On 11 November 2018 the centenary commemorations of WWI will come to an end. It will mark the conclusion of over four years of commemorations across the world.
Commemorations are primarily focused on remembering the past. Hope Initiatives International (HII) is primarily concerned about legacy. How do we remember in a way that is empowering and in ways that are infused with transformative hope?
HII has two major WWI legacy projects that it will pursue during the current decade:
‘Mercy – Trócaire is a public art project inspired by an actual story involving a young Dublin soldier in the British Army, seriously wounded during the 1918 German Spring Offensive, and who maintained his life was saved by a metal crucifix given to him in 1915 by his mother, and a young German officer.
The Background Story
James Burke was born in Dublin in 1896. He is a first cousin of the late Fr Tom Burke, a co-founder of the annual Irish Young Scientists Exhibition.
In 1915, aged 19, he enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Before leaving for the Western Front, his mother gave James a small metal crucifix which he carried with him throughout the war. James fought in many of the major campaigns, including the Battle of the Somme.
On 21 March 1918, in the opening stages of the German Spring Offensive, 22-year-old James Burke was seriously wounded outside St. Quentin in Northern France. The German attack was so overwhelming that British units were forced to retreat, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
The bullet that wounded James Burke hit the right arm of the metal crucifix that his mother had given him and was deflected over his heart. James, nonetheless, was seriously wounded. There are varying accounts of how long he lay wounded, ranging from one to three days. However, the two details that remain clear are (i) James always attributed his survival to the crucifix and (ii) the humanity of a young German officer.
James told his family that as he lay seriously wounded, the young officer came upon him and showed enormous compassion. He lifted James and carried him to a field hospital where his wounds were treated and bandaged.
James spent the remainder of WWI as a prisoner of war in Stendal, Germany, close to Berlin.
Much of James’ war memorabilia has survived, including the crucifix which bears the indentation of the bullet. The body of Christ is worn smooth, likely clasped and rubbed during times of prayer and anguish throughout the three years James was in the trenches. On the back of the crucifix James etched the years 1915 – 1918.
James returned from the war with great devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux (affectionately called ‘the angel of the trenches’ by Catholic soldiers). He married Teresa O’Connor of 4 Ranelagh Road, Dublin 4, and lived there for the remainder of his life. He worked as a cinema usher at the Deluxe Cinema on Camden Street (the original entrance of which still survives) and died at the age of 56. James and Teresa had a daughter, Ethne, and a son, Gary. Gary Burke was the godfather of Margaret Beatty, the wife of Don Mullan.
James’ son, Gary, died in 2003. Before he died he entrusted his father’s war medals and memorabilia to Don and Margaret Mullan.
The artist who will likely be commissioned to create this monument is Andrew Edwards, part of the Irish Diaspora, born in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Mullan has worked with Andrew on three major monument projects:
(i) Gordon Banks, Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent (2008) unveiled by Pelé and Archbishop Desmond Tutu;
(ii) 1914 Christmas Truce, Messines, Belgium (2014) unveiled by the Mayor of Messines on Christmas Eve 2014;
(iii) Frederick Douglass, University of Maryland, USA (2016) unveiled by Nettie Douglass, great great granddaughter of Frederick Douglass.
Andrew is a master craftsman with the ability to breathe life into bronze. His attention to detail is extraordinary.
WWI James Burke – German Officer Monument:
Having discussed the idea and concept with Andrew Edwards, he took inspiration for the monument from Le Bon Samaritan by Francois Sicard in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, part of the Louvre Museum complex, as the story evoked the parable of the Good Samaritan as described in the Gospel of Luke 10: 25-37. Sicard’s monument, coincidently, was unveiled in 1896, the same year that James Burke was born in Dublin.
Accompanying his initial maquette , which he describes as a ‘rough draft’, Andrew wrote, on the 4 May 2013:
There are many things emerging from this study as always happens, unsurprisingly as sculpture is a language – which reveals through re-presentation of a story into it, the same new insights as a verbal language translation often reveals. For instance, in placing Private Burke into the arms of the officer, I wanted to show the struggle and determination to bear the weight (and intense cold, fatigue and adversity in general). The bracing of the half dead soldier’s legs against the supporting knee of the German soldier, as if just lifting him ready to advance, creates the most wonderful pieta – and as we know there is a resuscitation (resurrection) to follow, and indeed a rebirth of faith made available to all viewers. (Photo: Andrew Edward’s Maquette ‘Mercy – Trócaire’)
Two weeks later, on 27 May 2013, Andrew wrote:
… after studying my finished maquette (attached), which was an interpretation of your account largely instinctive, I see a different responsibility required by our words. Dr King, in his “I’ve Been to the Mountain top” speech said: “And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Mercy – Trócaire
As part of a WWI legacy project, Hope Initiatives International intends creating a major public sculpture, inspired by an act of mercy during WWI involving Private James Burke and a young German officer. The project will have the following aims:
- The sculpture will be created in a public space over a period of six-weeks, which will be open to visits by schools and the general public;
- The making of the sculpture will be broadcast on the worldwide web, so that people from across the world can observe and participate in the process of its creation;
- The project will seek private and crowd funding with all excess funding being donated to Trócaire Development Project (75%) and the initiatives of HII (25%).
- The project aims to link Ireland, Germany and France in a triangle of amity. Ultimately, the monument will be produced in triplet and unveiled in Dublin, Berlin and Saint Quentin, France, as part of a WWI UNESCO legacy project to encourage the teaching of human empathy.
- The project will have an accompanying book to be written by Irish author, Don Mullan, the originator of the idea.
High resolution images of James Burke’s war memorabilia, including documents, medals and the crucifix, may be viewed by clicking the following europeana 1914-1918 page dedicated to the young Dubliner: http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/3626