As I have pointed out on other pages, such as The Lost Generation, the Great War
was very different to other wars that had gone before in that it was fought mostly
by amateur soldiers who had initially signed up out of a sense of duty and patriotism
(as well as the feeling that it would be a great adventure), then came the conscripts
who were given no choice.
But in neither case were they like the professional soldiers of old, regarded
by the general public very much as the Duke of Wellington had regarded his troops
a century before - "the scum of the earth".
Reference to the dead of earlier wars rarely appeared anywhere except on regimental
memorials. In the gardens of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in London there is
a simple obelisk (right) dedicated to 255 officers, NCOs and men who fell at Chilianwalla
in 1849 in the second British-Sikh war.
In Lichfield Cathedral there is a memorial to 12 officers, two surgeons, nineteen
sergeants, seventeen corporals, two drummers and 316 rank and file of the 80th
foot who died in Burma 1852-53. The only names given, however, are the officers,
a colour sergeant and nine privates who were actually killed in action. The
rest died of disease, the most common cause of death for serving soldiers. In
memorials of the late nineteenth century it is unsual to find the names of soldiers
other than officers recorded.
After the Great War things would be very different.
Long before the war had come to an end, plans were being made in Britain for
how the conflict, and those who had died in it, might be commemorated. In January
1916 the Civic Arts Association held a conference on how best to ensure that
the dead were suitably remembered.
Six months later, with an unknowing aptness (it was about the time that Kitchener's
armies were preparing for the Big Push on the Somme), the same association organised
"An Exhibition of Designs for War Memorials."
In October 1919, as the first anniversary of the Armistice approached there
was a War Memorial Exhibition at Burlington House in London, which tried to
set out an artistic standard for the kind of monuments and statues which would
commemorate the dead. Clearly any such guidelines would not be at the cutting
edge of art.
As Frank Rutter reviewing the exhibition in the Sunday Times on October 19th
the most noticeable thing is the paucity of idea. When an artist gets busy with
a war memorial his mind seems to concentrate on soldiers and angels. In no possible
combination can these figures be said to display much originality of conception.
There was an almost overwhelming need for public and lasting commemoration
of the fallen, most especially amongst those who had lost loved ones. The crowds
which flocked to every memorial unveiling (such as the one pictured above in
Didsbury, South Manchester, on 2 July 1921) bore witness to that. The majority
felt that grateful remembrance of the dead was best served by the kind of traditional
approach to monument making to be seen in any parish church or cathedral.
Ironically those loved ones who had been fortunate enough to come back often
felt that their own memories needed no reinforcing with stone obelisks and statues
but they soon learned the bitter lesson that little attention was going to be
paid to the views of the returned fighting man, whatever the subject.
There were those who did feel that if money was available for memorials then
it would be better spent on easing the lives of disabled soldiers, providing
for widows and orphans, and generally making the world a better place, with
hospitals, schools and community centres. In many cases such projects did find
favour, but the great majority of villages and towns opted for monuments and
In an odd way it was never completely clear quite what was being commemorated.
The French were never in any doubt about the purpose of their war memorials.
They were simply that - memorials to the dead. In Britain it sometimes seemed
that the memorials were more for the living than the dead.
When Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary in Lloyd George's wartime government,
unveiled Edinburgh's main war memorial in September 1920 he expressed a commonly
held view about the point of commemoration:
These monuments in their collective interest are I think the greatest testimony
to the greatest effort ever yet made in history by a united country. They have
sprung up in every parish because every parish has felt the same need. If you
could put to the community, man by man, woman by woman, the question, was the
loss, heavy as it has been, was the bereavement, bitter as it was, worth suffering
the answer would be 'Yes'. For by the sufferings alone were we able to preserve
the liberties of our own country and to preserve the liberties of the world
In other words, the dead did not die in vain. Obviously the bereaved were not
expected to celebrate the loss of their loved ones, but they were certainly
allowed (and expected) to take comfort and to feel pride from the fact that
the sacrifice had been worth it. Because of course if it hadn't been worth it
then such loss of life would have seemed even more pointless and tragic.