Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Cat Came Back...

A brief update to yesterday's post about Dick Whittington and his Cat. It seems that, during the Second World War, the 56th London Infantry Division of the British Army adopted Dick Whittington's Cat as their emblem. Uniforms for this division included a small badge with the silhouette of a black cat. There are several examples in the IWM's collections.
Formation Badge, 56th London Infantry Division. © IWM, Item INS 5464

It is interesting to think of the meandering path we've taken on this little exploration of war cats real and mythical. There's something distinctly feline about the twists, turns, and tangents we've covered as we follow Dick Whittington's cat through history, isn't there?

© Fiona Robinson

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Cats of War

Arthur L.F. Cary, "Dick Whittington," 1918. Lithograph. © IWM, Item Art.IWM PST 0555
I love cats (my own beautiful Rosie most of all, naturally). So, I thought that for today's post I would take a look for cat-related items in the IWM's wonderful database. I found the above charming poster of folktale hero Dick Whittington marching to the war with his impressive black cat, helmeted and walking magisterially on hind legs, at his side. Dick looks cheerfully at the viewer, tipping his hat to us as he lugs his considerable load of equipment. The cat, however, keeps eyes forward, pointing his body and gaze ahead of him, focused on their destination.

I must break from Great War talk briefly to mention that I keep thinking of AMC's Mad Men every time I see the name "Dick Whittington." The name sounds much like the real name of the show's 1960s protagonist Don Draper. Don, we eventually learn, is really Dick Whitman, whose name, history, family, and dead-end future he sheds (subsequently claiming the real Don Draper's name and identity from a dead comrade) while serving in the Korean War.
"Don Draper when he was really Dick Whitman." I couldn't have put it better myself, Access Hollywood.
I do hope I haven't ruined any mysteries for Mad Men followers out there, though the Don Draper/Dick Whitman storyline was revealed at least a couple of seasons ago, if not more. I digress, however. This is not a television blog; the bottom line is that: 

Dick Whitman & Dick Whittington=no relation

Since we are talking about identities false and true, though, who was the "real" Dick Whittington? The character comes from an old English folk tale loosely based on the true story of Richard Wittington, who served as Lord Mayor of London in the 1300s. Wittington's legend lived on into the twentieth century and came to inspire Arthur Cary to create the poster above in 1918. Having been transformed into a play as early as the seventeenth century and a pantomime stage show in the early 1800s (the first version of which starred the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi), the story of "Dick Whittington and His Cat" was well-known to readers and theater-goers in Britain throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries.

"Richard Wittington and his Cat," ca. 1790-1820.
Dick Whittington, in his fictional manifestation, is a poor boy who, through the incredible ratting powers of his cat, wins fame and fortune, eventually becoming the mayor of the great city of London. His real counterpart, Richard Whittington, is not known to have had a cat, though a source on Wikipedia speculates that a mistranslation might have led to the appearance of the mythical animal.

A final detail worth pondering in Arthur Cary's poster is the "ET 70" milestone that appears at bottom right. I will assume that this indicates Etaples, the northern French location of a major British base camp. Famously, the Etaples site was the setting for a serious mutiny incident in September, 1917.  Poor morale among troops led to an uprising over the arrest of a soldier from New Zealand. Military police fired into a surging crowd, killing one soldier and wounding a French civilian. Protests ensued and hundreds of men held demonstrations and eventually marched through Etaples over the next few days. When order was forcefully reestablished, punishments including one death sentence, imprisonment, and strippings of rank, were meted out. The Etaples Mutiny was a tragedy all around.

Are Dick Whittington and his cat headed for Etaples? Given the 1918 date of the poster, the Mutiny had surely made some news by the time of Cary's work. It is not clear what the two characters' march towards this location, if this is indeed where they are headed, might mean, though. Perhaps they are simply moving towards the base camp where many British troops were sent before going to the front. Or, are they signalling some solidarity with the frustrated marchers who walked through the town in 1917? A final grim possibility might be that Whittington and the cat are headed to Etaples to enforce order and subdue the spirit of unrest and agitation. No matter their purpose, Whittington appears quite boyish here as he greets us with a confident smile, and though his outfit is of a vaguely military green hue, its clearly antiquated style does not suggest that he is ready for war. His cat, though, seems possessed of a different and thoroughly modern sort of seriousness and motivation.

Herbert Hiller, "'Mowler,' One of Our Mascots," 1915. © IWM, Item Art.IWM ART 4378
The ghosts of 1914 had their allegiances to service animals of many kinds. Horses, dogs, birds, and cats facilitated transportation, communication, safety, and even simply comfort for their human comrades. Herbert Hiller's "Mowler," pictured above, looks quite a lot like Dick Whittington's cat--wise with understanding and intent that we humans can only imagine. This crouching creature, whose glance projects feline accusation as only cats are capable of expressing, reminds us that the war was seen through many eyes and from many perspectives. The actual and the mythical proportions of the conflict, though they shift and startle us even now, take on a new dimension when we consider the feline ghosts of 1914.

© Fiona Robinson

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sassoon's Separate Peace

Siegfried Sassoon, 1916. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Item NPG x 144195
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) made a bold decision in the summer of 1917. As he records it in his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, his recovery from a bullet wound received on the front after three long years of service allowed him time to formulate a statement of his feelings on the seemingly endless war. With the support of pacifist friends, he put pen to paper. Sassoon writes of this moment as one at which he reconsidered his relationship to the conflict, reclaiming his right, as an individual, to secede from the collective sentiments of patriotism or glory or duty that had encouraged so many to enlist and so many others to remain complacent about the events and costs of what was happening 'over there.' Here, from his memoirs, is that statement--an incredible declaration of individual feeling, agency, and integrity:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated so as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong the sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.                              
 Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 207
"Finished with the War: A Soldier's Declaration."
Sassoon's statement as read to the House of Commons and printed in the London Times.
Sassoon's declaration incited quite a lot of turmoil. Because of his distinguished service record, he had earned considerable respect in the Army. He was offered the chance to recant, but refused. Facing a court martial and likely imprisonment, a decision was made to allow a medical board to declare him mentally unfit for service. Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, where he remained for a number of months. There, he met not only the incomparable Dr. W.H.R. Rivers  but also Wilfred Owen--a younger poet of dazzling talent. Owens would be killed in action just before Armistice. Together, Owen and Sassoon published poetry in the Hospital's own periodical, The Hydra.
The Hydra, 12th May 1917. © University of Oxford, First World War Poetry Digital Archive
There is so much to read and learn about Sassoon and his incredible act of defiance. For those wishing to know more, Sassoon's memoirs are a good place to start. Pat Barker's trilogy of war novels, which begin with Regeneration, include a fictionalized account of Sassoon and Owen at Craiglockhart. An invaluable resource is also found in Oxford University's First World War Poetry Digital Archive, which contains multitudes--of documents, images, and other media related to personal histories of the war. The Peace Pledge Union Project, a British pacifist organization, also has an informative set of resources about Sassoon.

Take a moment to read Sassoon's statement and consider it both within and beyond its Great War framework. The words of this ghost of 1914 remain relevant and affecting. They devastate and inspire us with their insistence on the truths about national events or enterprises that are revealed through individual experience and testament. 

© Fiona Robinson

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What to Wear to War/India in Flanders Field: The Color of Khaki

Hello, friends. I am musing these days on the color of khaki. One of the most striking and pleasingly historically accurate scenes in the recent film War Horse (which was great, by the way, and upon which I shall comment post-haste) was one in which a group of officers stands before the camera. Modern viewers might be surprised by the veritable spectrum of colors that they wear--olive, moss, tan, bottle green. Uniforms are supposed to be uniform, after all, aren't they? If we explore a bit, however, we find that khaki--which today might conjure up only images of dull cotton trousers sold in mass quantities by major clothing chains--has a fascinatingly, insistently, diverse identity and history.
A scene from War Horse, from The Telegraph's media archive.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "khaki" as "Dust-coloured; dull brownish yellow, drab." The term appeared and evolved in the mid-nineteenth century, taking its roots in British Imperialist conflict/conquests in India. Early periodicals and publications describe troops "dressed in khakee [sic]," linking the shade closely to the color of dust or mud. Khaki, as it came to be spelled over the later Victorian period, was made in India, and the OED's citations of the term suggest that one of its most hallmark features was, paradoxically, its variation. An 1890s reference book on Indian products comments, in fact, somewhat desultorily, "It is needless to attempt an enumeration of all the Khaki dyes of India."

Writer Viju Mangalore has an interesting and detailed article about the history of khaki production in India, noting its roots in the southwestern city of Mangalore. The Met Museum also has a useful overview of Indian textiles made for trade.

Wikipedia notes that khaki was adopted as a uniform material and color after the 1840s; the cloth was linen or cotton, and its color came from mulberry dye. The British Army used khaki uniforms, according to Wikipedia, for foreign campaigns in the 1890s, with a more greenish, darker, shade becoming typical for "home service dress," after the turn of the twentieth century.

"Why Aren't YOU in Khaki?" poster, 1915. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5153) 
The color of khaki continued to defy conformity into the First World War. As my current dissertation research subject, Siegfried Sassoon, writes in his semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and the subsequent Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Army officers ordered their uniforms from tailors. The tailor's ability to locate the proper shade of khaki, however, was as varied as the cloth itself. Sassoon's fictional alter-ego notes that one man's "shirt and tie were more yellow than khaki" (MFHM, 260) and, later, that a Brigadier is a source of annoyance because of his "light-colored shirt" (MIO, 34). Variation clearly continued to dog the military leaders who sought uniformity during the Great War. 

Barely more than a week before Armistice, Dunhills Tailoring offers uniforms for "Flying Men."
Though the color of khaki cloth is defined in dictionaries and military manuals, its real, material, form was widely varied for our ghosts of 1914. I enjoy this paradox--the appointed uniform color that refuses uniformity. Surely, however, for most soldiers and officers, the mud and dust of the trenches came to cloak that individuality with the grim evidence of service and suffering on the front. Though he notes the confounding multiplicity of khaki in his prose, Sassoon also wrote, in verse published in the 1918 collection, Counter-Attack and Other Poems of "the plastering slime," and "the sucking mud," finding, in these and other phrases, numerous ways of conveying the oppressive conditions of the trenches and battle zones, as though the mud there was active, destructive, covering over all traces of individuality, of life.

I hope that this musing allows you to consider the color of khaki--what it means to us today and what it has meant over its long history, to people in many places around the world. It is far more than just a uniform shade.

© Fiona Robinson