Monday, 12 November 2012

The peculiar history of the Cambridge War Memorial


Remembrance Sunday. On 11 November 2018, 93 years ago, the Armistice was signed that ended World War One.

Four years later, on 3 July 1922, the Duke of York unveiled the Cambridge war memorial.

Cambridge War Memorial
Source: Geoff Jones' Flickr photostream.

The larger-than-life bronze sculpture shows a bare-headed young man in the Cambridgeshire Regiment uniform of a private, walking purposefully and twisting his head to look towards his right. He smiles. He's not going off to war but returning from war. We can tell this from his jaunty stride, his bare head and the German helmet hanging from his back pack: a trophy taken from the enemy. And the stride is truly a stride: two inches longer than normal.1

Cambridge war memorial3

In his right hand, the young man holds out his own wreathed helmet and a rose. Three other roses lie behind his feet, resting on the scroll bearing the artist's name. With his left hand, the soldier shoulders a rifle. From the rifle barrel hands a laurel wreath, symbol of victory. The Australian historian Ken Inglis calls the roses 'floral emblems of triumph' although I'm not sure what the exact symbolism of the rose is in this context.2

Cambridge war memorial4

Cambridge war memorial8



Cambridge war memorial9

One side of the stone plinth bears the University of Cambridge's motto. The Latin means 'from here, light and sacred draughts'.



A sculpture in use

Every year on Remembrance Sunday, veterans, honoraries, the public and members of the armed forces gather around the sculpture to commemorate the British fallen, not only in World War One but in all wars since. As so often, art is central to a public ceremony. But what kind of art is this? Does the sculpture express national pomp and pride, or local grief and mourning? Or is there an uneasy disjunction between the sombre ritual and the vigorous young strider?




Who was Robert T. Mackenzie?

The sculptor, Robert Tait Mackenzie, was a Scottish-Canadian university professor of physical education. He was interested in anatomy and had been making bronze casts of athletes since the 1890s. Weirdly, he got his male students to pose for him in the nude.  He made over 200 nude sporting bronzes.

Mackenzie, The Sprinter, 1902
Mackenzie, The Shotputter, 1911

Mackenzie, The Sprinter and The Plunger, in stamp form
The sculptor's biographer Christopher Hussey speculated in 1929 that "living ... among well formed youths, whether lightly clad for exercise or stripped in the changing rooms" had turned Mackenzie to art.3


1886-7 Medals at McGill University, Montreal

Soldier or college athlete?

The soldier on the War Memorial was supposedly a' carefully researched specimen of the "East Anglian racial type"'. 1. Mackenzie used studies of students from Christ's College in Cambridge for the head. More gown than East-Anglian town, I should think.

From W.Z. Ripley, Races of Europe, 1899

This statue is certainly not the sad, tired, shell-shocked veteran, known from photographs.

Source: Imperial War Museum. part of "GEISER THEODORE (MONS) COLLECTION" (photographs) Made by: German official photographer 1918-03
British prisoner of war captured by the Germans during the offensive.
Source: Imperial War museum.  part of "GEISER THEODORE (MONS) COLLECTION" (photographs) 1918
A shell-shocked British soldier captured by the Germans

Instead, he is a fit, healthy and confident university-educated sportsman.

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I'm not sure if today's onlookers and participants appreciated that they were gathered around an 'East Anglian racial type', based on studies of athletic undergraduates.

Title of sculpture: The Homecoming
Sculptor: Robert Tait Mackenzie, a Scottish-Canadian sculptor and Professor of Physical Education and Physical Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania
Date: 1922
Where? Hills Road, junction with Station Road, outside the Botanical Garden

For more photos of the Remembrance Day ceremony, check out Sir Cam's atmospheric series.

For thousands more memorials, visit the War Memorials Archive.

1 D. Boorman, At the Going Down of the Sun: British First World War Memorials, York: Ebor Press, 1988, p.242

2 K.S. Inglis, 'The Homecoming: The War Memorial Movement in Cambridge, England', Journal of Contemporary History,/i>, vol. 27, 1992, p.583.

3 Quoted in N. Penny, 'English Sculpture and the First World War', Oxford Art Journal, Nov. 1981, p.38.

Cambridge war memorial5


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