A century on from the Battle of the Somme, The Arts Show looks at the role of the war artist as an interpreter and witness to conflict. Presented by Marie-Louise Muir.
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It is almost impossible to imagine the horror of what happened
here 100 years ago.
But in this sleepy part of provincial northern France
is where one of the bloodiest battles of World War I was fought.
Much of what I know about war is not just from history books.
It's from the war poets, the songs, the paintings, the photography.
The artists who fought on these battlefields,
and who tried to interpret and make sense of it all.
These days, when conflict can be settled at a remove by drones,
do we still need artists to hold a mirror up to humanity
at its worst and its best?
This is Thiepval Wood, where the Ulster Division was stationed
before going over the top on 1st July early morning.
This is the Ulster Memorial Tower,
an exact replica of Helen's Tower in Bangor.
There really feels like an echo of home here.
These are the trenches which held the Ulstermen
who inspired Frank McGuinness's seminal play,
Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme.
Answer me why we did it.
Why we let ourselves be led to extermination.
In the end, we were not led.
We led ourselves.
We claimed we would die for each other in battle.
To fulfil that claim, we marched into the battle that killed us all.
Why did you write this play?
Well, it's over 30 years ago since I started researching it
and writing it.
I think it's basically a consequence of a time
that I spent in my very first job, which was lecturer of English
in Coleraine with the University of Ulster.
I had never really lived in a largely Protestant community before,
and I had never really had any great access to the history and culture
of the Protestant people before.
At that time, I was spending some time in Coleraine,
some time in Enniskillen, some time in Derry,
and one linking factor between all those big towns
was the war memorial.
And that war memorial really didn't mean anything to me
because at school we were not really taught anything
about either of the great wars of the 20th century.
Bit by bit, I started to get a fascination with it
and started to make a connection with it.
-But it wasn't your natural background.
I mean, you're a Catholic from Donegal.
Yes, I was immensely aware of the border, and of the other side,
and of the six counties, and we were the Free Staters.
So I had this strong awareness of division,
and of alienation from each other.
And I think, like a lot of people in the '70s and '80s,
I was determined to do something to bridge the gap,
the cultural gap, between us and them,
and not to accept that ridiculous difference
and ridiculous lack of contact which our education on both sides
had very deeply ingrained in us.
I wanted to really react against that.
What the hell do yous two think you're doing?
-Defending this part of the realm.
-Keep your defending for where it's needed across the water.
-Let that lad go!
-He's a Catholic bastard, he's no place in this.
-He's no Catholic, he's one of ours.
-Look at his eyes.
-Are you a Catholic, son?
-Let him go, do you hear?
He said, do you hear?!
I hear. I hear clearly.
The Boyne and the Somme,
what parallels did you want to draw with those seismic battles?
Yes, and it was a tremendous coincidence that the two
great days in the history of Ulster Protestantism is, by a quirk
of the calendar, they actually were fought on the same day.
I mean, that really was screaming at me, actually,
that there is this tremendous metaphor for, if you like,
the energy of the culture.
But I really wanted to make use of that very potent connection
in deliberating what it is to be of the Protestant mind.
Were people questioning you, saying, "Why is Frank McGuinness
"writing this play about our heritage, our boys?"
I don't thing I got too much of that, really,
and I would have had an answer for it.
And that answer was, "Look, it's a great story.
"It's a ferocious, terrifying, heartbreaking story,
"and if you didn't do it, I was going to do it."
We're here, we're here!
No cause for panic, ladies. The men are here.
And these eight men, very strong male characters,
women are mentioned but never appear in the play.
I did make a very conscious decision that I would concentrate
exclusively on men because they have to fulfil the role
that normally they assign to women.
They have to become protectors,
nurturers, they have to become defenders.
They have to love each other.
The whole variety of ways of loving each other
that normally they depend on a woman to do.
Do you feel that Observe The Sons Of Ulster
sits in the pantheon of great Unionist plays?
Would you consider that?
No, I don't think it's a Unionist play.
I don't think it's a Republican play,
or a Catholic play, or a Protestant play.
It's a play that I hope genuinely makes an effort to understand
why we are what we are,
and I hope it does its job in terms of bringing an audience with it,
through its beginning, middle and end,
to a place of great tragedy and great loss.
I feel a tremendous sense of grief at the loss of so much life
and so much potential.
But that's what I hope the play is,
it is a great cry for peace.
The soldiers in Frank's play would have known
nurses like Newry woman Olive Swanzy.
She not only saved lives, she also saved a unique
collection of drawings, poems and sketches,
created by the soldiers in her care,
which lay undisturbed in an attic for 75 years.
The story has been brought to the stage by Kabosh.
"The miser crept out of his hole,
"his bags of clink he clunk,
"and many a smile that miser smole
"and many a wink he wunk."
Private A Bligh.
Not a natural poet, I think we can agree.
It's just spoofy, that's soldiers for you.
Tomfoolery is their speciality,
in the hospital with nothing to do all day,
that's all they were at from dawn to dusk.
They poured their droll humour into this book.
Much of the humour is black humour,
and there's much else that isn't humorous at all
in this poignant scrapbook kept by nurse Olive Swanzy,
who served in France during World War I.
It's a collection of over 100 poems and sketches by soldiers
she was caring for.
It's a first-hand account of the thoughts that preoccupied the men
as they lay in a field hospital, contemplating an uncertain future.
"I want to go home,
"where you can't hear the cannons rumble and roar.
"I don't want to go to the trenches no more.
"Take me over the seas where the Germans, they can't get at me.
"Oh, my, I don't want to die.
"I want to go home."
The daughter of a Church of Ireland minister,
Olive's nursing career began in 1915,
when she left her home in Newry to join
the Volunteer Aid Detachment, and was posted to Portsmouth.
It was here the injured were sent for treatment
and often returned to the front.
At 7:30am, on 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began.
No-one could have imagined it would be the bloodiest day
in British military history.
The number of casualties was so enormous
that more nurses were urgently needed.
Olive found herself at Field Hospital Number 12
on the racetrack outside Rouen in France.
"I could smell the ether, it sickened me, I hated it.
"And the noise.
"The noise the men make when they first come in, mashed up,
Despite the horrendous conditions,
Olive found relief from day-to-day stresses
by painting her surroundings,
the tainted landscape of Rouen hospital.
What she was practising was her own form of occupational therapy,
an idea scarcely known at the time,
and which also led her to encourage her patients to draw and to write.
One of the contributors was Fergus McCain,
an illustrator from New York.
This early cartoon is a comic treatment of his own wounding
at the Battle of Delville Wood, nicknamed Devil's Wood.
McCain would later create a series of cartoon postcards
depicting life in the trenches, known as A Tommy's Life In France.
Troops were encouraged to buy them and send them home.
Humour was surprisingly common in the sketches,
and while the battlefront does feature,
many of the artists had different people and places in mind.
The First World War is, for many people, a male narrative.
It's about men, who mostly were the ones who suffered in the trenches,
and who died.
But it's also a women's war.
So what we get with Nurse Swanzy's story
is a woman's outlook on the war,
and in particular, the way that she cherished the men sufficiently
to want them to record a little bit of themselves.
Why did they do it?
The relationship between a nurse and a soldier,
a wounded soldier in particular, at the front, was a rather special one.
Because these young men, during the course of a war,
were in male environments.
They very rarely encountered women.
And suddenly you're in a position where you're in the hospital ward,
you're away from the sound of the guns, and there is this
angel of the wards who is maybe doing very intimate things.
She's washing you if you're unable to wash yourself.
She's helping you to dress. She's there.
She's a kindly voice, and she may well remind you of the mother
that you maybe write to,
the mother that you've maybe written a poem about
in order to celebrate how much she means to you.
And she's there almost as a sister,
or perhaps even an imagined lover.
Some of them who write in this book of Olive's die in the war.
They go back to the front and die,
and the little poem that they leave, the little sketch, is perhaps all
we have as we look at it 100 years later, all we have of their lives.
If I want to live now, in this bright, shining present,
the past must go, starting with this autograph book and the sketch pad.
They can go into the fire.
Think how long your patients took making their entries,
doing their drawings. They wanted them kept.
They wanted something they made to be held on to by you.
Lock it away in a box, out of sight.
And that's exactly what Olive did.
The poems and sketches were hidden away in The Manse in Newry,
and in her later home in Rostrevor for nearly 70 years.
In 1974, Olive died,
but it was another 16 years before the collection was discovered.
Now, at last, the words and pictures created by wounded men,
can be seen more widely than their creators ever imagined.
And Olive's collection is currently on show in the Ulster museum.
Now, each war has its own unique soundtrack,
be it Jimi Hendrix in Vietnam, or Vera Lynn in World War II.
Michael, what was the sound of World War I?
Although there were phonographs and some recorded material,
the vast majority of the songs came from the music hall.
You've got the classic things like
We Don't Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go...
# Oh, we don't want to lose you... #
It's all part of the patriotic feel that they were trying
to instil, which is why there were so many people who were enlisting.
So when they get here, we're in Thiepval Woods at the moment,
and they're in these trenches, what songs are they listening to here?
What are they singing?
The classic one, the one that everyone knows,
is It's A Long Way To Tipperary.
# It's a long way to Tipperary
# It's a long way to go... #
This was sung as the expeditionary force were landing in 1914,
and it just happened that the Daily Mail correspondent was there
when they were singing that song as they came off the ship.
Had he been a mile down the road,
they could have been singing another song.
But it was a marching song,
and one of the key things about this song was, could you march to it?
# Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
# And smile, smile, smile... #
Pack Up Your Troubles is a really interesting one
because that was 1915, and in fact a competition was held,
and the guys who wrote the song thought it was piffle
and thought it was hilarious that it was then being
used as the troops were marching off to war.
So when it goes from marching and patriotic songs,
it starts to become quite sentimental and nostalgic.
You get more and more sentimental songs from around 1915, 1916.
You know, Home Sweet Home, actually, was extremely popular.
# Be it ever so humble
# There's no place like home... #
Say here in Thiepval Woods, they're singing songs,
they're so close to the enemy front line.
They wouldn't do that. It was discouraged on the front line,
for obvious reasons,
and also, moving up to the front line, they didn't sing.
# The bells of hell go ting-a-ling, for you but not for me. #
Apparently it was sung as the troops were marching away from the front
to the guys who were going into the front line,
and they would emphasise the word "you".
They weren't prescriptive in what they were doing.
They just sang whatever was in the head.
# Here we are, here we are here we are again
# Hello! Hello!
# Hello, hello, hello... #
It's not just about keeping the spirits up of the troops here,
of course - it's keeping the spirits up of the families at home.
# Has anybody here seen Kelly... #
I love the fact that it was surrounded by birdsong,
and, you know, nature will always find a way through.
-But to imagine those songs...
-It's pretty overwhelming.
As well as music, war has its own defining images.
In a world of 24-hour rolling news,
should the interpretation of war be left to artists?
War is something that most of us
probably only ever experience through here, the newsroom.
And since the Vietnam War, the sight of news crews
bunkering down with troops has become common.
But before television,
governments found a different method of capturing battle,
commissioning war artists
to experience and interpret what they encountered.
In 2002, professor of photography
and head of the Belfast School of Art, Paul Seawright,
was sent to Afghanistan as a war artist.
What is the role of the war artist?
Well, the idea of the war artist is kind of counter to the media,
I guess, is probably the best way to think about that.
Wars are photographed and filmed by the media.
That's how we encounter war mostly.
The war artist tries to bring a different voice to that,
something, I guess maybe more poetic or slower,
less informed or directed by other agencies.
The idea of the independent artist going to a war
to give us something that's perhaps more reflective,
more complex in terms of what it does than the media might do.
But why would a government or a body invest in an artist
to capture their experience of war?
I think it's essential that governments face up
to their responsibility
of trying to somehow document
in a much more emotive and open, unattached way,
to the kind of things...
These are huge issues in the world.
I mean, war... We send people off to fight and die.
For that just to be recorded in an official capacity by the government
or the military themselves, would be a disaster for us.
Having independent people in those situations is crucial.
When I did the Afghanistan commission,
I had a lovely note from Seamus Heaney saying how essential
he thought it was that writers, poets, playwrights, painters, should
go to war because their account of that war will be absolutely unique.
As we know with looking at war art from the First World War now,
it's an insight into that war
that you cannot get from any other mediation of it.
Are they truly independent, though?
What's the crossover between an official war artist
and pure propaganda?
Originally, it was called the official war artist.
That term became very contentious.
Artists were turning down the commissions
because they didn't want to be an official anything.
It runs against the grain of being an artist.
So the "official" thing going was quite important,
and the independence of the artist
is really crucial to that whole project being successful.
The only way I'd ever have accepted doing a commission like that
was to have complete independence.
The way the process works, and I'm on the commissioning committee
at the Imperial War Museum, is you identify artists
whose work might be suitable, and then they make proposals.
All the commissioning committee does is facilitate your project.
Can these be artworks in their own right?
I'm thinking of official war artists from the Great War,
like Sir John Lavery, or William Connor.
Their work clearly was intended as propaganda,
but as time has gone on, we can look at it very differently now.
A lot of that art doesn't feel like propaganda now. At the time it was.
Look at some of those paintings, and they're quite celebratory almost.
Blue skies and very rich colours.
But at the same time, there are people producing paintings
in the very same capacity that are very black and sombre and difficult.
I think it's to do with the individual.
The more versions we have, the more narratives we have,
the more voices we have, be it artists, journalists, be it writers,
anyone at all, it's all of value.
And in fact it will all impact, I think, eventually
on how we might engage or not engage in conflicts in the future.
Men from right across the island of Ireland
fought here on these battlefields,
including Francis Ledwidge from Slane in County Meath.
Now, Slane is probably best known these days for its rock concerts,
but it was also the home place of this Irish poet,
whose work, arguably, should be as well known as Wilfred Owen's
or Siegfried Sassoon's.
When I was young I had a care
Lest I should cheat me of my share
Of that which makes it sweet to strive
For life, and dying still survive,
A name in sunshine written higher
Than lark or poet dare aspire.
When we think of the great war poets,
we think of Owen, Sassoon, Kipling.
But here in Slane in County Meath lived one of the finest,
yet lesser-known Irish poets -
He was born in August 1887
in this very cottage in Janeville, Slane in Ireland.
The eighth of nine children in a poverty-stricken family.
Francis was only five when his father, Patrick,
died prematurely, which forced his wife
and the children out to work at an early age.
Strongly built with striking brown eyes and a handsome face,
Ledwidge was a keen poet, writing wherever he could,
sometimes even on gates and fence posts.
While working as a road labourer,
he won the patronage of the writer Lord Dunsany,
after he wrote to him enclosing copybooks of his early work.
Dunsany, a man of letters already well-established in Dublin
and London literary circles, promoted Ledwidge in Dublin,
where he introduced him to the burgeoning literary scene
and the Abbey Theatre.
He encouraged the young writer to become a fixture at the theatre,
to absorb the plays and the actors' interaction with the written word,
thus expanding his own horizons.
Ledwidge was a keen patriot and Nationalist
and a founding member, with his brother Joseph,
of the Slane branch of the Irish Volunteers,
a Nationalist force sworn to defend the introduction of Home Rule
for Ireland, by force if need be.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914,
and on account of Ireland's involvement in the war,
the Irish Volunteers split into two factions -
the National Volunteers,
who supported John Redmond's appeal to join Irish regiments
in support of Great Britain's war efforts,
and those who did not.
Francis was originally of the latter party,
but changed his mind,
declaring that it was because "Britain stood between Ireland
"and an enemy common to our civilisation,
"and I would not have her say she defended us
"while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions."
In October 1914, Francis enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers,
initially serving in Turkey and Serbia,
and was promoted to Lance Corporal.
While recovering from injury in Manchester,
news reached him of the Easter Uprising
and the execution of his good friend and fellow poet Thomas MacDonagh.
He became angry and disillusioned
and was finally court-martialed
and demoted for overstaying his home leave,
though his corporal stripes would be restored when he went back to war.
What is certainly true is that Frank's views were
crystallised by the deaths of his friends
after the Rising executions, of course, by the British Army.
It's worth saying as well that he was court-martialed
after the Rising, I think, for insubordination.
During the court martial, he was accused of being a traitor.
He reacted extremely strongly to that,
because, of course, that's a multivalent term,
it's got many meanings,
particularly for an Irishmen in British uniform at that time.
How did Frank's attitude to war change after 1916
and the executions?
Well, let's not forget that Frank had the chance to be invalided out.
He was given the means to do so and refused.
He never waivered, as far as I can see, from his writings,
from his views that he was fighting against a great evil.
An enemy, as he put it, of civilisation.
Ledwidge endured harsh conditions in Gallipoli in 1915,
however, his poetry evokes a sense of peace and simplicity,
A sentiment which appealed to many readers during the war.
Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.
And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.
As one critic commented about the poems and songs of the fields,
they are the spontaneous expression
of his simple love of the Irish fields,
and the feeling of these songs is sincere enough
to take us back from the present fields of war.
On the 31st of July 1917,
a group from Ledwidge's battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
were road laying in preparation for an assault
during the third Battle of Ypres.
While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades,
a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others.
Ledwidge's poetic legacy, what Seamus Heaney calls
the "twilit note" was,
like his political life, unseen for many decades.
Now, however, he is being heralded as a man of our times,
one in whom "All the strains crisscross".
And now I'm drinking wine in France,
The helpless child of circumstance.
Tomorrow will be loud with war,
How will I be accounted for?
It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,
Is greater than a poet's art.
And greater than a poet's fame
A little grave that has no name.
Whence honour turns away in shame.
Belfast poet Michael Longley's dad Richard fought in these fields
This place has been a constant inspiration in Michael's work.
Here he is reading the poem Harmonica.
From the Western Front and The Arts Show, goodnight.
A tommy drops his harmonica in No Man's Land.
My dad like old Anaximines breathes in and out
Through the holes and reeds and finds this melody.
Our souls are air. They hold us together. Listen.
A music-hall favourite lasts until the end of time.
My dad is playing it. His breath contains the world.
The wind is playing an orchestra of harmonicas.
One hundred years after the Battle of the Somme, The Arts Show looks at the role of the war artist as an interpreter and witness to conflict. Presented by Marie-Louise Muir.