A moving art installation, currently at Wakefield Cathedral, commemorates British lives lost in the First World War. Stephen McClarence reports.
Three short, simple sentences hand-written in a very large book sum up so many family tragedies from the First World War: “George Granger, killed in action at Ypres. Married only for one month; his wife never remarried. George was my great uncle.”
Granger is one of 174,000 soldiers listed in the “memorial book” that forms part of Assembly, an art installation currently at Wakefield Cathedral. All British, they died on the battlefields of Belgium. The installation is the work of Derbyshire-based artist Val Carman. Twenty years ago, she was the first artist in residence at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, the Belgian town reduced to rubble by German shelling and rebuilt after the war. Carman returned to the museum for the new project. “The brief was to commemorate the terrible atrocities,” she says. “But there are masses of people in Britain who will never get to Flanders, so I thought it would be lovely to take a bit of Flanders to the British Isles.”
The resulting installation, now halfway through a five-year national tour, focuses on five simple, elegant chairs from a church in Passchendaele, the scene of a battle which, along with The Somme, has come to embody the full horror of the war.
The empty chairs, says Carman, aim “to bring war down to a more tangible, domestic level”. Each represents a year of the war, symbolising loss and the soldiers who would never come back to sit on them. The accompanying specially made book, four inches thick, has more than 1,200 pages.
On each left-hand page, 240 names are listed alphabetically in three broad columns. The book’s right-hand pages have been left blank for visitors to contribute stories, memories or reflections on this or other wars. Some have pasted in photographs, letters and newspaper cuttings.
One woman recalls how, during the war, her grandmother watched with trepidation as a telegram boy came down the garden path. The telegram informed her one of her sons had been killed in battle. A few hours later, he returned with another saying that her second son had also died. Later that day, he paid a third visit: her third son had died.
Another entry remembers Edgar Harrington. “My great great uncle. Born in Sheffield and killed by a sniper on the day the amnesty was signed, aged 19.” Another remembers William Bolt who “died while asleep in the arms of a comrade” after their trench collapsed. And another: John Edward Marshall of the East Yorkshire Regiment (“His wife went on to bring up five children”).
Assembly is proving popular in Wakefield, with visitors searching the lists for relatives’ names. “People gather round and talk: it’s an opportunity for them to tell their stories,” says Tracey Yates, the cathedral’s community learning manager. She first saw Assembly earlier in its tour, at Lichfield Cathedral. “I was quite awestruck by the simplicity of it,” she says. “At the time the book was very empty and pristine. Now it looks well-worn and has a well-handled feeling. You can see the love and the lives that have been poured into its pages.”
One local entry honours Nellie Spindler, a Wakefield-born nurse: “She lied about her age to be able to go to the front. After three months she was killed in action and is buried in Belgium. A lone woman amongst 10,000 men.”
In Wakefield until November 30. Stories can be sent to the artist firstname.lastname@example.org