When deciding on what to do in relation to marking the centenary of the First World War, we opted to let our collections talk. By that we mean letting stories emerge from the collections without trying to manipulate them to fit any agenda. This means that the only given in this will be the time frame. We will be posting a principal article at least once a month but interspersing these with smaller posts on a more ad hoc basis.
To kick things off there is the design, specifically the graphic we have used. This is taken from a set of linocuts made by the artist John Abell, as illustrations to Arthur Graeme West’s Diary of A Dead Officer.
West joined the army in February 1915, straight from Oxford. He had been turned down for an officer’s commission for his bad eyesight, so joined as a private and served in the trenches. He was one of the first poets to write about the front line from direct experience – an experience by which he was soon disillusioned with the war. His disillusionment was completed by a period of officer training in Scotland, being ordered about by bullying NCOs. A loss of his religious faith followed.
West had been at school and at Oxford with Cyril Joad, who, by the time West was training in Scotland, when they met again, was a well-known pacifist. West was greatly influenced by Joad and the pacifist movement. He went so far as to write, but never posted, his resignation from the army. Instead he returned to France, to be killed by a sniper in April 1917.
His diary was edited for publication by Joad, and issued as pacifist propaganda by the left-wing Herald newspaper and Francis Meynell’s Pelican Press.
John Abell’s powerful linocut images, in response to reading the diary a century on, but himself about the same age as West when he wrote it, have been published by the Old Stile Press, in a very fine, limited edition
Grant Buttars & Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence