On the psycho – geography of equestrian statues

On the way down to last Friday’s climate strike and I found myself, not for the first time, staring up at the statue of Sir Douglas Haig in the middle of Whitehall.

Haig is sitting on a horse. He was a General and a cavalryman, so you might expect that. But there is something very odd about the horse. Haig looks as though he wants it to move on. He is leaning forward slightly, with a stubborn and bemused look on his face.

But his horse is an effigy of a horse. It has not been sculpted to show any sign of life, to look like a real horse frozen in a moment. It looks like a sculpture of a model of a horse, a statue of a statue. This peculiarly static quality might have been a subconscious expression of Haig’s inability to urge his way through the trench systems at the Somme or Passchendaele; or possibly an ironic comment on his continuing belief in cavalry as a viable fighting arm right to the end of his life in 1928. He is riding a dead horse…as well as flogging one.

This is a bit like Diagalev’s comment to Ravel that his composition La Valse was not a ballet but a picture of a ballet. Composed as a tribute to Johan Strauss II and the classic waltzes of fin du seicle Vienna – the frivolous effervescence of a society in a condition that was “fatal, but not serious”- could not be anything else after the Empire that generated it was crushed into fragments by the First World War. The Habsburg Empire was dead. So was the Waltz.

So was the cavalry. The statue shows Haig as unaware – and he seems puzzled that he can’t make his horse move.

This is in contrast to the Blues and Royals trooper by Horseguards parade, who is sitting utterly rigidly, with the psychotic stare of the terminally bored, and the pornstache of thin men trying to be butch with not a flicker of movement but radiating hostility: while his horse takes a lively and friendly interest in the streams of striking school students pouring down towards Parliament Square.

Haig’s is the last equestrian status on Whitehall. The last of the line. The final mounted military aristocrat after a thousand years of them. Behind him is the Duke of Cambridge. A plump late Victorian gentleman in full fig, commander of the British army for forty years, leaning casually back with complete self assurance; while his horse is showing signs that it is beginning to find his weight a bit too much to bear.

Haig is looking South towards the Cenotaph, memorialising all those men that he did for with his plans of attack. His head is bare, perhaps in penance: but his jaw is set and he looks stubborn enough to do it all again in exactly the same way because he does not have the imagination to think of anything else.

Looking back up at him are the craggier Generals of World War Two. Field Marshal Alexander is wearing jodphurs as a last echo of aristocratic horsemanship, his swagger stick behind his back, while Marshal Slim stands solidly with his huge slouch hat, grim jaw and mighty boots. Monty, on the other hand, looks straight across the road at Downing Street with a set and grim expression on his face – as though he doesn’t trust civilians to run the show.

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