Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Beatrice Lithby, OBE. Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, ca 1914-18. © IWM, Item Art.IWM ART 2900
Dear patient readers, I write after an unexpected technological debacle has left me temporarily without access to those electronically mediated channels of ether otherwise known as the internet. Moving brings its share of surprises and, while most of them have been quite pleasant, we are still actively engaged in the process of establishing web connectivity for ourselves in our new home. It shall be done quite soon and I shall return to my regularly scheduled posts.

For now, I am writing you from a local cafe and thought that I would seek out a relevant image to share with you. This delightful drawing shows a set of female operators at work with male officers at a telephone exchange in France. Telephone communication was an important technological aspect of this war and it is interesting to see the uniformed operators seated at their switchboards as the male officers use the telephone. Information could be exchanged quickly between those in command and those on the front via the telephone, although the device was subject to hazards such as lines being cut, as Gilbert Holiday's chalk and charcoal illustration below depicts:

Gilbert Holiday. The Observation Post: 'No reply, Sir...Line cut again!' ca 1914-18. © IWM, Item Art.IWM ART 185   
Just as easily as we establish reliance upon modern communication technologies, our access to such cutting-edge resources can, well, be cut. The soldiers above are shown at a moment of such failure,  as they discover that the telephone line is out. The officer turning to listen to the other man's report seems caught just before snapping into some kind of reaction or plan, binoculars still in hand and suggesting the vital nature of the connectivity that a field telephone could provide to those in the trenches.

Though I remain somewhat in the trenches of moving, our lines of communication will be established soon (it is hoped) and I shall return to a more frequent pattern of blogging here at "Ghosts of 1914." Please do continue to read and feel free to submit questions or suggestions via the comments section. Many thanks for tuning in!

© Fiona Robinson

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lord Kitchener's Form

Leete, Alfred. "Lord Kitchener Wants You," 1914.

The man pictured in what some would describe as the quintessential modern military recruitment poster is none other than Lord Kitchener (1850-1916), one of the most iconic figures of the Great War. Alfred Leete's striking 1914 image features a disembodied head and pointing arm, as though the great man emerges from a foggy blank space to find and address us.  We, the viewers, feel somehow more visible under the fierce gaze of this imposing figure, though he appears before us only in partial form. 

Kitchener, as his biographical details reveal, was born in Ireland and became a major player in British imperial conquests and conflicts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1914, he was appointed Secretary of State for War.

"Lord Kitchener Says," Parliamentary Recruiting Comm., Great Britain. Lithograph, 1915. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0309)
Kitchener's work as the Secretary of State for War was mired in controversy, primarily because of severe shortages in weapon supplies. The iconic status that had helped to recruit multitudes to the British Army began to shift towards the mid-point of the war. Public sentiment was mixed regarding Kitchener's untimely death en route to Russia in 1916, during an event of staggeringly tragic proportion. The military leader's ship, the HMS Hampshire, struck a German mine and sank near the Orkney islands, killing over six hundred people who were aboard. Jane Storey's commemorative history site offers considerable information and media related to the Hamphire disaster. 

Dick, W. Reid. Kitchener Memorial at All Souls' Chapel, St. Paul's Cathedral, London, 1925.

Controversy continued to follow Kitchener even after his death, though he was memorialized in grand and prolific fashion. A striking effigy (seen above) was installed as part of the 1925 All Souls' Chapel, which honors Kitchener and all of the war's fallen service-people at St. Paul's Cathedral, London.  The effigy takes on a certain irony or strangeness, it is worth noting, in light of the fact that Kitchener's body was never recovered from sea. British Pathé has an impressive set of viewable short films documenting services for and monuments to Kitchener in the 1910s and 20s.

Kitchener Memorial, Orkney.

While there are statues, monuments, schools, and other prominent tributes to Kitchener in many places around the world, many other, very different, items commemorating this iconic and somewhat mysterious figure were made during the Great War. Not everyone agreed about the shape or nature of Kitchener's work and legacy, but the small material objects below, all from the Imperial War Museum's collection of ephemera and other objects, indicate a desire to capture his legendary presence in tactile and approachable--even lighthearted--form.
Kitchener Commemorative Matchbox, 1916. © IWM, Item EPH 1336.
Lord Kitchener Toby Jug, Royal Staffordshire Pottery, 1917. © IWM, Item EPH 8729.
Lord Kitchener doll, Britain, ca. 1914. © IWM, Item EPH 4083.
Kitchener's memory shifts through all of these shapes, reminding us of the ways in which the histories of war and the nature of wartime icons seem to resist clear or full materialization even as they are manifested over and over again in material modes--statues, monuments, dolls, ephemera. True form perhaps eludes capture, though (for history enthusiasts like myself) the pursuit never fails to thrill.

© Fiona Robinson