More Than a Memory: Glasgow University’s War Memorial Garden

Published

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Caroline C. Evans Abbott
Writer

Tucked peacefully into the rich soil upon which our University rests, the Memorial Garden is far from a gleaming, marbleised monument to lost life, to pyrrhic victory, or to triumph bought with blood. Ever-present, demure, and unimposing, its poppies often seem but shrinking violets to so many passersby. But its understated appearance fits poetically with a greater embodiment of remembrance and community overseen by the Memorial Chapel and the campus’s Interfaith Ministry.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the treaty of armistice which signaled the end of one of the most horrific wars in human history was signed, ushering the allied constituency into the interwar age. But its existence alone was to be no permanent inoculation against the latent contagion of war’s antecedent social toils, and neither ironclad treatise nor bulletproof politics could prevent the eventual resurgence of further bloody international toils to come. With its signing, a wave of sanitising bureaucratic closure and politico-social relief doused the still-fresh wounds of the war’s “undead” – those survivors left behind to face the final, social frontier of war embodied by the innumerable, silent vacancies within their communities and beside their own hearths. To a shellshocked society bereft of words in the wake of an immeasurable, international tragedy and preoccupied with pre-war conditions of normalcy, Armistice Day found its fond place among the people for generations to come, honouring the sacrifice and memory of the fallen, seeing sure that their absence was uptaken by ideologies of remembrance and peace. Today, Armistice Day embodies these vacancies as much as the ideology and contemporary validity behind the call for peace itself.

Our University’s memorial garden symbolically uptakes that vacant place, but its greater significance is found in the Chaplaincy itself. These poetic goals, supported and further echoed by the goings on of the Interfaith Chaplaincy, are best summarised by none other than the University’s Chaplain, Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie, whose friendly smile and warm handshake insists on my calling him Stuart. His welcoming attitude and well-timed jokes represent the diplomatic face of the Interfaith Chaplaincy which represents many faiths, he explains, and seeks to welcome those who don’t subscribe to faith just as warmly. His circumstance has afforded him some wonderful experiences: a personally signed poster as thanks for his involvement organising Mandela’s 1993 appearance at Glasgow University hangs as testament. But that very circumstance, he says, is a product of his lifelong associations with “good people” – and that his role at Glasgow University has sought to perpetuate the inclusion of ‘good people’ in community interactions. He explains his hopes to draw members of the student community into the Chapel, and for that Chapel to serve as a monument to inclusivity which builds upon itself – and how the memorial garden is helping him do so.

“It’s become so part of the University life that nobody thinks to comment on it. And in some ways, it’s the ordinariness of that is a wonderful compliment to this university. Nobody remarks it […] but it’s there, and it’s so unremarkable that it’s just part of University life. And it’s back to that – what we do is who we are.”

The Garden seeks to honour the sacrifice of the 754 sons “and one daughter”, the Reverend emphasises, of the University lost in the Great War by reintroducing their memory to the community they once shared, continuing their presence and using it as a force by which to support the growth of that community, and further honouring the four hundred plus University community members whose lives were lost during the Second World War. Erected in 1929 in honor of the University’s lost sons and daughters, the Memorial Chapel embodies the presence which parallels the sentiment of the memorial garden itself. The engraved names of the lost overlook the goings-on of chapel life, which in recent days is inclusive of more and more community-based events, including the popular ‘Creative Conversations’ series, during which students can bring their lunch and participate in literary chats between prominent members of the writing community. Before me, Reverend MacQuarrie shuffles papers protected in plastic inserts which he has removed from a large binder, each one describing the life and service of one individual listed on the walls of the memorial chapel. He moves them about one another as if trying to lay them out on the table in a way which represents their equal importance in my camera’s lens – but there are hundreds of them, and the faint trace of impossibility and sorrow crosses his face for a brief moment. He explains the social significance of the vast loss of life not only through the war, but in the University community as a microcosm of the city, the country, and the world. ach page features not only the birth and death date of the individual, but often their photograph and their story. Captain James Anthony Boyd Macharg and Captain Ebineezer Maitland Macharg are on top of the pile, brothers who passed within days of one another. He pauses.

“When you read [this] sort of thing, and as we’re reading these over the last two years, there’ll be streets in Glasgow that are mentioned, and you’ll say ‘I know that street! I know that house!’, and thinking back to what it would have been like a hundred years ago when that young person went to war, or when he came to University, full of hope, full of aspirations, just like our students today,” Rev. MacQuarrie explains, pointing to their black and white photographs. The young men convey a sense of austerity in the manner by which they carry themselves which polarises the underlying fear and wide-eyed ambition of youth so intimately recognizable in the faces of our own beloved friends, family members, and selves. “Every single student today, and every member of staff, is here at this University because they want to create a better world. And that’s what we’re in the business of. So the sense of remembrance is important, Caroline, and it’s not – we don’t think on the past in a sort of miserable way, of woe is me, these young people are part of our community, and they were part of our community a hundred years ago. And uniquely, they’re still part of our community today” he says.
On the hundredth anniversary of each death, the Chaplaincy seeks to memorialise the individual(s) in question through the continued and annual inclusion of the deceased’s memory in the community, honouring them in an interfaith manner which is more focused on community inclusion. “We’ll read what we know about them, about their lives, their personality, and plant a poppy cross like this in the garden”. The fallen soldier’s biography is stressed rather than the details of their death, and through this, the Chaplaincy seeks to highlight its progressive ideologies while doing honour to “good” people, building the inclusive nature of the community it aims to foster. In this way, the Chaplaincy hopes to not only honour the individual lost, but to stress the validity of their continued presence as forever members of our University’s community.

During contemporary incidences of tragedy and loss, the Chaplaincy is known to host memorial services tailored to the same individualized elements of the personalities of the fallen – honouring the memory of lost sons and daughters of today’s University community just as the fallen soldiers of the Great War are regarded. During times of celebration and communal gathering, the Chapel is there to serve against a backdrop of the beautiful stained glass and the smooth stone which bears the names of those lost 755 members of the University community… “Seven hundred and fifty five people from the University would be the equivalent of twenty-five percent of the University [today]. At the time, there were only about four thousand students here. So that was almost like losing an entire year, if you think of all those seven hundred and fifty five – young men, and young women – and in recent years we’ve discovered a few more, so it will be more than seven hundred and fifty five by the time we get to 2018.”

The students whose presence support the life of the Chapel see that the names of the lost look upon the joyful, pleasant student interactions they once knew well, establishing their continued role in the community they too loved and served – honouring their lives with a truly beautiful view of ours. Those lives stand in solidarity with our own, and are made forever young by their continued participation in our community. Critically, the Chaplaincy’s promotion of this brand of remembrance and the understated manner in which it is honoured through the Memorial Garden is the perfect embodiment to the intended grace and subtlety of the day overall, embodying not only memorialisation, but a call for peace.

We are faced with the rise of an age which could benefit greatly from outward demonstrations of grace, empathy, and love for our fellow man – a time when it is greatly tempting to defend the hierarchical importance of our contemporary politico-social tribulations, wars, genocide, hate crimes, and political buffoonery. But to indulge our fears, our prejudices, and our biases is to deny the institution and purpose of higher education in favour of the often-easier route. All paths of hate lead to war, all paths of ignorance lead to fear, and our actions on those paths, no matter how socially enforced, are chosen. Remembering what we have lost and what we have learned in loss does more to honour to the lost themselves than woefully mourning the cavity felt in their absence alone. Not “now more than ever”, but just as critically as before, we are faced with the consequence of governmental failing at a scale which crosses political platforms and international borders. We are presented the choice to enact positive, microcosmic change to offset large-scale tragedy.

Prayer cards decorated with a red poppy motif prolifically line several bulletin boards in an overwhelming display of empathetic consilience and reflective, egalitarian thought. The outpouring of empathetic, humanist ideologies represented in many of these prayer cards is a testament to the progressive ideologies fostered within the chapel and speaks for the more silent presence of the memorial garden. “Pray for Peace” reads one – with many other variations of this exact ideal standing as the overwhelming, silent majority. It is in these thoughts and in this Chaplaincy that the true motive of the Memorial Garden is rooted. The inclusion of these souls as individual constituents of this University even after death through representations of this nature as combined with the mission of the Interfaith Chaplaincy introduces them again as members of our student network, observing the jocular interactions, the emotional tumult of youth and the trials of adulthood, respecting their presence as members of the community which once fostered their youths as it does ours. The Garden silently honours their deaths. The Memorial Chapel and all its events exist in honour of their lives. The garden will continue its benevolent watch over our lives and waning childhoods as an extension of the Chapel’s monument, nourished by the joyful reintroduction of the role of the lost in the University community so afforded by the Chaplaincy’s remembrance services. The prayer board, a unifying call to moral arms to lay down those arms in favour of a tomorrow which reflects the lessons learned yesterday. “Communities are just made up of individual human beings. And people with good bits and bad bits – I kept saying at the Freshers address: I couldn’t care less whether anyone is Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Secular, Humanist, whatever – I care even less whether anyone is gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – what’s important is who the person is, and who they aspire to be. The University Chaplaincy has got to lead on that.”

But hindsight is the cousin of regret, and as Reverend MacQuarrie calls to focus, the relevance of the adage “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it” to the political tribulations of this week still holds water today. And tomorrow, this lesson will be heeded, or ignorance of it will instead sink ships. As “world changers” of tomorrow, to use the University’s own slogan, we are responsible for implementing the lessons we have learnt from the sacrifices of the lost and the mistakes of the living: a daunting task to say the least. The Reverend’s suggestion for how we can tackle this? “I think the thing is to keep believing that it can change and will change.” He glances back to the photographs of the Macharg brothers: “I’m only here because I had good people in my life – and that’s the difference. If we can be good people in other people’s lives – and again that’s back to what the Chaplaincy’s about – if we can show the goodness that’s there in human lives, we’ll hopefully make the university a better place that people want to be.”