Aftermath - when the boys came home

Thursday 12 May 2011

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Memorials of the Great War


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.

Chillianwalla memorialBut 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 said:


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 statues.

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 at large.

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.

 

Poppy Unusual war memorials from Hampshire, Dorset and the Lake District

Read about new moves to try and safeguard Britain's war memorials in Campaign to save memorial heritage

FURTHER READING

Alan Berg, War Memorials (1991)
Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain
A broader survey of the whole culture of memory/remembrance can be found in Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme

The Friends of War Memorials do much good work in helping to educate the public in the need to preserve these monuments. You might like to visit their website

You might also be interested in the Tideway School's account of an interesting Brighton war memorial


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