I walked past this war memorial several times during my recent short visit to London. This is a close-up in the morning.
The sculpture is by Charles Sargeant Jagger (born 1885, died 1934), a Yorkshireman who fought in World War I, was wounded several times, and awarded the Military Cross for bravery.
At night, it was especially moving. It is in a quiet area of the station and the memorial is spotlit against the vast and obscure wall, but the face of the soldier remains shadowed.
I paused to contemplate briefly each time I passed. The uncomfortably rough texture of the greatcoat and the soft flexibility of the garter stitch scarf brought vividly to my mind the very moving reminiscences of World War I by old men in the 1970s. A few years ago, I had been given the opportunity of transcribing oral history recordings of such men.
It was fascinating and difficult work. Some days, I had to keep pausing to weep for the lost friends and family, lost wits, and lost innocence of my great-grandfather’s generation. It was a truly lost generation. The men talking in the recordings described simply, without much detail what happened to them. The conciseness of their language betrayed the deep pain caused by the experiences.
It was not until I researched further, using clues in their pared-down accounts, that the picture emerged of young men who joined up with bravado, some lying about their age to get into the army.
The British Army in World War I included boys. They sent ill-equipped boys, after virtually no training, into the killing fields, into the muddy trenches of the Western Front. These boys went into battalions with their brothers and schoolfriends. Some lost virtually all their comrades, all their relatives and friends.
They joined the next battalion. They saw their new friends mown down.
The fragments of their corps moved on again, joined the fragments of another corps, and they fought on…until they lost a limb or some other crucial body part, were dead or the war ended.
Jagger’s memorial, this depiction of a solitary man wearing a helmet and reading a letter so intently, shows clearly that he had experienced this. The cold, the unbearable physical discomfort of everyday life in active service in World War I is captured in this dignified and poignant figure of the soldier reading a letter from home.
The hand-knitted scarf suggests a practical gesture by a mother, grandmother, sister or girlfriend trying to keep him warm and safe. It suggests an item of clothing worn as much for the emotional as physical warmth and comfort it gives.
The war memorials throughout the United Kingdom tell stories of ordinary men and women in extraordinary, dreadful circumstances. The artists and architects who survived to design these moving monuments created some great work. They are passionate representations of grief by a lost generation. I feel compelled to pause to consider them.