The madness of war: A Swiss shepherd watches a battle on the frontier during World War I from the 1915 edition of Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures by the celebrated illustrator William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)
Museums up and down the country - indeed throughout the world - will have been bringing their resources to bear on exhibitions marking the centenary of World War I. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron announced last October that more than £50m has been allocated for a historic commemoration of the centenary of the start of the conflict.
Less dramatic perhaps but absorbing in their way are the diaries kept by non-combatants such as John Coleman Binder, a grocer, baker and corn-dealer from Oundle in Northamptonshire. Recently published by the town’s Museum Trust they cover in detail a wide range of aspects of World War I.
It’s a long way from Devon to Northamptonshire but I’m in the habit of spotting curious connections from the past. Like the fact that General Simcoe, a one-time resident of Budleigh Salterton, about whom I’ve written at length on this blog, was born at Cotterstock, near Oundle before moving with his family to Exeter.
I’ve often thought about the stupidity and sadness of human conflict, whether finding pacifist elements in the work of 16th century authors like the humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam or the French comic writer Francois Rabelais...
This depiction of the battlefield of Waterloo by the artist John Heaviside Clarke (1771-1863) was dedicated to the Marquess of Anglesea, Wellington's cavalry commander
... or being struck by the absence of jingoism in this 1816 painting of the aftermath of Waterloo
... or writing about World War Two’s impact on the Oundle community between 1939 and 1945.
Above: A 1915 World War I poster appealing for volunteers
“The burden laid upon this empire is already stupendous, and cannot be added to without the gravest reasons,” he writes on page 95. “We are helping clear the seas. We have an army of 3 millions of men fighting on two fronts. We are keeping our trade going (under conditions which are intolerable) in order to finance ourselves and our Allies, and have practically turned all our steel and iron works of every description into munition factories in order to supply their wants and our own. If we withdraw our men compulsorily from these labours it seems to me the result will be collapse. I am neither an Optimist nor a Pessimist but simply a plain citizen who tries to look at these events in the light of reason. We are told the Voluntary System has proved a failure, that we are ‘a nation of slackers’ etc., etc. This is mere rubbish. No nation that supplies and equips an army of 3 millions in a year ought to be condemned in this way.”
Yet Mr Binder is no pacifist. “We cannot wage war in kid gloves with an enemy like Germany,” he concludes on page 214 having described a terrible air raid on London which took place on 13 June 1917, when 104 people - “a good part women and children” he notes - were killed, and 243 wounded. “One cannot understand their mentality at all, and Englishmen have long ceased to try to do so, and most of us now look upon them as real savages, but unfortunately they have been able to bring science to aid their savage and bloody ways.”
As I turn the pages of the Oundle shopkeeper’s diary I wonder how many volumes of diaries and letters still lie undisturbed in East Devon homes, and how many of them might perhaps have been composed a century ago during what Mr Binder describes so rightly as “this grim and bloody war.” Well, we have four years ahead of us to contemplate its horrors. And perhaps during that time Fairlynch Museum’s 2014 tribute to the victims of the Great War may help to yield more testimonies which deserve to be better known.
Oundle Museum's website is at http://www.oundlemuseum.org.uk/