Monday, 29 December 2014

Machine Gun Corps Memorial, Hyde Park Corner W1

The machine gun is the totemic weapon of the First World War, slaughtering men by the million as they struggled over the barbed wire and mud of noman's land.
How do you commemorate the memory of the men who pulled the trigger? They also served, they also died. They also were brave. But their weapon was a barbaric killing machine.
The people who commissioned the Machine Gun Corps memorial did what must have seemed the right thing by commissioning the leading sculptor Francis Derwent Wood to create a top quality work. His statue of David is outstanding - noble and heroic but thoughtful and gentle, without aggression or posturing.
David holds the massive two-handed sword of Goliath, having just beheaded the giant with it. He is flanked by a pair of realistically-modelled Vickers guns, silent, barrels pointing down, bedecked with wreaths. The discarded helmets and coats of the gunners lie below.
It is the biblical verse on the plinth that gives one pause. From 1 Samuel 18 vii, it reads: "Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands."
When the memorial was unveiled in 1925 there was outrage, many condemning it as glorifying war. Letters were written to The Times and questions asked in Parliament.
When a road widening scheme necessitated its removal in 1945 from its original position in Grosvenor Place, it took nearly 20 years before it was re-erected. 
Derwent Wood himself served as a medical orderly in the trenches and later designed prosthetic masks for burns victims, so he was entirely aware of the nature of the conflict. His aim was to point out the solitary position of the machine gunners in their positions forward of the rest of the army facing the tide of the assault. Despite the carnage they inflicted, the machine gunners themselves faced the worst casualties of any unit at about thirty percent, gaining the nickname 'The Suicide Club.'
Perhaps something more abstract would, in retrospect, have been safer. And a less inflamatory biblical verse. But Derwent Wood's David remains a fine work of art.


Hels said...

Soldiers were doomed if they opposed killing and damned if they glorified it. Imagine the plight of the COs who were gaoled if they wouldn't go into war in the first place, or taken into no man's land and left to die if they wouldn't leave their trenches.

No wonder that when the memorial was unveiled in 1925, there was outrage. I agree: something more abstract would, in retrospect, have been more acceptable to both parts of the community.

Stephen Barker said...

In part the power of the monument is the contrast between the figure of David and the verse on the plinth. It strips away any sense of false glory and confronts the viewer with the hard facts of what war means.

My grandfather served in the Machine Gun Corp. His role was that of a runner delivering messages, which I can only imagine was a hazardous occupation.

Much as I admire this monument I think that Jagger's monument to the Royal Artillery is the finest monument to the men who fought and served in WW1 and died in service.