Sword of Honour

Other names

  • A Pageant to Aid Russia

Pageant type

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Performances

Place: Colston Hall (Bristol) (Bristol, Gloucestershire, England)

Year: 1943

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 2

Notes

6 and 7 November 1943.

The first performance was at 3pm on 6 November 1943. The second performance, on 7 November, took place at the Empire Hall, Taunton, also at 3pm.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Writer, Director, Producer [Pageant Master]: Bennett, John

Names of executive committee or equivalent

n/a

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Bennett, John

Names of composers

  • German, Edward
  • Grieg, Edvard
  • Knipper, Lev
  • Walton, William

Numbers of performers

10

The Armourer, Anne, Pavlov, Vlassov, Zaitsev, two announcers and three sword-bearers.

Financial information

At least £450 was raised in collections in Bristol. At the event the Mayor announced that the nationwide fund had already raised a total of £27000.1 The Taunton performance raised a further £30.

Object of any funds raised

Funds to provide extra beds for the Bristol Wing of the Stalingrad Hospital, Russia.

Linked occasion

The 26th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

Admission was free, but there was a collection.

Associated events

The pageant was part of an afternoon of talks, music, and demonstrations about Russia. The Bristol performance was accompanied by the actual Sword of Honour displayed at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 8am until black-out time.


Pageant outline

Scene I. The West Country, c. 1830

Drum roll. William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’ march is played. The first announcer tells the Story of the Swords: ‘a simple story—a story of courage and chivalry—of craftsmen and heroes—of the men who make and the men who wield—THE SWORDS.3

The scene is set in ‘a village deep in the green folds of the West Country.’4 The Armourer enters dressed in nineteenth-century breeches and shirt sleeves. He talks with his granddaughter, Anne, a child of about ten. ‘Pastoral Dance’ from German’s ‘Nell Gwyn’.

The old craftsman tests the blade, made for Sir Dudley. The granddaughter asks how many swords he has made and which is the ‘bestest’. He does not know how many, but the best sword was for Sir Thomas. Anne points out that ‘Swords are like crosses… and yet they’re made for killing.’5 The Armourer admits this troubles him and he wishes instead they were made as ‘emblems, symbols of bravery and courage. Like Excalibur.’ He tells Anne about the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur. Anne brings him a Scottish broadsword and the Armourer explains that it was forged in 1740: ‘Perhaps this very broadsword swept off a few heads for Bonny Prince Charlie before he was defeated at Cullodon.’6 She brings in another sword, forged around 1600, when ‘even little boys carried swords at one time’. Anne reads the inscription: ‘Cruel against cruel hindreth the battle… Victory is good to the stout-hearted.’7 The next sword is a Spanish rapier for fencing. Anne gathers up the swords and goes off. The armourer falls asleep in his chair. Grieg’s ‘Homage March’.

A swordbearer demonstrates the ‘four valuable Civic Swords of Bristol’—the Pearl Sword, the Mourning Sword, the Lend Sword and the State Sword, which the announcer describes. Finally the discussion comes to the present. The announcer says: ‘Yet a few years ago, while England slept too soundly, the deadly dagger of the black swastika was being drawn in Europe.’

Scene II. Stalingrad, 1943

The lights come up on Stalingrad 1943. Pavlov and Vlassov are sitting on broken chairs and open various papers on a rock, lit by candles against a horizon where the ‘lurid flash of the bomb, the angry scarlet of fires, the hissing death of the flame-thrower’ are heard, taking the audience from the scarred City of Bristol to a ‘Hero City’ of Stalingrad. ‘Song of the Plains’ plays throughout the episode.

Pavlov and Vlassov discuss the situation. They are afraid the ruins of the house they are in may have had a mine planted beneath it, but they do not want to abandon it after 57 days. Vasili Zaitsev, the famous sniper, enters. They marvel at his rifle, which has killed 27 Germans. Pavlov asks him to cross the Volga to bring back ammunition. Zaitsev talks of the valour of their fight and his resolve to rid the city of Germans then leaves to continue the battle.

The lights go down and the announcer describes the Sword of Honour. The lights come up on Pavlov bearing a replica of the sword which is described at length.

Scene III. The West Country, c. 1830

The lights go down again and then come up on the Armourer, still sleeping in the chair. Anne enters and wakes him with news that supper is ready. The grandfather has been dreaming about the future Sword of Honour. ‘Crown Imperial March’ is played as the Announcer describes the evolution of swords and the friendship between Bristol and Stalingrad.

The National Anthem and then the Internationale are played with all the sword carriers on stage.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Zaitsev, Vasily Grigoryevich (1915–1991) Russian sniper

Musical production

Music played from a gramophone.
  • Edward German. ‘Pastoral Dance’, Nell Gwyn. 
  • Edvard Grieg. ‘Homage March’. 
  • Lev Knipper. ‘Song of the Plains’. 
  • William Walton. ‘Crown Imperial March’. 
The afternoon also featured Anglo-Russian music performed by the Bristol Aeroplane Company Works Band conducted by G.W. Yabsley.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Western Daily Press

Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser

Book of words

n/a

No copy produced. There was only a script.

Other primary published materials

n/a

References in secondary literature

n/a

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Bristol Record Office: Copy of script, Bristol Sword of Honour Pageant. 1943, np. InfoBox/4/87.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

n/a

Summary

At the start of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Unconditional Surrender (1961), there is a scene where Guy Crouchback, the disillusioned catholic and soldier who had narrowly escaped capture during the occupation of Crete, goes to London in 1943 with the intention of seeing the Sword of Honour, then lying in state at Westminster Abbey. The sword, designed by the Wilkinson Sword company and made by the craftsmen Tom Beasley and Sid Rouse, had been commissioned by King George VI to commemorate the suffering and courage of the Russian people at the Battle of Stalingrad. It was laid in state in Westminster Abbey before being presented to Stalin at the Tehran Conference in November 1943.8 Guy Crouchback’s experience encapsulates the message of Waugh’s trilogy of Second World War novels, entitled Swords of Honour. Rather than brave the crowds at the Abbey, Crouchback instead goes to an aristocratic lunch for his fortieth birthday before returning to fight with the partisans in Yugoslavia, whilst remaining deeply sceptical of their aims.

Waugh’s novel expertly captures the sudden wave of support for the Soviet Union stimulated by the great Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from 23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943, and ended in victory for the USSR. There had previously been a rally at the Colston Hall on 20 February 1943 to celebrate the victory and to raise funds for the victims of Stalingrad.9 For the commemoration of the 26th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, on 7 November, John Bennett devised a small pageant to be presented in an afternoon fund-raising session featuring speeches and a performance of music encouraging Anglo-Russian fraternity. The event was attended by ‘delegates from all political parties, trades unions, Co-op guilds, townswomen’s guilds, and many other organisations’ with the Deputy Mayor of Bristol, E.T. Cozens, presiding in place of the Mayor. Cozens declared that the people of Bristol were ‘happy to be associated with their great Russian ally, and they were full of gratitude for their courage and sacrifice, which had made victory sure’.10 The fund-raiser was held in conjunction with a day-long display of the Sword of Honour itself at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.11 One of the speakers, David Rhys Grenfell, the former Labour MP and Secretary for Mines at the Board of Trade, had previously been a strong critic of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Russia and Germany and had formed part of the deputation of MPs who visited Republican Spain.12 The other speaker, Edgar Young, RN, was a qualified Russian translator, author of That Second Front: Why, When and Where? (1942) and a strong supporter of the Soviet Union—so much so that he was expelled from the Labour Party in 1939.13 In his speech, ‘Young said there was not a man or woman in the whole of the civilised world who had not cause to be thankful for the 1917 Revolution in Russia’, before going on to criticize the British Press for its previously virulent anti-Soviet line and urging Britain to open up a second front in aid of its allies (the invasion of Italy earlier that year apparently had not been sufficient).14 The funds raised by the event were to go to the Bristol Ward in the Stalingrad hospital. The event was repeated the following day in Taunton, with the same speakers.

The pageant was written by the local writer John Bennet ‘to show the development of the sword leading up to the story behind the Stalingrad Sword of Honour’, and it included ‘some of the best known amateur actors in Bristol.’15 The pageant featured a number of antique period swords both from collections in Bristol and lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as a replica of the Sword of Honour.

The pageant is interesting in its presentation of war and conflict and its foregrounding of material culture in the form of historical swords. Nevertheless, it is hardly martial in ethos, and despite the rousing Soviet music—including the ‘Song of the Plains’—it makes no mention of communism. In fact, the Armourer seems happy to make swords for local aristocrats and appears highly deferential to their exalted place in society. The Announcer describes the awarding of the Sword to Stalingrad as akin to knighting it, thus continuing the act of ritual deference.

The performance presents the making of swords, and fighting, as necessities in a society in which evil is ever present. The dream of the Armourer, that one day swords might become a symbol of honour and peace rather than implements of death and aggression, is mirrored in the Stalingrad episode in which the three soldiers, Pavlov, Vlassov, and Vassily Zaitsev, fight to protect their homeland. The latter had become a celebrity, both in Russia and in Britain, for his prowess as a sniper, having amassed over 400 kills during the Battle of Stalingrad alone. Made a Hero of the Soviet Union in February 1943, Zaitsev lived his post-war life in relative obscurity, though he is perhaps best remembered in the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates. In the pageant, Zaitsev is presented fighting with honour though not joy. In this respect, he and the others closely resemble Waugh’s protagonist Guy Crouchback, and the Sword of Honour might more accurately be said to represent a popular desire to defeat fascism rather than any notions of martial glory.

The pageant was a success, raising around £500 at both events. Despite the planned visit of people from Taunton to Stalingrad, the post-war climate made such a trip unfeasible and Anglo-Soviet relations would never be so warm.16 The Sword of Honour pageant provides a notable insight into a largely forgotten episode in the social history of the Second World War.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Western Daily Press, 8 November 1943, 4.
  2. ^ Western Daily Press, 2 November 1943, 4.
  3. ^ John Bennett, Script of Bristol Sword of Honour Pageant (1943, np), Bristol Record Office. InfoBox/4/87, np.
  4. ^ John Bennett, Script of Bristol Sword of Honour Pageant (1943, np), Bristol Record Office. InfoBox/4/87, np.
  5. ^ John Bennett, Script of Bristol Sword of Honour Pageant (1943, np), Bristol Record Office. InfoBox/4/87, np.
  6. ^ John Bennett, Script of Bristol Sword of Honour Pageant (1943, np), Bristol Record Office. InfoBox/4/87, np.
  7. ^ John Bennett, Script of Bristol Sword of Honour Pageant (1943, np), Bristol Record Office. InfoBox/4/87, np.
  8. ^ Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (London, 1998), 405. See the newsreel of the presentation to Stalingrad, British Pathé, accessed 16 December 2015, http://www.britishpathe.com/video/stalingrad-receives-the-kings-sword.
  9. ^ Western Daily Press, 22 February 1943, 3.
  10. ^ Western Daily Press, 8 November 1943, 4.
  11. ^ Western Daily Press, 2 November 1943, 4.
  12. ^ ‘Grenfell, David Rhys (“Dai”) (1881–1968)’, in the Welsh Dictionary of Biography, accessed 16 December 2015, http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s8-GREN-RHY-1881.html?query=george&field=content.
  13. ^ ‘Edgar Young’, accessed 16 December 2015, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1175:young-edgar&catid=25:y&Itemid=130.
  14. ^ Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 13 November 1943, 8.
  15. ^ Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 30 October 1943, 4.
  16. ^ Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 13 November 1943, 8