The memorial to the men who served in the Machine Gun Corps during the First World War was unveiled at Hyde Park Corner by the Duke of Connaught on 10 May 1925 and dedicated by the Chaplain General to the Forces. As special guests 4 holders of the Victoria Cross also attended the service. Sadly, and since the very start, the design and wording of the memorial has continued to be a matter for controversy even to the present day. Hopefully the centenary of the founding of the Corps may be the point when this controversy can be finally laid to rest and for attention to be re-focussed on the men of the Corps known as the Suicide Club who lost their lives during the First World War and who are commemorated by the memorial.
The Corps, created by Royal Warrant in October 1915, was disbanded nearly 7 years later in July 1922. Francis Derwent Wood, the noted sculptor, was invited to submit an appropriate design and he chose to treat the memorial allegorically and produced a 9-foot heroic statue of David. It was to be placed on a pedestal of Mazzona marble which Wood also designed. In his left hand David holds an oversized medieval sword. The reference to the two Renaissance statues of Boy David by Donatello and Michelangelo respectively in Florence is pretty clear. However, in order to make the connection with the Corps more obvious, the sculptor has placed on either side of the Boy David two moulded Vickers machine guns which were encircled with wreaths, as well as a soldier’s helmet and pack.
On the front of the plinth is the inscription: “Erected to commemorate the glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps who fell in the Great War, MCMXIV-MCMXIX ” and below this the biblical quotation: "Saul has slain his thousands but David his tens of thousands". On the side of the memorial is the following: “The Machine Gun Corps, of which his Majesty King George V was Colonel-in-Chief, was formed by the Royal Warrant dated the 14th day of October, 1915. The Corps served in France, Flanders, Russia, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonica, India, Afghanistan and East Africa. The last unit of the Corps to be disbanded was the depot at Shorncliffe on the 15th day of July 1922. The total number who served in the Corps during the war was some 11,500 officers and 159,000 other ranks of whom 1,120 officers and 1,671 other ranks were killed and 2,881 officers and 45,377 other ranks were wounded, missing or prisoners of war….”
There are three files in the National Archives which help to flesh out the story of the Machine Gun Corps Memorial and the early part of the design story is covered in Work 20/146. On 24 April 1920 the MGC Memorial Committee informed the Westminster City Council that they would like to used an island site for the memorial between Hyde Park Corner and St George’ s Hospital and the minutes of 17 June confirm that the Council was happy with this suggestion. But in October the Government had already eyed the southernmost island site for its proposed public memorial to Lord Kitchener. In December 1920 an island site, which initially had been reserved for Lord Kitchener, had been agreed upon but it would have to harmonise with the much larger Royal Artillery Memorial project. Also in December the Office of Works informed the Westminster City Council that it was not within the council’s remit to give permission for memorials to be built on the island sites as both were included within the boundaries of Green Park which was a Royal Park. Subsequently the memorial committees were informed.
By January 1921 Derwent Wood had completed a rough sketch of the design and a complete model was ready by early December. Sir Lionel Earle of the Office of Works knew right from the beginning that the design itself would be hotly criticised by the ‘old Guard’ (meaning the likes of Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir George Frampton) but he was determined to support the Wood design and didn’t feel that the artist should compromise. So even before the words for the inscription were selected there was a dispute about the whole concept of the memorial. However the Machine Gun Corps Memorial Committee under the chairmanship of Colonel Phillips also gave the design their blessing and, after all, they were the client. Messrs H Jenkins of Torquay was to be in charge of the building work and the firm subcontracted the work to Messrs Wallis of Maidstone, a firm used by Sir Edwin Lutyens. An agreement dated 9 November 1923 made clear that the builder would put right any joinery defect which might occur in the next 10 years. If work on the foundations was started by the end of January 1925, the project could be completed by 20 March 1925; after a lot of discussion the southern of two islands to the south of Hyde Park Corner became the final choice.
As for the memorial’s costs, by 4 June 1925 Derwent Wood had acknowledged a further payment of £1,000 and he had to approach the Memorial Committee for an extra £500 as the quoted sum of £4500 was not enough to cover the costs of a Portland stone pedestal which cost twice the price of one in marble. In addition Wood’s out of pocket expenses came to £2,210.
Although the design of the memorial and its inscription were approved of by the Machine Gun Corps memorial committee, as well as by the Office of Works, this did not stop the predicted ‘war’ from breaking out. In particular the matter was to be voiced in the House of Commons and the correspondence columns of The Times. The controversy was less about the naked figure of the young David and more about the supposed unsuitability of the inscription. The first recorded letter of complaint was from a group called the ‘International Arbitration League’ and was addressed to Viscount Peel, the then First Commissioner of Works. The League wanted the inscription removed as ‘it gives an entirely false impression of national feeling’ and was an insult to those being commemorated. Peel’s secretary replied informing the League that : "as the artist embodied in his design a statue of David as a symbol of the important part which a small weapon played in the Great War, the first Commissioner feels the Biblical quotation inscribed on the Memorial is not one to which he can take exception.”
A further example of criticism came from a Mr A S Renshaw who wrote on 11 August: “…Was there nobody in the House of Commons to tell the Under- Secretary of the Home Office representing the First Commissioner of Works that the mood of the country is not one of exultation over the tens of thousands slain, or to remind him of a more apt quotation from the lips of David himself which would more faithfully echo the deeper thoughts of thousands of living fathers and mothers:-
Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son, my son Absalom!
Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom,
My son, my son!
Sadly, in February 1926, Wood, who had lung cancer, died at the age of 54 after a serious operation.
As if there weren’t enough problems connected with this memorial already, they were compounded by trouble with the pedestal made with Mazzano, bits of which were already beginning to flake away. Use of the marble had been guaranteed to Wood as being suitable as it would prevent the problems caused by the use of Portland stone for the pedestal which could be stained from drips from the bronze figures. Happily the supplier of the marble agreed to carry out the necessary repairs and by May 1930 Jenkins of Torquay had made good the repairs when they "stopped the holes which had appeared in the marble and cleaned the marble service and dressing it with oil…." However, it appears that this memorial was still quite vulnerable needing constant supervision and was cleaned at least four times a year. In addition, on 20 August 1934, a passing car managed to damage the lower steps of the memorial.
Together with the Royal Artillery Memorial which had also been placed at Hyde Park Corner, the Guards Memorial facing Horse Guards Parade and the equestrian statue of Field Marshal Haig in Whitehall, the memorial to the Machine Gun Corps has always attracted controversy.
Soon after the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and according to another file held at the National Archives (WORK 30/315) The Machine Gun Corps Trust wrote to the Office of Works on 9 April 1940 asking about the possibility of protection for the 67 ton memorial from damage or destruction by enemy action. The Trust was informed that no funds were available from the State but the Office of Works could offer professional advice. Discussions then continued about arranging to put the figure of David together with the machine guns into store while leaving the rest of the memorial sandbagged and protecting the pedestal in a way which would not be too expensive. By 30 May the Trust was willing to contribute the sum of £75 for the above operation and under the auspices of the British Museum the main section of the Memorial was to be placed in four separate boxes and taken to the disused Aldwych Underground Station. Aldwych was one of about 40 disused stations and was formerly known as the Strand (1907) and much used for the storage of parts of the collections of the British Museum and art galleries during wartime. This operation was completed by 24 July and a plan in the file shows them to be stored near the end of a platform alongside a memorial to King James II, presumably the one by Grinling Gibbons which after a chequered history is at present standing in front of the National Gallery. As a postscript the pedestal for the King spent its war years in Holloway’s Yard in Battersea.
Five years later, on 11 October 1945, after the war was over, Colonel Graham Seton Hutcheson (in his capacity of chairman of the Machine Gun Corps Old Comrades Association), who was completely unaware of the role of the Trust in 1940, wrote to the Ministry of Works, about wanting the memorial returned to its original site by 11 November 1945. Based on the 1940 costs the Ministry told him that this could be carried out for £69 and 6 shillings (£69.30). Hutcheson was furious, but the truth of the matter was that he had completely got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The MGC Trust also contacted the Ministry and, in the end, the boxes making up the various sections of the memorial were brought out of the underground station on 5 March 1946 and reinstated at Hyde Park Corner by 24 April 1946, but this was only after minor repairs and cleaning had been conducted in the yard of the company who moved it. Holloway’s cost in the end was £97.
On 9 February 1957 a special anniversary of the formation of the Machine Gun Corps took place at the memorial and, currently (2015), an annual service of remembrance is still held at what is known as the Boy David Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Usually it is a small ceremony and, owing to the close proximity of the Royal Artillery memorial, those who participate listen to the music provided by the larger memorial’s service. In 1961 the memorial was temporarily moved from its island site in order to facilitate road improvements and put back at a place slightly to the north of its original position.
Two years later the original controversy was rekindled concerning the inscription continued when Mr L E Jones, an ex machine-gunner, suggested in The Times of 27 April that as the memorial was about to be re-dedicated the opportunity be taken to alter “the inept and bloodthirsty legend". The reason he gave was "because it betrays an absurd confusion of thought. The memorial commemorates men, not the Vickers gun…”
Twenty years on and nearly 40 years after the end of another world war, Susan Beattie, in her book ‘The New Sculpture’, made a savage attack on the memorial and its designer when comparing it with its Artillery neighbour.
…It was in the context of the First World War and in the cruelly public setting of Hyde Park Corner that the last remnants of credibility were torn from a corrupted tradition. The searing realism of Sergeant Jagger’s Monument of the Royal Artillery Regiment is more than an expression of horror of war. It represents a violent gesture of revulsion against the aesthetic cliché embodied by its neighbour, the languorous nude David by Derwent Wood, which commemorates, with sickening irrelevance, the dead of the Machine Gun Corps….
In an essay entitled Memorials published in 2008 included in Sir Michael Howard’ s A Part of History, Gavin Stamp, the architectural historian, wrote:
… Close by is a very different response to the war: the Machine Gun Corps Memorial, topped by a sensuous naked youth holding a sword, modelled by an older sculptor, Derwent Wood (who unlike Jagger, had not served), and flanked by bronze machine guns garlanded with wreaths, as if to sanctify what such weapons did to the unprotected flesh of thousands of youths. The coy sentimentality of this occasion is exacerbated by the Old Testament quotation chosen for the pedestal …. Today, the Artillery Memorial seems of infinitely greater artistic merit that the Machine Gun Corps Memorial, yet it was much criticised when unveiled in 1925. Both are of historical value as representing different responses to the conflict, even if Jagger’ s masterpiece now seems a more humane and intelligent statement. Theses are aspects of war memorial design which still need much more investigation….”
As mentioned the 90th anniversary of the Machine Gun Corps memorial will be commemorated in May this year (2015), hopefully with a special service, and the founding of the Corps will be remembered on 24 October 2015, the centenary of the creation of the corps.
Article contributed by Gerald Gliddon © May 2015
References and acknowledgements:
Dr Graham Keech
National Archives Work 20/135, Work 20/146, Work 20/151, Work 20/369 and Work 30/315..
UKNI of WM Machine Gun Corps Hansard 4 Aug 1925 Machine Gun Corps Memorial.
Machine Gun Corps OCA Remembrance. 20 June 1921.
The Times 11 May 1925, 10 Aug 1925,11 Aug 1925, 15 Aug 1925 and 27 April 1963.
Panels images courtesy Wikipedia .