Tag Archives: World War I

Remembrance Roundup

Never have I been so happy to live in the time of the world wide web, as I could see and share all the forms of remembrance this past weekend as the world marked the centenary of the end of World War I. I have been profoundly touched by the cumulative efforts in Britain, starting with the amazing installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red four years ago, and under the auspices of the 14-18 Now WWI Centenary Arts Commission more poignant and engaging initiatives and installations followed, right up to the centenary of Armistice Day. The culture of commemoration in Britain appears deeply ingrained from my vantage point, but as the First World War was a global event so too is its remembrance: there were thoughtful exhibitions and installations in all of the Commonwealth countries, across continental Europe, and here in the United States. Here in Salem, I was really happy to see the Salem Maritime National Historic Site tell the story of the Second Corps of Cadets during the Great War on facebook all day long on Sunday, and more than a little confused that the Peabody Essex Museum decided to have a festive “dance party” the night before.

My favorite expressions of remembrance are below, but please nominate others! There is a much more comprehensive roundup of #ArmisticeDay100 in its entirety on Google Arts and Culture.

Blood-swept-lands-seas-of-red-Tower-of-London-poppies-002

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, 2014.

Wave Poppies

Wave Poppies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2015. Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. Getty Images.

Were Here

We’re Here because We’re Here, 2016. Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris.

There

There but not There Tommy Silhouettes in Arundel Cathedral, June 2018. An initiative by the UK Charity Remembered.

"La Nuit Aux Invalides : 1918 La Naissance D'Un Nouveau Monde" - 1918 The Rise Of A New World Show In Paris

La Nuit aux Invalides, Bruno Seillier, Summer 2018. Getty Images.

FRANCE-HISTORY-WWI-CENTENARY

Dame de Couer, October 2018. Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty.

Poppies-1-1020x765

Weeping Window poppies @Imperial War Museum, London, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, 2018.

A visitor looks at a dove-shaped formation of thousands of artificial red poppies, made out of red bottle tops, at the Botanic Garden in Meise

A Dove of Poppies, Meise, Belgium, November 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.

Tervuren

A “Trench” of Poppies, Tervuren, Belgium, November 2018. Sven Vangodtsenhoven and Hans Tuerlinckx of Art-Ex.

Some of the 72,396 shrouded figures that form part of the 'Shroud of the Somme' installation by British artist Rob Heard are seen in London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in Stratford, London, Britain

Shrouds of the Somme, 2016-2018, Rob Heard. Toby Melville / Reuters.

Pages of the Sea

Pages of the Sea, November 11, 2018, Danny Boyle.

Ghost Soldiers

“Ghost Soldiers” in a Gloucestershire cemetery, November 11, 2018. Jackie Lantelli.

Poppies

Sydney Opera House, November 11, 2018.


Salem during the Great War

I have been so impressed with the World War One centenary commemoration initiatives both in Europe (where they have been going on since 2014) and the United States (more recent initiatives, organized by towns, states, and the national Centennial Commission): poppies and lights galore, a real focus on humanity, and that amazing “We’re Here because We’re Here” living history event, which makes me cry every time I see more than one minute of video—nope, make that 30 seconds. Of course the commemoration has been more intense in Europe because the loss was more intense, but there have been some impressive American initiatives too: in our region, the Lexington Historical Society, in particular, has gone all out. Here in Salem, we have our veteran squares, which is a lovely program, but that’s about it: we have no organization committed to collecting and interpreting local history in its entirety and in context, and I doubt there’s much money to be made from commemorating the Great War. And that’s really too bad, because the history of Salem’s homefront experience during World War I is absolutely fascinating, and worthy of note. It took me about an hour to search for these items: just imagine if someone with more intent–and more time–did so.

By far the most news generated in local papers (besides reports of troop movements) in 1917 and well into 1918 is that concerned with fundraising, including relief initiatives and the Liberty Loan program by which the federal government financed the war. These were community efforts, involving drives, parades, and all sorts of events—and press. The national posters for the Liberty Loan are amazing (so many different themes and approaches, from full-on jingoism to fear to sentimentality) and the local response equally so. The Boy Scouts were deployed in this effort, and the boys of the Salem Fraternity clearly answered the call. The “Community Chest” initiative started just before the war, and during the war 300 American cities raised charitable funds according to set goals: Salem’s goal was $34,000 a month, which I’m not sure it met, but this big “War Chest” appeared on Washington Street so the effort must have been somewhat successful! There were several relief efforts in Salem: the one which seems to have been the most active was the American Fund for Jewish War Sufferers in the various war zones of Europe and Palestine, which raised 20,000,000 over the course of the war. Mrs. Nathan Shribman, the chair of the “Relief Bazaars” through which Salem would raise its share of those funds, is below in June 2017. One really does get the impression of frenzied fundraising during the entire war, even as the flu raged in the fall of 2018.

Liberty

World War Boy Scouts

WOrld War I Liberty Loan

World War I Salem 1918 Liberty Loan

Salem WWI Fraternity Liberty Loan

Salem World War I Treasure ChestLiberty Loan posters, 1917-1918, Library of Congress; Lining up to buy Liberty Bonds, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Salem Boy Scouts on Central Street during a Liberty Loan rally, October 1917, US National Archives; the War Chest on Washington Street, SSU Archives and Special Collections.

As we get into later 1917 and 1918, news from the front dominates the headlines of the Boston and Salem papers, but what happens over there always affects the home front. One of my favorite stories involves a film made by all the Salem families of soldiers in France and sent over there through the YMCA. A wonderful community effort—wish I could find it. Then there is the incredibly story of Salem’s own Ralph C. Browne, a self-taught “hitherto unknown Yankee inventor”, whose antenna firing device made possible the North Sea Mine Barrage in the closing phase of the war: local man wins the war!

WW I

WWI 2

WWI 5

World War I 8 Browne November 3 2018Boston Globe clips, 1918.

So many soldiers. Salem has its very own Saving Private Ryan scenario with the Gibney family, who sent four sons to France and were commended for their sacrifice by President Wilson in the Spring of 2018: this was a national story. Both the Salem and the Boston papers covered the war in a very personal way, sharing as many individual stories as possible, so these are just a few Salem soldiers who experienced terrible loss, joyful reunions, and distinguished themselves with great bravery. Meanwhile, back home, Salem’s residents were supporting their efforts in myriad ways right up until the end, and the Boy Scouts were drilling on Winter Island. Many came back, some did not, but the entire city seems to have turned out for the spectacular Armistice Day parade, a century ago.

World War I April 1918 Gibneys

PicMonkey Image

November 1918

Salem Fraternity Drill 1918

Salem World War 1 Armistice ParadeSalem 1918: just a few Salem soldiers’ experiences as reported in November, Boston Globe; the Boy Scouts drill on Winter Island, US National Archives; Armistice Day Parade, SSU Archives and Special Collections.


1918

I like to run through Salem’s larger cemeteries because I’m not the best runner so I really don’t want a (live) audience. Last weekend I did something to my back, so instead of jogging yesterday morning, I was walking around Greenlawn Cemetery rather awkwardly. I would not call this exercise, as I had to stop and read nearly every gravestone I passed by, and at one point, I found myself right in the midst of a collection of graves of people who had all died in 1918. They were not related; the only thing they had in common was the year of their death. None were very old, and most were quite young. Almost immediately—as I looked all around in this one little section of a large urban cemetery and saw that year everywhere I turned—I realized that this was a special moment, during which I could grasp just a semblance of how horrible that early fall was exactly 100 years ago, when young men were far away fighting a terrible war while also falling victim to a plague of influenza that was attacking the home front at the same time. I’m not sure that all the markers with 1918 inscribed on them testify to deaths by war or flu (although I will find out), but just for that moment, I could feel the magnitude of the loss–and assault—by both forces.

1918 3

1918 4

1918 8

1918 7

1919 9

The city of Salem has a “Veterans’ Squares” program through which intersections across the city are named after veterans who lived nearby. I happen to live near “Trask Square”, named in honor of Private George C. Trask, who died of pneumonia (often the end game of the flu) in Angers, France; his fellow Salemite Wallace C. Upton also died of disease much closer to home, in the Chelsea Naval Hospital. At precisely this time a century ago, influenza was raging in Boston and schools, churches, theatres, and even bars had been closed. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a great blog post featuring the diary of a young Salem wife and mother named Edith Coffin Colby Mahoney whose life changed quickly from late summer outings to the Willows to notices of deaths and “epidemics everywhere” from August to September 1918. She was right: as least 50 million* people died of the “Spanish Influenza” worldwide and perhaps 5000 people in Boston, which was the third hardest-hit American city after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In a report issued on this very date in 1918, the U.S. Public Health Service records the number of Salem flu cases at 1500, confirming Miss Colby’s impressions recording in her diary on September 26: “Torrential rain for 24 hours beginning at 3am today, some thunder in the P.M.. Most depressing day after bad news from Eugene. He died at 6:40am. Several thousand cases in the city with a great shortage of nurses and doctors. Theatres, churches, gatherings of every kind stopped. Even 4th Liberty Loan drivers parade postponed.”

And the city was still bearing the scars of the great fire just four years before……BUT the Red Sox won the World Series that year.

*I’m going with the CDC estimate; some are much higher. (https://www.cdc.gov/features/1918-flu-pandemic/index.html)

 


History is not a Spectator Sport

I was in several New Hampshire towns in the Monadnock region over the past weekend, and in each and every one of them there was a centrally-located History Center or Historical Society, open for business with timely exhibitions on view. These institutions were clearly both engaging and reflecting the collective curiosity of their respective communities, rather than just offering up a commodity or tablets (in whatever media form) of established facts that anyone can look up at any time. And once again I returned to Salem, a city that calls itself “Historic” but yet has no public history museum that is collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting its history and has experienced the removal of most of its archives by the Peabody Essex Museum, in an exasperated state. It’s not that there aren’t some great historical attractions and experiences in Salem: there are. But for the most part, Salem’s “history” is either siloed or for sale: there is no center, no apparent concern for the public record or the public memory, and an overwhelming emphasis on performance or presentation rather than participation.

WOrld War Jaffrey

World War Jaffrey 2

WOrld War HancockHistorical markers are everywhere in New Hampshire—and Salem’s Massachusetts Tercentenary markers are still among the missing; a Sunday afternoon exhibit/gathering at Hancock’s Historical Society.

I have two very specific cases in point to illustrate my assertions. We are in the midst of a national commemoration of World War I, inspired by the United States World War One Centennial Commission, of which all five living presidents serve as honorary co-chairs. All around me there are great local exhibitions on the Great War, from Hancock, New Hampshire in the north (see above) to Framingham and Lexington in the west, to Orleans on the Cape (where the only German attack on American soil occurred 100 years ago last week!) What’s happening here in Salem? Two very discreet digital exhibits, so discreet that I doubt very few people know about them. The Salem Public Library has several collections relating to individual Salem residents’ experiences during World War among their “Digital Heritage” items, including lovely silk postcards received by Anna Desjardins from soldiers stationed “somewhere in France”, and the Salem Veterans’ Services Department of the City of Salem actually has a “World War One Centennial Project” on the city website which I found while I was looking for something else entirely! Great resources here, including photographs of the two units in which Salem soldiers fought, individual biographies and obituaries, and newspaper clips, but where’s the engagement, and where’s the press? The introductory text references a collaboration with the Salem Public Library but I don’t see any links there, nor at the Salem Museum, Destination Salem, or anywhere else that keeps track of Salem events and initiatives, but I’m going to put it out there. This welcome but unheralded effort of 2018 contrasts dramatically with the reception the returning soldiers received a century ago when it seems like every parish and ward turned out for ceremonies and financed the monuments that still stand,  so “time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. I hate to disagree with a monument, but I do think the glory of past deeds is dimmed if awareness of such deeds is limited to a name on a plaque.

EPSON scanner image

World War 101stThe 101st Field Artillery in France, and just three of Salem’s World War I Memorials.

You can also find Salem’s City Seal on the city website, which is described as: a ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” signifying “To the farthest port of the rich east”; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words “Salem Condita A.D. 1626” “Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836. Actually the costume very specifically identifies a native of Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Aceh province of Indonesia, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Salem’s monopoly of the pepper trade with this region initiated and defined its golden age in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and when the seal was designed in 1836 this connection was not just acknowledged, but sealed. And in the spirit of historical and cultural engagement, the Acehnese dance company Suang Budaya Dance will be performing the traditional “Dance of  the Thousand Hands” at the (30th!) annual Salem Maritime Festival this coming weekend—on the very wharf where Salem ships once departed for their native land and returned to discharge “Salem Pepper”. The folks at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site know how to pay tribute to the past by engaging the present and the City of Salem should take a lesson: though perhaps war and trade are simply not hip, funky or witchy enough to attract the attention of City Hall.

Active Sport Salem City Seal


Stereo-typing

I have a lovely little portfolio in my possession—which long lay undetected and -appreciated underneath a tall stack of much bigger books–discovered joyfully just the other day: the French artist and illustrator Guy Arnoux’s Les caractères observés par un vieux Philosophe du haut de la fenêtre (1920). Here we have examples of visual caricatures transcending the centuries: a twentieth-century artist depicts an ancien regime “old philosopher’s” armchair observations of court life and characters. I looked up Arnoux and his works and quickly found this same book as a lot in an upcoming Swann auction, with an estimated value of $400-$600. My copy has some edge issues, so I’m sure it’s not worth that much, but it is charming nonetheless. My best guess as to its origins is my great-aunt Margaret, a high-school teacher who was quite the art aficionado, but it’s a bit simplistic for her tastes, I think.

Arnoux Characters 1

I happen to love this simplistic, neo-folkish and -primitive mid-twentieth-century style of illustration. Arnoux clearly reveled in it; I found an article about him in an arts periodical published during the Great War in which he tied his artistic aims to that epic event: Mr. Arnoux’s ambition it to be an artist of the people; to fix in their naive minds the memorable events of the greatest war humanity has ever know…..[his] theory of art is almost cubistic. “We must eliminate from artistic representation all that is secondary, all that is unnecessary,” he will tell you. “We can make good photographs; why, then, repeat them in art.” Thus, the Japanese and the Chinese are, in his opinion, the only great and true artists. [His focus is on] the simple reproductions dear to the people, hundreds of thousands of which are sold on the street corners for the modest sums of 12 sous each. Yet he regrets that he cannot make them even cheaper, for he would like to have them everywhere, especially in the hands of the children. Well now you see the inspiration for the cartoonish depictions, but Versailles is an odd setting for a “artist of the people”—I guess everyone was indulging in post-war escapism.

Arnoux Characters 4

Arnoux Characters 8

Arnoux Characters 5

Arnoux 5

Arnoux Characters 3

Arnoux 6

Arnoux Characters 2

Arnoux Indifferent

Arnoux Cover

ArnouX Immortale

Simple images of the past, and Arnoux’s present.


Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

bible 2 collage

Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

Over the last three weeks, as I have listened to the public discourse surrounding the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant announcement that it was planning to house the Salem-dominant collections of its research arm, the Phillips Library, in a vast collections center (encompassing both archives and objects) in Rowley, I have heard a constant refrain: the PEM doesn’t want to be a history museum. They are only interested in art (That’s why they are taking/hiding our history away). I’m not sure this is entirely true, but if it is, it is a stance that is based on a false dichotomy, because these two disciplines are not incompatible or in competition: art is history and if done well, history is an art.

Art and History Vermeer.jpg Vermeer’s Art/Allegory of Painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum: featuring Clio, the Muse of History. 

Several PEM exhibitions in recent memory have featured historical components, from the wonderful Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2008) to Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015) and even the Victoria & Albert traveling show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2016-2107) featured a few placards on the regional shoe industry when it made its pitstop at the PEM. But I can understand why my fellow Salemites feel that their history is being ignored by the very institution that has the responsibility of stewarding it. The Museum seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for gallery space, always justified by its large collections, yet we seem to see more of other Museum’s collections in these showy spaces. The Phillips print and manuscript collections, along with all of those unseen objects, are now on a slow boat to Rowley: one wonders if it was possible to move the historic houses also entrusted to the museum whether they would be on their way too. I don’t really think so, but I like to force the connection between textual and material history.

ropes-renovMoving the Ropes Mansion back a few feet in the 1890s.

As I looked back at PEM exhibitions over the past fifteen years or so, all of which I have seen and enjoyed, I gradually came to an awareness that the PEM does indeed “like” history, just not local history. There has been a great emphasis on Asian history certainly, and European history, and Native American history, but local history, not so much. I wonder why this is so, given the museum’s focus on connections: doesn’t it want to connect with its local audience? All of its engagement initiatives seem to have been focused on entertainment rather than exhibits: the monthly Thursday PEM/PM events, free to all Salem residents, but ending this very month. Everyone says: I enjoyed it [insert exhibition, particularly blockbuster variety] for an hour or so, but that’s it. No need to go back again. I myself clung to just one poster in the recent Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style exhibitionBoston-published, depicting the watery grave of Lusitania victims.

pem-enlist-loc Library of Congress.

So let’s work with this image–its meaning and its power. We are in the midst of the centenary of World War I, a major turning point in world and American history. Museums across the country (and across the Atlantic, of course) have produced exhibitions focused on this epic event, including art museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The latter’s World War I and the Visual Arts encompasses all artistic mediums to present a cultural history of the conflict drawn from their own collection, while the MFA’s show focused on propaganda and recruiting posters similar to Fred Spear’s evocative Enlist above. Despite 18 boxes of World War materials in the collection of the Phillips Library (processed with the support of a federal grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission but currently inaccessible and undigitized), the PEM offered up shoes, wearable art, horror movie posters and ocean liners in the centennial year of 2017: all fun and visually-stimulating exhibitions, but can we really engage in a thoughtful exploration of the human experience through these topics?

Art and History HassamChilde Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see the PEM’s reluctance to delve into local heritage as tragic for Salem, which is left to the devices of market-driven Halloween “history”, but also for the museum itself, which is losing out on an obvious way to connect to its local audience on which its future is surely dependent at least in part—it can’t be all about big donors, can it? (Maybe it is). In its rationale for not reopening the Phillips Library in Salem, the PEM pointed to declining patronage by Salem residents, but this was surely a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by declining hours and programming based on the library’s collections. A reopened and revitalized Phillips Library reading room, serving as a nexus for introspective examinations of greater Salem’s experiences in the contexts of global, national, and local history, could serve as a draw for both locals and tourists. Even though history may seem “dusty” to some, the public’s interest in heritage is both universal and increasing: with many state and local history museums reporting upswings in attendance all over the country in the last few years and record-setting crowds flocking to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in just its first year. And here in Massachusetts, with a statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in the works for 2020, the Museum–and its Library– in the midst of the other prominent Puritan colony will find itself very much in demand.

MA400-Mayor-Panel A panel of mayors, including Kim Driscoll of Salem, at the Massachusetts 400 Forum in 2016.


%d bloggers like this: