
Alongside such haunting lines of verse we need to hear more of the poignant music that is also a profoundly important part of our heritage—for example, the superb choral memorial “Morning Heroes”, composed by Arthur Bliss in honour of his dead friends. We must remember and commemorate during these four centenary years that have just begun.
I hope that the Minister will give us a clear indication of the Government’s support for our museums, galleries, orchestras and other institutions as they continue and, I hope, expand their tributes to our country’s wartime poets, artists and musicians. He will no doubt wish to explain to the House on future occasions—in the Chamber itself, I trust—how the Government’s plans have been implemented and with what success.
Such further debates would give us other opportunities to discuss our debt to those who gave so much to their country. Should we not turn in due course to the very important role played by women during the war? All parts of our country need to be borne in mind. I am concerned that the people of Northern Ireland may have access to less music in their concert halls at this time of commemoration because of the financial difficulties facing the Ulster Orchestra, the Province’s only professional orchestra. I have already drawn the issue to the attention of the Minister in the hope that he will encourage the BBC to become more fully involved in the search for a solution. Regrettably, he told me that he had no plans to do so but perhaps he will look again at the matter.
Some 200,000 Irishmen from south and north fought in the First World War. In its cultural contribution, Ireland was no less important. Two Irishmen, both famous painters before 1914, were prominent among the official war artists: John Lavery from Belfast and William Orpen from Dublin. Lavery was unable to travel to the front on grounds of age and health, and tended to deprecate his substantial volume of war work depicting ships at sea and life on the home front as unduly detached from the cruel reality of war. Orpen, a younger man, went to the front, where he captured the reality of suffering and hardship in a remarkable series of pictures that were austere and pitiless in character. They serve as reminders of the varied manner in which both parts of Ireland contributed to the war.
Some of Orpen’s finest pictures form part of the largest exhibition of war art for a century which is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum. Founded in 1917, the museum is rightly at the forefront of our centenary commemorations and is linked to organisations throughout the country through its flourishing centenary partnership scheme. Together, and in close association with the Government, they must sustain the high standards that they have set and maintain the momentum of commemoration until 2018, reinforcing the insistent calls for remembrance of suffering imparted to us by the war poets:
“No mockeries now for them; nor prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for obtaining this debate on commemorating the contribution of First World War musicians, artists and poets. It includes their personal contributions, of course, which in a number of cases led to their untimely deaths. I will come back to that in a moment. However, as we have heard, the issue is broader than that as it concerns their contribution to the public understanding of the war as it was being fought and through the legacy that they left in the following decades. That legacy resonates today every bit as much as it did in the years following the end of the war.
Like others, I pay tribute to the work of the Government, cultural organisations and the broadcast media for getting the tone of our commemoration right and for the quality and relevance of cultural programming. I have been impressed by the range of programmes on television, the development of digital archives online such as Siegfried Sassoon’s war diaries, and by the scale of gallery and museum exhibitions. A lot is being done—more than I had expected—and it is being done very well indeed. I pay particular tribute to the BBC, whose contribution is huge. We are only four months into the centenary and already more than 130 programmes have been broadcast. That shows the strength of public service broadcasting.
As the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, it is encouraging that the official cultural programme, 14-18 NOW, is commissioning work across all art forms that reflects on the centenary, with work being exhibited across the UK over six weeks in 2016 and 2018. Crucially, they will reflect how World War I has influenced public attitudes to conflict. We need to remember that we went to war with huge public support and strong national fervour, which was reflected sometimes in music and poetry. In poetry, that was not least in the work of Jessie Pope, whose poems commanded a wide audience and seem to have given genuine confidence in the early years of the war to many front-line soldiers. Had people known then what they knew later, her work might not have been so popular. As we commemorate, we should remember and learn from the attitudes towards war in those early years, not just from those later and after the end of the war.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Black, did not have a wish list of suggestions for the Minister to respond to. I have four suggestions; perhaps some have been considered but, if not, perhaps they might be. First, I hope that there might be major cultural events specifically around the commemoration of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 2016. I am thinking of film, cinema and television. Is there some original archive material that might be broadcast? Might other countries’ material be broadcast? I heard suggestions a few months ago that there might be some new archive film of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That could be shown right across the country in cinemas, which would be a very good thing.
The second idea is to look at the streaming of drama. We are getting used to streaming from London and Stratford, and from the Met in New York, to cinemas across the UK, and it is hugely popular. This summer, my wife and I attended a performance of a play called “Front” at the Royal Lyceum Theatre at the Edinburgh festival. It was about the waste of war. It was in four languages and was based on two anti-war novels including All Quiet on the Western Front. It was a joint performance by German and Flemish theatre companies and was deeply moving. It struck me that perhaps only a few hundred people saw the performance, when it would merit a much bigger audience. Is there a way in which we could stream far more drama that related to the First World War and to conflict, from abroad—if necessary with subtitles—and from elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
The third idea is that we should be seeking to commemorate a number of national cultural figures killed in the First World War, who we have heard about today. Could events be held and broadcasts made on the centenary date of their death? I am thinking of figures such as George Butterworth, killed on the Somme, Cecil Coles, killed near Amiens, and Edward Thomas, killed at Arras. It would be nice to think that there could be simultaneous events in all the places that they knew, had lived in and had worked in, along with broadcast support on the day so we could all participate. I am sure that many places are developing their own plans but how good it would be if there could be national co-ordination of those commemorations—and indeed international commemoration, for that matter, as we recall that Cecil Coles was assistant conductor with the Stuttgart opera in the years before the war.
My final suggestion is for touring exhibitions. Are there any plans to organise touring exhibitions of our major First World War paintings, which are mostly, though not entirely, located in London? The vast majority of people across the UK have little access to them, which is a pity, so I hope that we could look at ways in which access could be enhanced.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap because I wanted to put on the record a memory of Robert Sterling, a first cousin of my mother’s who volunteered at the beginning of the war in the autumn of 1914, having previously won the Newdigate prize at Oxford for poetry. He was held to be a coming poet. He went to France in March 1915. He wrote a very few poems in the trenches but, sadly, he was killed near Ypres only a month later, in April 1915.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, and other noble Lords who have contributed to this very moving debate. When I think of World War I art and literature, I remember two things from my youth. The first is the film “Oh! What a Lovely War”, which I saw aged 16 as a committed anti-war activist, as I was then, and I thought was amazing. I saw it again more recently at the Stratford East Theatre, and it still holds firm and is as powerful now as it was then. The second is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I read when I was 17 years old. It had a profound impact on me and I have reread it many times since.
That book—and my father, it has to be said—led me to the World War I poets mentioned by many noble Lords. Unfortunately, though, I have no recollection of studying World War I in any depth in history or English literature in my school when I was growing up, unlike my own children, who, at their excellent Camden comprehensive, are both familiar with the history and the poetic and dramatic outputs of World War I. Like many noble Lords, I congratulate the Government, and I particularly congratulate the BBC and other public service broadcasters on their great output and programming throughout this year, particularly the recognition of many of their programmes of those who made the great sacrifice from all over the world from what was then the Empire, particularly the Indian subcontinent.
I want to mention three matters. First, I commend and congratulate Yorkshire’s museums on holding wonderful exhibitions and activities, led by the York Museum. I particularly mention my home town, Bradford, where there has been a huge programme of World War I exhibitions and activity. A great son of our city, JB Priestley, served for five years in the British Army during the First World War in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and as an officer in the Devonshires. His powerful first-hand account was published 50 years later in the memoir Margin Released, and his letters home, other archived documents and his uniform are in the JB Priestley archive at the library of the University of Bradford and have been on show at Bradford Industrial Museum this spring and summer.
Secondly, Bradford WW1 is online and will run from 2014 to 2018. It is a social history research project exploring the daily life of those at home in Bradford during World War I, investigating a wide range of issues from recruiting, construction and the impact on trade to food rationing and increased industrial unrest. Bradford’s MP at the time said:
“This will be the greatest war the world has ever seen, and I hope Great Britain will not be drawn into such a crime against civilisation … It is all very well for those who make their money producing armaments—that filthy gang which makes profits by creating jealousies and bad blood between nations. The high prices which will immediately follow will not cause any hardship to the capitalists. The working classes have to pay now, and I wonder how long it is going to continue”.
So said Fred Jowett, Labour MP for Bradford West, two days before Britain declared war on Germany. With the outbreak of hostilities and the patriotic fervour that was then generated, it became increasingly controversial to take an openly anti-war stance, at least for many years.
I turn to the role of women, mentioned by several noble Lords. While Wilfred Owen wrote powerful poetry that has lasted through the generations, he was, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, one of 2,225 men and women from Britain and Ireland who had poems published during that war. Indeed, he wrote his anti-jingoistic poems as part of his therapy to overcome shell shock. His was a very personal, very powerful reaction to war. Other verses submitted to trench magazines reveal how soldiers also used humour and anti-German feeling to cope with the conflict. Much poetry was written on the front line by such poets as Padre Woodbine Willie that was about everyday concerns—such as when the next rum ration was coming. As the contemporary verse in “Oh! What a Lovely War” goes:
“Up to your waist in water,
Up to your eyes in slush,
Using the kind of language
That makes the sergeant blush.
Who wouldn’t join the Army?
That’s what we all inquire;
Don't we pity the poor civilian,
Sitting beside the fire”.
Women on the home front battled against the fear and terror that they felt for the safety of their fathers, husbands and sons far away. Evelyn Underhill wrote:
“Theirs be the hard, but ours the lonely bed”.
Millions of women knew that they would face a future possibly without their loved ones; indeed, as Vera Brittain said, they did so. Although women were portrayed by some soldier poets as innocent and idealistic, the literature from the time suggests that that was unfair. There were some 500 women writing and publishing poetry during World War I, among them Teresa Hooley, Jessie Pope, Mary Henderson and Charlotte Mew. Women’s poetry and songs also reflected the new roles that they took on. Women were in the munitions factories and were proud to be there. They sang “We’re the Girls from Arsenal”—I will not quote that song because I am almost out of time.
The third thing that I want to ask the Minister concerns the Imperial War Museum, which has been at the centre of the activities to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. At the opening of the First World War galleries this summer, the Prime Minister praised the museum for creating,
“something fitting and lasting–something of which we can all be proud”.
So I ask the Minister what comment he has to make about the proposed £4 million cut to the budget of the museum, which puts in jeopardy its library and educational facilities. I really hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that that is not the case.
My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend for securing this debate; indeed, I thank all your Lordships. This has been a most moving debate. The Government are commemorating this historic centenary with a rich and varied programme of national ceremonial events, education and learning opportunities and community-based projects. It is clear that, even at this early stage of the four-year centenary period, the nation has taken these commemorations to its heart and people are connecting with them in a deeply personal way.
Properly recognising the extraordinary output of musicians, artists, poets and writers to which the war gave rise is an integral part of these commemorations. It ranges from the poems of Rupert Brooke and Charlotte Mew to the memoirs of Robert Graves—indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. It ranges from the artistic brilliance of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer to the musical inspiration of Ivor Gurney and the Scottish composer Cecil Coles, and they—noble Lords have recorded many more—are being commemorated.
My noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned Ireland and the artists Orpen and Lavery, so well represented at the Imperial War Museum. It was extremely encouraging and absolutely right that a representative from the Republic of Ireland was at the Cenotaph service this year. Culture can touch people as meaningfully and as poignantly as our services of remembrance. You have only to look at the millions of people whose imagination was so powerfully captured by the poppies at the Tower of London.
It is for this very reason that the Government established the 14-18 NOW programme of artistic commissions for the centenary. Contemporary artists are being inspired to participate, in part because they know how potent the work of their predecessors has been. The success of the 14-18 NOW programme this year demonstrates the public’s strong desire to participate in the centenary in a number of different ways. A thousand public buildings and nearly 17 million people in every part of the United Kingdom, many of them in their own homes, darkened their lights between 10 pm and 11 pm on 4 August as part of the national Lights Out programme. Well over 21,000 people wrote a letter to the statue of the unknown soldier at Paddington station. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned all that is going on in Yorkshire. A million people in Liverpool saw “Memories of Giants”, commemorating the Liverpool Pals battalions through giant puppets. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford spoke of the Battle of Murmansk, and the production by the National Theatre of Wales recalling the lead up to that battle. Countless people were enthused by dazzle ships in London and Liverpool.
There will be creative programmes in 2016 and 2018 which will seek to move and engage even bigger audiences. I shall very much take back all four points made by my noble friend Lord Shipley. I know that work is being done to look into archives for material to commemorate the Battle of the Somme. It was very helpful to receive my noble friend’s points. The Government are delighted that two parts of the poppies at the Tower, the weeping window and the wave, will be presented at a number of locations throughout the country as part of those programmes.
The First World War was the first conflict to spawn a wealth of artistic output from those who fought on its battlefields. The Somme alone saw more writers take part than any other battle in history—Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, JRR Tolkien and Edmund Blunden, to name but a few. Some were killed in action, bright lights of their generation, including Wilfred Owen, who wrote the powerful poem read by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, the composer George Butterworth, a Somme casualty mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, and Robert Sterling, whom my noble friend Lord Jopling mentioned. Those creative promises would never be fulfilled.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned the role of women and how significant it was on the home front and the front line. In connection with my earlier words, I want to mention Nina Baird, the Royal Academy student who died from typhoid as a result of her war work in north Africa. Countless others of immense talent were lost to this war, which my noble friend Lord Black of Brentford highlighted so movingly. He also spoke about Sir Edgar Speyer, another casualty of the horror of this war. All leave an invaluable legacy, whether through poetry, memoirs, fiction or art, helping future generations to understand the dreadful reality of war.
The contribution of artists of all kinds has featured prominently, and will continue to do so, in the events and activities being delivered by government departments, arm’s-length bodies and partners. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friend Lord Shipley quite rightly congratulated the BBC on its ambitious centenary season across all its platforms which has attracted the interest of so many. I was particularly struck by the recent “War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme”, a documentary on BBC2 detailing the experiences of poets, including Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Jones, Rosenberg and Tolkien, who served in the Battle of the Somme and many more.
My noble friend Lord Lexden spoke of music. The centenary also featured as part of this year’s Proms season. On 3 August, the War Horse Prom, inspired by the National Theatre’s play, featured a new suite created by Adrian Sutton as well as other music from the period. On 4 August—the day the nation commemorated the outbreak of the war—the Tallis Scholars and the Heath Quartet performed Tavener’s heartbreakingly prescient “Requiem Fragments”, composed shortly before his death. The British Library hosted “Goodbye to All That”. In readings and conversation, Lavinia Greenlaw, one of Britain’s most eminent poets and respected literary figures, invited 10 writers from countries involved in the war to respond to the title of Robert Graves’s famous book.
The Royal Museums Greenwich exhibition “War Artists at Sea”, running until February next year, is showing the best of its collections, including visually arresting depictions of events at home and on the front and of everyday life. This exhibition demonstrates that war art went far beyond the simple recording of events. “The Great War in Portraits” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year viewed the war through images of the many individuals involved. From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considered a wide range of visual responses to “the war to end all wars”, culminating in the visual violence of expressionist masterpieces by Max Beckmann and Ernst Kirchner.
However, it is, of course, not just our national institutions that are bringing the art and culture of the war to new generations. On Saturday, the Newcastle Choral Society will stage a commemorative concert with Orchestra North East at Sage Gateshead. It will include a performance of “The Armed Man” by Karl Jenkins. These are examples of the very many events that are taking place across the country and will unfold during the next four years. The list of events and activities that are planned or under way in every part of the United Kingdom is such a long one that it would be impossible to do full justice to it today; but full details are available through the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Centenary Partnership website.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned the Imperial War Museum. I had an opportunity to see and have a short discussion with Diane Lees, the director-general of the museum, on the matter of the cuts that the museum is considering and working on. We understand that the Imperial War Museum is committed to ensuring that it will continue to give the centenary programme the priority it deserves. We should all congratulate the museum on the excellent refurbished First World War galleries that opened this summer. I promise your Lordships that I shall keep in regular touch as matters develop; the museum’s work is hugely important and it could not have a better champion than my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood.
The 14-18 NOW programme, along with our national museums, galleries and cultural institutions—and in addition to countless local projects supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council—will deliver a rich and diverse cultural programme. Remembrance, youth and education are the hallmarks of our national commemorations. It is essential to take the centenary to young people. Inviting contemporary artists to use the inspiration of their wartime predecessors to engage the next generations is an extremely valuable way of achieving this.
Cultural expression is fundamental to our sense of national well-being, pride and citizenship; it reflects how we see our civilisation and society. It is therefore entirely fitting that the cultural outpouring arising from this most dreadful of wars is properly recognised. The Government are playing their part in this and leading from the front, from their own programme of events and those of many other organisations across the United Kingdom. We have all sought to do justice to the memory of all those whose creativity shone during some of the darkest times for mankind.