Review: ‘Violence as Spectacle – Exhibiting the Great War in the British Empire’

Dr. Jennifer Wellington has earned an academic accomplishment in every land her work touches on. She boasts an undergraduate degree in Australia, PhD in history from North America, and a postdoctoral research position in England. But what else ties all these places together? Empire – which was unsurprisingly the true heart of her talk at the Oxford History Faculty, focused on the presentation and commemoration of violence during and immediately after the First World War.

As the keystone for her lecture, Dr. Wellington explained the state-endorsed phenomenon of “war trophies” across the Britain and its imperial arteries. Loosely defined, “war trophies” are the captured weapons, munitions, and supplies of enemy combatants brought home by Allied soldiers for posterity and public display. The public at large, desperate for an “authentic connection” to the war experience, hungrily consumed war trophy exhibitions in England and abroad. Indeed, the desire for an authentic war “experience” was so great that even Trafalgar Square was temporarily converted into a “Wrecked Village” during the 1918 Armistice. The event was designed to promote the sale of war bonds, thus fittingly titled “Feed the Guns.” At the beginning of the event in October, according to Dr Wellington it was unclear that the Allies would even go on to win the war, despite its proximity to the date of the armistice. Nonetheless, people still attended en masse for a taster of destruction. Such is the draw of violence.

Trafalgar Square “Feed the Guns” exhbition

Canada, so readily seen today as a polite and edgeless country, was the first to fully recognize the utility of these violent signifiers. By Spring of 1916, top Canadian officials had already drafted a policy for the acquisition of war trophies by its troops abroad, and by March of 1917 a museum for their permanent display was approved and underway. Militarily, such demand was placed on soldiers to capture enemy items and armaments that the British Empire constructed and designated “official depots” for war trophies across France and London.

Over the war’s remaining years, Canada toured large-scale exhibitions of these trophies across its vast territories. The events proved so immensely popular that the United States government eventually asked for the Canadian displays to be screened within its own borders from coast-to-coast, from San Francisco to New York City, with more than eight stops in total. Dr. Wellington explained all of this within the first fifteen minutes of her rapid-fire lecture, at which point a simple question emerges: “Why?”

For Canada, the answer is “an identity crisis.” By the early 20th century, Canada struggled to identify its place in the British Empire at large. In fact, its officials believed the populace could barely conjure an international narrative outside of being “not the US.” These same officials saw war as a cultural target of opportunity. If they could reconstruct their country’s image in the eyes of both its ungrateful neighbour and long-suffering parent, if they could be the silent hero requiring (as one Canadian General put it) “no thanks from anybody,” then they could become the favoured child of Britain’s far-reaching empire.

Dr. Wellington immediately suggested that photography came into its own at this time as a powerful relational tool, and Canada’s first implement of propaganda. Her most compelling example was her inclusion of the nation’s famous Great War photographer, Ivor Castle. The citizenry believed him to be risking his life taking famous action shots like “Over the Top,” displayed at a tremendous 11 ft. x 20 ft., and rumoured to be captured from inside a trench at the Battle of the Somme, just minutes before everyone caught on film is annihilated by German machine gun fire. Such an arresting narrative arrested the imagination of its audience, converting every soldier’s wry smile or five-mile stare into a signature facet of the “splendid horror” of war. There was just one problem: “Over the Top” was a total forgery. The doomed young man in the frame isn’t heroically thumbing his nose at the encroaching Germans, but at Castle himself.

Ivor Castle, ‘Over the Top’

But no matter. Canada’s wartime government knew the image was actually taken during a training exercise – they just didn’t care. The “truth of the image” was far from crucial. Rather, what Canadian officials cherished was the “belief in truth by its audience.” This epitomizes Canada’s wartime methodology – the power of myth over the power of fact. “Nothing was as it seemed,” Dr. Wellington says, “and photos ‘condemning’ the war actually buttressed claims of war as a tragic but noble necessity.” This was only the start. Soon, photography was increasingly paired alongside war trophies. Dr. Wellington smiled at the room when the utility of these captured items became clear. By constantly displaying the Central Powers’ captured weapons and vehicles, Canada made an increasingly vivid show of the British Empire’s “industrial dominance.” It also “neutered weapons” and “domesticated warfare” among the general public, planting these symbols of violence in the common eye, and thereby normalized the imperial imperative of conflict. Everything, including the enemies’ own supplies, furthered Canada’s appearance of superiority. Promoting its own myth became Canada’s standard operating procedure.

So where does Australia fit into all this? According to Dr. Wellington, primarily in the post-war period. Because of the logistical difficulty of shipping war trophies to Australia, the country acquired most of its wartime bounty following the conflict’s close in November 1918. After all, dilapidated tanks aren’t so easy to transport. Or cheap. But once the process began, it grew rapidly and with great intent. Here again, myth came to dominate “the actual.”

A perceived “lack of national identity” caused Australian officials to create museums that promoted the “singularity of Australian character.” Exhibitions were explicitly designed to be “told in order,” with blueprints including literal floor-tile arrows indicating the expected narrative current to be traveled by guests. In many ways, this feels quite overt, such as the Australian War Museum, where the first display visitors encounter is the “protagonist” – a bronzed vision of the Australian soldier: lean, well muscled and shirtless, eyes staring into the middle distance, yet flexible in his practicality, with petrol cans filled with water gripped in each hand, as if to say ‘here is a man ready for anything.’ What followed this state-sponsored vision – a vast display of the water-bearer’s trials and tribulations – simply told the hero’s story.

According to Dr. Wellington, this is the core of Australia’s achievement, the creation of a “coherent narrative of success, virtue, and necessity” in the Australian war effort. It considers no other narrative, nor accepts anything less than victory. Unlike similar displays in London where curators provided a wealth of wartime narratives to allow every visitor the opportunity to find their spiritual doppelgänger, Australia chose to tell only one story: the soldier’s. The narrow nature of this narrative generated a “national birth through violence” that minutely detailed a creation myth for the modern Australian public, one uniquely embedded in empire while remaining curiously outside of it.

On this note Dr. Wellington wound down her lecture, pinpointing how violence and its signifiers became a tool of mythic-identity for nations that felt themselves “outside of” Britain’s imperial narrative. ‘Truth’, according to Dr. Wellington, belonged to the storyteller, not the story. What was more important, if only for policy-makers and politicians, was belief in the underlying “reality” of war and for solidifying the nation’s place in imperial conflict. To become the hero of a story not yet finished. The applause that followed her discussion became thunderous in such a humble space, and the silence that followed, complete. The implications of her talk filled the room, causing one to wonder what grand stories are being told both inside and outside these walls.

Zach Burke

For more events in the Globalising and Localising the Great War Graduate Seminar Series, please visit the TORCH website.

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