Wednesday, December 12, 2018


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History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.
The quote above is from a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, written especially for Pages of the Sea, which was read by individuals, families and communities on the day.

As Danny Boyle, who conceived this idea, said, it's hard to be original with commemorations year after year. But he has come up with this brilliant idea.

At low tide, on armistice day, portraits of a number of WWI casualties are drawn in the sand at a number of carefully selected beaches. People come and pay their respects and, as the tide comes in, the sea claims the images.

At a more personal level, there are stencils which people can use to draw generic outlines in the sand and dedicate them to family members killed in the war or whom so ever. These are then also claimed by the sea.

I'd like to comment on three of the former type and one of the latter.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen was a war poet and he embarked for France at Folkestone. He was killed in the last week of the war in 1918. His poetry dwelt on the horror and savagery of war, much of it expressed in jarring para-rhyme.

I was introduced to Owen's poetry in school, in the late 1950s/early 1960s by an inspirational English teacher, Michael Judge.

Hedd Wyn (Ellis Evans)

I have long had an interest in Welsh poet Hedd Wyn (Ellis Evans) from Trawsfynydd. His story is embedded in Welsh Wales martyrology. He was posthumously awarded the Bardic Chair at the Birkenhead Eisteddfod having lost his life in Flanders between the submission of his winning poem and the proclamation of the winner at the Eisteddfod. On that occasion the Chair was draped in black.

Robert Taylor

My connection here is with a distant cousin-by-marriage, Patrick Joseph Daly, who went down with the HMS Tipperary in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The fleet set out from its Scapa Flow base in Orkney. Robert Taylor was born in Orkney. There is another non-family connection with Robert who fought at Paschendale and was killed at Poelcapelle near Ypres, not far from where Hedd Wyn had fallen earlier that year (1917). However the connection I have in mind arises from him being buried in nearby Poperinge which has strong connections with Dún Laoghaire, as I have myself.

Theophilius Jones

This one is a little trickier.

Who the hell is Theophilius Jones and what is the Redcar connection?

Well, Theo is believed to have been the first military casualty on British soil from enemy fire during the First World War. But that is entirely irrelevant to my story.

Redcar is a beach in North Yorkshire and the nearest I've been to it is Durham, in the mid 1970s, when a policeman in a Panda car caught me shinning down the Castle drainpipe in the middle of the night. That too is irrelevant to my story.

Leigh Brewster lives in the Redcar area and he is a grand-nephew of Richard Gardiner Brewster whom he was commemorating on the beach. That is very relevant to my story.

Richard died in France on 21 March 1918.He was the brother of Gordon Brewster, the artist and cartoonist, who died in my mothers shop on 16 June 1946. Leigh is Gordon's grandson.

So now that's all sorted and clear as a bell.

This photo and those below are from Leigh Brewster

This is Leigh roughing up the exposed sand within the stencil, creating a generic image which will be part of Richard's memorial.

The finished memorial to Richard Gardiner Brewster is now ready to be claimed by the sea. Note the poppy.

This is Leigh's 4 year old granddaughter, Lizzie Rose Brewster, also doing one of the stencils for other family members lost during the war. Her figure was the last one stencilled on the beach.

Lizzie is Gordon's great-great-grand-daughter. Isn't that something.

There are many layers to this project, one of which is well illustrated above.

The stencil here is clearly of a female. It is a generic female/nurse and it is designed to honour the many women who were involved in WWI and their civilian sisters. A fitting stencil for Lizzie's memorial though, on the specifics, this one in the sand is for two of Lizzie's male ancestors.

The inscription on the left reads "Ernest Williams 1915" and is to Leigh's wife Angela's great uncle, killed in 1915. The inscription on the right reads "Stanley Wheeler 1918" a great uncle of Leigh's, killed in 1918. So the net, even within this one family, is spread wide and the engagement has come down through many generations.

The female stencil is also being used by some to remember civilians who died during the conflict.

Even "the unknown soldier" is not forgotten. As Leigh describes it:
One of the aspects that was particularly evocative was this. As you approached the beach, the organisers handed out a random photo of someone killed during the war. There was a poem on the back. A number of people then did a stencil and placed the photo with that stencil.

In effect, remembering the sacrifice of someone they had no connection with.
Leigh also referred me to this account of the raid in which Theophilius lost his life. It also helps an understanding of why this particular location was chosen for participation in the project.

All those personal memorials. I had known about Pages of the Sea and the big facial images but had not copped the personal dimension. When Leigh told me about Richard's memorial, that and the rest of those you see above had already been claimed by the sea.

Full marks to Danny Boyle for a brilliantly thought-through project.

1 comment:


It is indeed a brilliant project. Danny Boyle did the London Olympics opening, if I remember correctly. That too was brilliant. I have become very interested in “public history” in the past year or so - convinced that that is where the future of history lies, as it declines (like Classics) as an academic discipline - and this project is an outstanding example of it, engendering empathy with the past.