The next day we worshipped in St Paul’s Cathedral before spending some time studying the social history of Britain (readings from suffragist leader-turned-fervent war supporter Emmeline Pankhurst and labor leader-turned-fervent war opponent Keir Hardie) at the Museum of London.
Monday and Tuesday took us to two very different London museums: first, the National Army Museum; second, the Tate Britain. At the first students tracked the development of warfare from 1800 into the time of the world wars – loading a Napoleonic-era musket, trying on the heavy “kit” of a British “Tommy” from WWI, and taking notes in the shadow of artillery pieces.
The Tate complicated our understanding of “modern.” After reading a 1912 speech from Woodrow Wilson extolling the virtues of progress and science, we saw “modern” artists who had quite different ideas about the shape of the future. We focused on the English war artist C.R.W. Nevinson, who entered the war enthusiastic about technology and violent conflict, but produced work that documented the dehumanizing effects of industrialized warfare (e.g., in his famous painting of machine gunners, or in his lithographs of an aircraft factory that we saw in the Tate’s Prints room).
War Horse and Oxford
The geometric style of Nevinson and other Vorticist artists influenced the backdrop of the play we attended Wednesday night: War Horse. Based on a young adult novel about a horse drafted into the cavalry, the play features spectacular puppetry.
Then yesterday we took a bus ride up to the old university town of Oxford. A center of English education since the High Middle Ages (and now home to over 20,000 students in its 38 colleges, including 1500 Americans), Oxford was a very different place during WWI, as most students enlisted in the military (including Vera Brittain, who left Somerville College – one of the first women’s colleges at Oxford – to become a nurse; her memoir Testament of Youth is a major source in our course reader) and colleges were transformed into hospitals for recovering soldiers like the poet Siegfried Sassoon (who convalesced for a time at Somerville) and C.S. Lewis. We read Lewis’ memories of leaving Oxford and serving on the Western Front, then toured the college where he taught for nearly thirty years, Magdalen. Its WWI memorial includes the names of the father of spy novelist Ian Fleming and that of a German student who fought across No Man’s Land from his classmates). Thanks to our guide, Alastair Lack (right), for making Oxford come alive!