Trophy, triumph, memorial.

India Gate

India Gate is a memorial arch in New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the premier British Architect of his day.  Today is the birthday of Lutyens who was born in 1869.  The Arch was ostensibly a memorial to the Indian soldiers who gave their lives for the British Empire in World War 1 and in the Third Ango-Afghan War in 1919.

It was the Ancient Greeks who gave us the tradition of the battlefield trophy.  At the end of a battle the victorious soldiers would erect a tropaion.  The earliest were simply votive offerings to thank the Gods for victory and to honour the dead.  Armour and arms were stacked or hung from a nearby tree.

Later the practice became more formalised.  A “tree” was erected on the battlefield at the point where the phalanx was turned, where the battle was won.  It was decorated with armaments and a dedication plaque was carved in stone.

Later again the temporary trophies on the sites of significant victories were marked permanently with a stone carved trophy.

It was the Romans who brought the Tropaeum home.  It was also the Romans who invented the arch.  Victorious generals were more interested in impressing the voters than in leaving a mark on some distant battlefield.  So they erected their trophy in the city where everyone could see it.  Over the years various different memorials were used but the most famous are the triumphal arches in the Roman forum the Arch of Titus, the arch of Semptimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine.

The Romans also introduced the practice of building triumphal arches in their colony cities, as a raw display of the power of Rome.  On the one hand it is a display of the wealth and stability of Empire, but on the other it is a dire warning of what happens to those who rebel.

Napoleon famously copied the Roman practice with his Arc de Triomph de l’Étoile.  Laid down at the height of his power in 1810 it was not completed until after his death.  His ashes passed under it in 1840 on the way to their final resting place.

The foundation stone for the India Gate arch was laid down in 1921 by a Britain which was fighting a war in Ireland to hold the Empire together.  They were trying to sell the continuation of Empire to an Indian Population who were actively campaigning for independence.  By the time the India Gate was completed in 1931 India was demanding Dominion status.

Today the arch is one of the great tourist attractions of New Delhi.  It serves as an interesting hybrid of the original concept of the battlefield trophy.  Built by the British as an imperial memorial but now symbolising the triumph of the freedom and independence of the Indian nation.

On the Acropolis at Athens was erected a Bronze Chariot and steeds.
The inscription read (Herodotus 5.77):

The sons of Athens
having subdued in the work of war
the peoples of Boeotia and Chalcis,
quenched their arrogance
in sorrowful iron bondage.

These statues of the horses of their foes,
they dedicated to Pallas as a tithe of the ransom.

 

Le Martyr Irlandais

Cork Mayor

Born on this day in 1879 Terence MacSwiney was one of two Cork Lord Mayors who had a significant impact on the struggle for Irish Independence.  His death was a triumph for the Irish Cause and a complete Political and Propaganda failure by the British Government.

McSwiney was an IRA volunteer, a soldier prepared to die for the cause.  But he was presented to the world by Sinn Féin as a “sensitive poet intellectual”.  That is a brilliant piece of spin.  In Catholic communites he was presented as a modern day martyr.

MacSwiney was an early adopter of hunger strike, following the lead of Thomas Ashe in November 1917 going on hunger strike 3 days prior to his release after his arrest for wearing an IRA uniform.

In the 1918 General Election he won the Mid Cork seat.  In 1920 the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, was assassinated by a Royal Irish Constabulary murder squad.  This was a symptom of the collapse of the British civil administration in Ireland.  When the police become murderers you know things have gone wrong.

MacSwiney was elected Lord Mayor of Cork.  Five months later he was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton Prison in England, after a trial in a military, not a civil court.  In protest MacSwiney immediatly went on hunger strike.  In response the Sinn Féin publicity machinery went into overdrive and made MacSwiney a cause célèbre on the international stage.

For the 73 days to his death his case played out in the USA, on the continent and in the British Colonies.  A small determined man in India in particular was paying close attention.  In London a Vietnamese independence campaigner named Ho Chi Minh said “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.”

The greatest empire in the history of the world was unable to retain control of it’s closest possession in such circumstances.  Within a year the British agreed to Irish Independence.

Dig No Grave Deep; by Terence MacSwiney

Lay not the axe to earth;
love does not sleep.
If yet thy thought esteemeth mine of worth,
for it dig no grave deep.

Let it put forth its power,
aside the surface sweep;
then will leap forth the long-desired flower
which thou mayst reap.

 

 

Happy Birthday Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I posted about the hanging of Breaker Morant, one of the first men in history to be convicted of a “War Crime”.  That was in South Africa during the Second Boer War.

Today, on Thomas Hardy’s birthday I am staying in South Africa with this poem.  Written shortly after the commencement of the Second Boer War, to which Hardy was opposed, it is an anti-war poem.  Hardy thought the Boers should be left to their own devices and were entitled to defend their independence from a grasping British Empire.

Hardy selects a Drummer for his subject.  It is worth noting that the drummers were only young boys, innocent mascots of the regiment.  A boy from Wessex, Hardy’s own home, a local lad.

Hardy is well known for using colloquial words to give local colour to his writings.  In this case he adopts many Boer words to describe the fate of a village lad in a foreign land, tossed into an open unmarked grave beneath unfamiliar stars.  Young Hodge died a pointless death.

This poem presages the full flowering of the war poets in the Great War.

 

Drummer Hodge; by Thomas Hardy

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
uncoffined — just as found:
his landmark is a kopje-crest
that breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew —
fresh from his Wessex home —
the meaning of the broad karoo,
the bush, the dusty loam,
and why uprose to nightly view
strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
will Hodge for ever be;
his homely northern breast and brain
grow to some southern tree,
and strange-eyed constellations reign
his stars eternally.