I-cone-oclasm revisited: General Buller and his assorted Guerrillas

I have written previously about the heritage of traffic cones and statues, (November 2013) suggesting that the artful placing of traffic cones on statues should perhaps be understood as just the most recent phase of a statue’s ‘life history’, or ‘biography’. Indeed, some statues really require to be adorned with a traffic cone in order to convey a sense of being a relevant part of contemporary memorial cultures. Perhaps the Duke of Wellington Monument in St. George Square, Glasgow is the most famous example of this. Following public outcry and a social media campaign, Glasgow City Council was forced to acknowledge the relevance of the traffic cone. Perhaps more interestingly, however, both the authorised and unauthorised narratives of Wellington seemed to come together during the Commonwealth Games in the Summer of 2014, when the ‘statue-with-traffic-cone’ enjoyed a semi-official status; its image adorning mugs, T-shirts and a wide range of publications.

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Following the work of Alan Rice (2012), maybe these practices can be seen as a sort of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ – perhaps acting to subvert the hegemonic meaning of the monument as an item of ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’? But are there any further options, perhaps which can be more obviously and purposively ‘critical’?

The equestrian statue of General Buller is Exeter’s own version of Glasgow’s Wellington – often seen sporting a traffic cone on his head. One could argue that this practice subverts the pomposity and authoritative overtones that are imbued within the statue – but maybe the traffic cone inadvertently acts to tame what might be a more critical story? Arguably, the traffic cone takes attention away from General Buller; you end up focussing on the traffic cone rather than the equestrian figure. Who was General Buller? And why is there a statue of him in Exeter?

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General Sir Redvers Buller was born in Crediton, about 5 miles north of Exeter, in 1839, and fought in a series of British Imperial conflicts during the later 19th century, winning the Victoria Cross during the Zulu War. He led British Forces for a time during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1900), and was criticised by many at the time for what were seen as a series of military setbacks. Many commentators since the war, however, have argued that Buller was a bit of a scapegoat for the initial failure, on the part of the British Forces, to grasp a new style of warfare that the Boer War heralded. Indeed, some military historians see him as an innovator, who developed new tactics during this thoroughly ‘modern’ war. By recognising how Buller developed some effective ‘counter-insurgency’ tactics in the task of overcoming Boer resistance, maybe the heritage of General Sir Redvers Buller can provide a field of critical engagement to be further examined, rather than ignored? Does the traffic cone get in the way of this critical re-appraisal?

Perhaps one can argue that this statue commemorates a key moment in the countering of imperial power; one of the first moments when a modern global superpower was humbled by a group of farmers, workers and peasants using guerrilla tactics. Through this statue, therefore, maybe you can trace the resonance of Ireland, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

One of the key technological advancements through which British Forces eventually triumphed during the Boer War was through the massive deployment of barbed wire. Developed in the latter part of the 19th century in North America, the cheapness, ease of use and ubiquity of this device soon made it a key means through which conflicts have been propagated ever since (see Reviel Netz’s excellent 2004 book, Barbed Wire: an Ecology of Modernity). Barbed wire was also handy for the building of concentration camps – the world’s first civilian ‘concentration camps’ were built by the British in South Africa, during the Boer War.

Buller is a key developer of war tactics that have dominated many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ conflicts. And, arguably, he inadvertently paved the way for trench warfare, concentration camps and gulags. As a master tactician of counter-insurgency operations, perhaps the use of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics for General Buller is really quite an appropriate gesture.

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