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The traumatic impact of the First World War prompted a strong and widespread desire to commemorate its events and casualties. The resulting memorials embraced cemeteries, large national monuments and smaller memorials, both civic and private, and they took a variety of forms, including buildings, cenotaphs, works of art and parks. Most of the constructed and sculpted memorials were traditional in design, though they included such novel features as lists of the names of those who had died. The presence of these memorials provided a focus for mourning, reflection, ceremony and pilgrimage.
Some memorials were created while the war persisted, including works by artists commissioned during 1918 by the British War Memorials Committee. However, a more thorough and widespread process of commemoration developed once the conflict had ceased. This was marked, in part, by the Imperial War Graves Commission establishing large-scale cemeteries close to the fields of battle. In Britain itself, the Cenotaph was constructed in 1919 in London’s Whitehall, to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens, as a focus for national remembrance. Thousands of other memorials were established across the kingdom, often as the result of focussed fundraising.
The Guards Division Memorial here represents those many memorials. It commemorates the 14,000 Guardsmen who died in France and Belgium between 1915 – when the division was formed from battalions of the Guards regiments of the regular army – and the end of the war in 1918. It also commemorates the soldiers of the Household Cavalry, Royal Regiment of Artillery, Corps of Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps and other units that served with the Guards.
A committee of high-ranking Guards officers began to raise funds for the memorial in 1920, and mounted a competition in order to select the designers. The submissions were assessed by two prominent artists, the sculptor, Sir Thomas Brock, and the architect, Sir Reginald Blomfield. In December 1921, the committee selected the design of the sculptor, Gilbert Ledward, and the architect, H Chalton Bradshaw, both of whom had served in the war (Bradshaw having been gassed and wounded). Their design underwent many modifications, as the result of the involvement of the committee in general, and Blomfield in particular.
The committee vetoed stone figure groups, intended to go at either side of the monument, as being too costly, and images of corpses on the relief of artillery in action as being inappropriate. Blomfield not only defended what he liked in the original design but – in the opinion of Lord Crawford, First Commissioner of Works – took it over, and influenced, and even limited, Ledward’s sculptural contribution. However, Blomfield and Ledward had already collaborated successfully in 1920 on a memorial – admittedly smaller – to Dean H D M Spence-Jones for Gloucester Cathedral. Also Crawford’s view is belied by the prominence of Ledward’s resonant sculptures on the resulting memorial, which was unveiled on the eastern edge of St James’s Park, London, on 16 October 1926 by the Duke of Connaught, Senior Colonel of the Guards.
The memorial comprises a Portland stone truncated obelisk surmounting a base. Five bronze sculptures of foot soldiers, each slightly larger than life size, stand easy in a row on a platform on the east side, facing Horse Guards Parade. Each of the other three sides supports a bronze relief depicting military equipment, that to the west showing artillery in action. Above the statues and reliefs, the obelisk bears a number of inscriptions, including, most prominently, one written by Rudyard Kipling, whose only son, John, was killed in action in 1915, while serving in the Irish Guards at the Battle of Loos. The monument was built by the Birmingham Guild, the lettering cut by Ernest Gillick and the sculptures and reliefs cast by the William Morris Art Bronze Foundry using bronze taken from German guns.
Ledward took to heart the brief to provide realistic imagery, and modelled his statues on serving Guardsmen. These were Sergeant R Bradshaw MM of the Grenadier Guards, Lance Corporal J S Richardson of the Coldstream Guards, Guardsman J McDonald of the Scots Guards, Guardsman Simon McCarthy of the Irish Guards and Guardsman A Comley of the Welsh Guards. However, it is said that McCarthy became frustrated with having to pose, and that the legs of the Irish Guardsman were modelled on those of Lance Sergeant W J Kidd.
If Ledward created these indomitable yet individualised figures as a focus for mourning, the relief on the west side of the monument provided him with the opportunity to introduce a dynamic, even narrative element into its imagery. Centring on the wheel of an 18-pounder gun, it depicts, on the left, gunners loading and firing, and, in the foreground right, a signaller communicating via a field telephone. The present detailed drawing is a study for that signaller, and clearly shows that, as with the statues, he was modelled on a serving Guardsman (though one as yet unidentified).
Ledward produced work of a consistently high quality, and was consequently much valued as a sculptor of war memorials. His particular contribution to the Guards Division Memorial – the most prominent example of his art in London – was recognised in July 1927, when he was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Society of British Sculptors for the best work of sculpture publicly exhibited in the capital in the previous 12 months.