Archives for posts with tag: WW1

Sketches of costumed participants at Cliffe Castle on World War 1 Day

Sketching people doing more or less anything is one of my favourite things, and if they’re dressed up in some way, even better. Cliffe Castle’s World War 1 Day last Saturday gave me more subjects than I could draw, and trying to sketch people you know and haven’t seen for a while is difficult too – I kept having to abandon everything so I could hug someone and say hello!

I learnt some interesting facts about uniform. One thing that had always intrigued me is how puttees are put on and fastened, and this was explained (though not demonstrated) by the wearer (who does lots of costumed re-enactments, of different periods). You start winding the puttees from the bottom beginning at the second bootlace hole, and when you get near to the top just below the knee you make a turn or twist in the wrap (‘you know, the way the Vikings did it’ he said by way of explanation. I had to admit if anything I know less about Vikings than I do about WW1 army kit, but I get the general idea). The twist is what stops the whole wrap falling down, before it’s fastened off with tape to finish the thing off. (Probably not like the Vikings.)

Sketchbook page of costumed participants at Cliffe Castle on World War 1 Day, including Frederick Butterfield, mayor

Frederick Butterfield (of the Cliffe Castle Butterfield family) was mayor of Keighley during the First World War and took a leading role in the campaign to save wheat by restricting the amount of bread eaten, and promoting alternatives (hence the recipes and samples of baked goods with different ingredients available to try – Trench Cake was delicious but I missed the chance to sketch it).

Vintage archive photo of Keighley shopfront display promoting campaign to eat less bread and save wheat

This extraordinary photograph was one of several showing the ways in which this message was broadcast. It’s all the more striking because the frontage of this building, Arcade Chambers in Keighley is more or less unchanged and completely recognisable today – but what stands out is the language and sentiments expressed on the posters and banners:

IF YOU WASTE A CRUST YOU WASTE A BULLET
NOT A SCRAP SHOULD ESCAPE
WATCH EVERYTHING AND SAVE BREAD

IF YOU ARE RICH
UNDER EAT YOUR BREAD RATION
THERE ARE MORE SUBSTITUTES
AT YOUR DEMAND

Plain speaking. Mind you, the banner at the top of the photograph is one we could do with today, and maybe we could do with a bit more of this kind of plain speech and use similar methods and locations. After all, there are enough empty store-fronts in our high streets.

STOP ALL WASTE!

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Drawing of barbed wire from the trenches on the Western Front

It’s hard to imagine, a hundred years on, what it was like for the soldiers during the First World War fighting on the Western Front. Cliffe Castle’s exhibition Keighley’s War continues through the summer and August 4th will be First World War Day, a chance to experience some of the day-to-day realities of what it was like for the people of Keighley during those years. (A chance to taste bread from recipes of the time as suggested by the Keighley Food Control Committee will be one of the things I’ll certainly have to try).

But many miles away from home in northern France soldiers were enduring life in the trenches and it wasn’t until I sketched certain objects in the collections that some of the horror of it all came home to me. The barbed wire fragment (German wire, incidentally – all wire is different) is probably for me the most moving and haunting thing of all the objects I’ve drawn. Partly I think because of the shadows cast by the twists and barbs – it seems to say so much and doesn’t need much explanation.

Flechettes, barbed steel darts dropped from biplanes into the trenches on the Western Front

By contrast these things look horrible but it’s not immediately obvious what they are. They’re called flechettes, and they were dropped into the enemy trenches by English pilots flying bi-planes, which must have been dangerous but which the pilots objected to because of the nature of the wounds inflicted, and the fact that they could be dropped without warning and silently, except for the noise of the plane. It’s a measure, I suppose, of how far and how fast things escalated and how quickly attitudes hardened that we are able to be surprised at soldiers expressing dislike at weaponry and tactics that they felt were ‘ungentlemanly’.

Drawing of a brown rat

Life in the trenches must have been awful in so many different ways. Rats were a big problem. At home in Keighley most people would have been accustomed to sharing their lives with rats to some extent as an inevitable thing, but being plagued by hungry rats in the cramped and muddy darkness of the trenches would have been something altogether different. (This Brown Rat is a specimen in the Natural History Gallery; over time it’s faded to the colour of honey.)

Once again, drawing acts like a kind of time-machine. Sketching things like the barbed wire and the flechettes I really do feel like I’m looking through a window into the First World War and feeling myself connected to that time and place. It’s an emotional, disturbing thing, and over and over again I realise what an important role museum collections have to play. I don’t need immersive virtual reality installations; if I take the time to look properly at objects (and drawing takes time, and makes you look) they will quietly tell their story, make history come alive, and unfold a direct, personal understanding of the past.