Monday 16 January 2017

Getting closer to World War One in Birmingham

Lance Corporal William Leslie Arnold,
Died of war wounds on 16/08/1916
Australian Infantry, A.I.F. 9th Battlion
Lance Corporal William Leslie Arnold was wounded in action during the Somme on the 22 July 1916. He suffered a gunshot wound to the right ankle and thigh.  On the 14th August he was transferred to Birmingham and died two days later.  He is buried at the Lodge Hill Cemetery Birmingham, along with 53 other Australians who died in the military hospitals around Birmingham.  His younger brother Francis Benjamin Arnold, aged 20, was shot in the face near the same village of Pozieres the day after William died.  He reached a major hospital in Etaples within a few days, but died from his wounds in France on the 25 August 1916.

"A Victorian 'good death' was modelled from evangelical beliefs of being with family and making peace with God."
Children on a Birmingham Co-operative Society Float
 at the May Day Parade, 1920 

The War and the influenza pandemic that followed caused huge loss of life away from the family and and a mass grief touching everyone, raising challenges to how the dead could be commemorated. British Government propaganda had extolled the virtues of dying for your country, but a rising death toll had brought into sharp focus the price paid, and many, like Wilfred Owen, questioned how sweet, or good, it was to die in Flanders Fields. In May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established to ensure the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever, with the finest architects designing cemeteries, and Rudyard Kipling, literary advisor for inscriptions.

The opening of Birmingham's hall of memory, 4th July 1925
For the Ancient Greeks, documented in Antigone, denying burial of a corpse insulted the body and damned the soul for all time.  For Sir Fabian Wares, founder of the War Graves Commission, burial was seen more as a human right, equality as a core ideology and very much part of the principles it continues to follow.

Lodge Hill Cemetery plot B10 is well preserved and peaceful.  It contains 498 First World War burials. The names of those buried in the plot, or those in graves elsewhere in the cemetery which could not be individually marked, are inscribed on a Screen Wall.  It has been designed carefully to be 'epic' in scale, but each name is written in the same script, given the same importance - the burials themselves are marked simply with numbers. In common with thousands of cemeteries across the world, Lodge Hill has Blomfield's Cross of Sacrifice and Lutyens Stone of Remembrance, for all faiths and none.  Blomfield commented:
"What I wanted to do in designing this Cross was to make it as abstract and impersonal as I could, to free it from any association of any particular style, and, above all, to keep clear of any sentimentalism of the Gothic. This was a man's war far too terrible for any fripperies, and I hoped to get within range of the infinite in this symbol."
Paganel School at Lodge Hill Cemetery plot B10
There was no 'Battle of Birmingham' in World War One - practical and budgetary issues made transporting corpses any great distance unlikely, so why so many buried in Birmingham? Birmingham's many hospitals played a key role in medical treatment of soldiers.  It provides evidence of a city which hosted as many injured soldiers as there were residents:
"I think it must have been about 1915 when wounded soldiers were first brought to Soho and Winson Green station, just across the gully from the Talbot. The carriages were shunted onto the siding which led to a goods yard, where ambulances were waiting to take the wounded to Dudley Road Hospital via Handsworth New Road and Winson Green Road. I remember seeing the soldiers, many with bandaged heads and arms, and [my brother] Wilf and I would wave to them from the top of our garden wall. Sometimes my father would take me with him to distribute cigarettes, tobacco and chocolate that the customers of the Talbot Inn had donated for the wounded troops. Mother was not too happy about my going with him because I would get so upset at seeing these poor souls, some of them legless, but it taught me the awful reality of war." 
Eye witness Mona Neale
The stories of the dead in Lodge Hill Cemetery that can be so easily accessed provide a window into life during World War One. It demonstrates the contribution of Birmingham people in World War One in caring for the injured and dying.

Lodge Hill Cemetery provides a close link, both emotionally and through the hard physical evidence, to the history of Birmingham in World War One. Most importantly, each of the 498 burials represents life stories touching many thousands more across the world, connecting and engaging us in Birmingham with world history, in particular a War spanning the World.

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