Working on plans for York Castle Museum’s 1914 exhibition brought John Hoyland face to face with a stash of weapons - and the lives of those who had to use them in the First World War
Yesterday evening, I had a poke around our armoury.
Not our personal armoury, you understand. M’wife and I don’t have a stash of weapons in a secret bunker under the shed in case of zombie apocalypse or anything like that. I mean our armoury at work.
Now, I’m not going to tell you where our armoury is, or how many guns there are in it, but there are quite a lot of them. Many of them are several hundred years old. Some of them are very new; they’re the sorts of things that you see on the news today, whether in the hands of the British Armed Forces or insurgents in the villages of Afghanistan or wherever. They’re all arranged on racks as if they’re in, well, an armoury, just waiting for a bunch of riflemen to come tramping through to be issued their weapons.
The thing is, I was quite surprised by my reaction when I walked in. My immediate response was, “Huh, cool!” It was all very Boy’s Own and exactly what I expected.
It lasted less than a second.
Hot on its heels – so hot on its heels that it was overtaking my initial reaction even as that reaction was forming – was more of an, “Oh.”
I stopped. It was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t like it.
Here’s why: All of the weapons in our collection, be they swords, crossbows, axes, halberds, polearms, dirks, trench-clubs, pistols, rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers, mortars, hand grenades, whatever, are all in our collection because they have a story to tell. They’ve been places, seen things, been used.
And let’s be honest, if that Vickers machine gun sitting in the corner has been used then that probably means a lot of people died as a result. Do you know the rate of fire of a Vickers MG?
It’s about 500 rounds per minute.
That’s potentially 500 lives snuffed out in a minute. Gone. Just like that. Easy. Minimal effort. Well done, soldier, job’s a good ‘un. Have an extra tot of rum.
I’ve called this blog ‘Guns ‘n’ Grocers’. Nothing to do with unsuccessful rock groups quietly lamenting into their beer that Roses would have been a much more catchy title. Everything to do with actual grocers. And saddlers. And bank managers and shoemakers and silversmiths and sweet-shop owners and butchers and bakers and, probably, candlestick makers.
Confused? Let me explain. Part of the project that I’m involved with planning at work is a (very exciting) new exhibition for York Castle Museum, tentatively entitled “1914: When the World Changed Forever.” It doesn’t open until 2014 (hazard a guess at why…) and runs until 2018 (potentially around November time, I guess. Maybe the eleventh. I don’t know). We’re taking a look at how the world changed during the second decade of the twentieth century. We’re not just talking about war, but how much changed in the field of communication, science, art, the role of women, the world of work, class, religion… the whole of life.
This is where the grocers come in.
And the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers. Yadda yadda.
Men who weren’t soldiers, chiefly.
You see, at the outbreak of war, the rallying cry went out. Recruiting stations were set up. Volunteers were sought. Lots of men answered the call. They volunteered. They signed up willingly. Great. No problem there. They were trained and trained well. Time was taken over it. Oh sure, there was an urgency about it, ‘cos, y’know, there’s a war on and all, but it was good quality training.
Jump forward to 1916 and things change. The war’s still on, only people aren’t volunteering any more. The shine’s gone off it. It wasn’t all over by Christmas, it’s still going on and maybe, just maybe, we’re not giving the Boche the damned good shoe-ing that we thought we were.
Volunteering’s not working, so it’s time for Volunteering’s big, ugly brother to join the party.
His name is Conscription. He’s not pleasant. He’s the playground bully whereas Volunteering’s the captain of the sports teams. Volunteering’s popular. The guys look up to him because of his charm and easy wit. The girls blush whenever he strides by because, well, look at those thighs.
Back to our grocer (butcher/baker/yadda yadda). He sells fruit and vegetables to Mrs. Brown from number 43. They have a chat when she pops in for her potatoes. He asks after young Jonny. Jonny’s on the Western Front, you know. Lied about his age and signed up when war broke out. Mrs. Brown does worry.
Our grocer was all in favour of the war, back when it started. Sang the National Anthem as lustily as anyone when war was announced. After all, the Hun needed to know he’d overstepped the mark, right? But our grocer’s not a fighter. He’s not a soldier.
Except suddenly he is. Conscription’s got him. His choice has been taken away and he’s been given a rifle. A Lee Enfield .303. A damned good rifle, but it’s not what he’s used to and it’s not what he knows.
He’s been trained in its use, but that training’s gone about as far as ‘this is the business end, point it at the enemy.’ And now he’s in a trench. And the Germans are just over there. They’ve got shells. Lots of them. So many of them that they’re generous enough to lob a near-continuous stream of them at our grocer and his pals.
Our grocer’s still not a fighter. He’s still not a soldier. Sure, he’s got a rifle, a damned good rifle, but it’s not what he’s used to and it’s not what he knows. How he doesn’t break under the stress I have no idea. Many do. Mrs. Brown’s boy, Jonny, did (she does worry about him, you know). One too many shells shocked him just a step too far and he huddled himself in a corner and wrapped himself up into a foetal little ball, hoping that some unremembered memory of his mother’s womb might keep him safe.
It didn’t. They shot him as a coward. No matter that he was only seventeen and had lied about his age when war broke out. Clearly, clearly, he was a coward. And you have to shoot cowards don’t you, to stop the cowardice from spreading.
Sorry this is all a little morbid. It’s just that, confronted by our armoury, I found myself wondering how on earth you take a man and turn him into a killer of other men. I can get my head around it (which isn’t quite the same as saying I can understand it) if you’re talking about extensive training with willing volunteers. But taking a grocer, putting him in a uniform and shoving a rifle in his hands and telling him he’s a soldier now…
Maybe I should stop using a grocer as an example (he’s fictional, by the way, our grocer. Just like Mrs. Brown and her son Jonny. Fictional but oh-so real for it). Maybe I should use an HLF ‘Changing Spaces’ Activity Programme, Volunteer and Community Coordinator (my word I have a job title and a half…) as an example instead. Maybe I should do that.
But I don’t think I will. It’s a little too uncomfortable.
Find out more about planning for our exhibition 1914: When the World Changed Forever on York Castle Museum’s website.