This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
The First World War has had an enormous effect on British historical consciousness and memory, causing it to overshadow and influence the interpretation of many other historical events and processes. Today, many people attach highly emotive terms to the conflict such as ‘waste’ and ‘futile’. But as the vast number of war memorials across Britain and its former empire still affirm, people felt both grief and pride. These memorials tell us that men, and women, played their part in the most noble of causes and that widespread belief in that cause resonated in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.
Dealing with the unprecedented numbers of dead was the single most important aspect in the creation of a war memory and narrative by the British people. The British lost about 750,000 men in the Great War and suffered about one million to 1.5 million men wounded, many with permanent disabilities. With bodies scattered in burial places across the globe and with hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost in the mud of the western front, the British had decided not to repatriate the remains of dead soldiers and thus deprived grieving relatives of an immediate focus for their loss.
There were no domestic graves around which to conduct the usual rites of loss and mourning. The final resting place of a loved one might therefore be a cemetery too far away from home to visit easily, or no memorial at all, the body having been lost completely. This fuelled a deep desire to mark the loss in some way, and sparked the erection of war memorials as surrogate headstones. However, memorials also came to mean far more than just symbols of consolation and cherished memory.
Complementing the official, state-driven commemorative project of the Imperial War Graves Commission, which was given the task of erecting permanent memorials and cemeteries across the fighting fronts, were the thousands of memorials erected across Britain by all levels and types of communities. From tiny, rural parishes through to great industrial cities like Birmingham and Glasgow, memorial schemes were established in the immediate aftermath of the war.
The type and form of memorial was very much dependent on the size and nature of communities. Large cities tended to see a memorial in terms of enhancing local prestige, and, as such, sought to finance grand schemes involving famous architects. The port city of Southampton and the industrial city of Manchester employed the foremost architect of the British empire, Sir Edwin Lutyens, to design their memorials.
In small communities, often focusing on the local place of worship, memorials tended to be more overtly Christian in nature and to list names. The names of individuals meant so much more in a small community than in the facelessness of the modern city. But community was not defined simply by place of worship and residence. Memorials were erected in places of work, study and pleasure. In this way a man’s (and occasionally woman’s) name might be found on his or her city, parish, workplace, school or sports club memorials. Diverse definitions of identity, belonging and community were therefore expressed in memorials.
The erection and unveiling of these memorials did not spell the end of the process, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s British people gathered round them in the annual observation of Armistice Day. Initiated on 11 November 1919, Armistice Day was a truly popular phenomenon; at 11am on that first anniversary of the armistice, Britain came to a halt. Without any form of prior planning or organisation, the nation spontaneously observed a period of silence and reflection on the anniversary of the precise moment when the ceasefire had come into effect.
King George V, among others, was deeply affected by this expression of grief and respect and suggested that the observation become a permanent, annual commemoration. The following year the Cenotaph was unveiled at 11am and two minutes’ silence commenced. A form of remembrance, instigated by the people, was officially recognised and became the centrepiece of interwar remembrance.
It is not hard to penetrate the reasons why these memorials and rituals inspired such public interest and veneration. Firstly, other than its scale, little about this phenomenon was actually new: Victorian society, accustomed as it was to bereavement thanks to a range of environmental factors, had created a cult of death and commemoration, leaving a legacy of funerary architecture and ritual for others to follow.
Secondly, the forms of memorialisation created a mechanism through which people could mourn and interpret the experience of the war. Clergymen often implied that each dead man had imitated Christ’s passion and now shared paradise with him. It was a comforting message indeed; it was also a highly conformist and affirming interpretation.
Armistice day and memorials at all levels unhesitatingly proclaimed that each and every death was glorious, worthy, honourable and necessary. No one was allowed to doubt the value of the sacrifice or the methods by which victory had been achieved. During the war, the officer-poet Robert Graves had written derisively of the “big words” that had lured him into the army and which experience had then proved meaningless. Great War memorials rejected Graves’s satire and maintained these big words, often having them carved deep in their stone or etched in brass: King, Country, Honour, Duty, Empire, and Sacrifice. And it was in these big words of the memorials that millions of people found solace.
Seven First World War memorials
The Cenotaph, London
Where a temporary wooden structure became a lasting memorial
Originally a temporary wooden structure for peace day celebrations in July 1919, public reaction to the Cenotaph was so overwhelming that it was quickly decided to replace it with a permanent version. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Cenotaph (a term taken from the Greek meaning ‘empty tomb’) is a simple, although geometrically complex, memorial.
A block of tapering stone, it contained only two inscriptions: ‘The Glorious Dead’ and ‘MCMXIV-MCMXIX’. Significantly, as a memorial designed to commemorate the British dead and the sacrifices of a multiracial empire, the Cenotaph contained no overt Christian symbolism. It nonetheless captured the imagination of the British; people flocked to see it and newspapers filled columns describing it and its austere, brooding effect. Recognising its lack of overt Christian spirituality, the Church of England suggested that an unknown British soldier be exhumed from the battlefields of the western front and reburied in Westminster Abbey.
On the second anniversary of the armistice, 11 November 1920, George V led the ceremony to unveil the permanent Cenotaph and then marched on to Westminster Abbey behind the gun carriage carrying the coffin of the ‘unknown soldier’. The impact of this double ceremony cannot be understated. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into London to witness the occasion and in the week that followed over a million people filed past the Cenotaph and the tomb.
Portrush, County Antrim
Where a tranquil angel honours the fallen
Designed by Frank Ransom and unveiled in 1922, Portrush’s memorial consists of a short obelisk topped by a sculpture of the Angel of Victory. Unlike the dramatic pose struck by the angel on the Derry/Londonderry memorial (see number 7, overleaf), Portrush’s is in a state of greater tranquillity. She holds her sword with the point touching the ground, implying the victorious end of her labours, and carries the palm leaf of victory and peace. The intimate nature and scale of the memorial reflects the size and importance of Portrush and shows how memorials always reflect the character of the community that erected them.
The Portrush memorial is also a reminder that war memorials constituted a family of their own due to the recycling of their elements by their designers and architects. In this instance Frank Ransom, who was heavily influenced by the great sculptor Sir George Frampton, used similar motifs on the memorial he produced for Stanley in the Falkland Islands in order to commemorate the naval engagement that took place off its coast in 1914. Thus, a memorial in a far corner of the British empire can be connected directly to one in Northern Ireland.
Where religious differences were put aside to remember the dead
Much of the power of Aberystwyth’s war memorial resides in its location. Set at the far corner of the bay, it almost sticks into the sea, which creates a very dramatic effect, and was clearly a prime consideration of its designer, the Italian Mario Rutelli.
An Angel of Victory holding aloft victory laurels dominates a tapering obelisk; at its base is a naked female figure emerging from a thicket. The iconography implies the escape of civilisation from the bonds of darkness and war, and therefore has similarities with the two standard British war medals awarded to all eligible service personnel. The British war medal has on its reverse a naked figure sat on a horse which is picking its way through the waste of war, while the British Victory Medal depicts an Angel of Victory replete with palms. In this way it is possible to detect the over-arching symbols that link so many different types of memorial activity in post-war Britain.
Finally, it is intriguing to consider the fact that a strongly Protestant area of Britain clearly felt comfortable in employing an Italian Catholic, resident in Rome, to act as the designer of a memorial to its precious lost sons.
Cameronians Memorial, Glasgow
Where a dead soldier is depicted in bronze
Many British communities, particularly at a town and city level, erected soldier statues after the Great War. Such statuary usually depicted soldiers in one of two ways. First, with arms reversed (weapons held upside down) in the traditional military pose of respect to the dead, such as on the memorial of Streatham, London. The alternative was a soldier in full marching order with his rifle at the full salute (for example, Ilford, London; Tredegar, Wales). Both forms implied the observance of full honour and glory to the dead and were thus perfect for the slightly more detached sense of community felt at the town or city level.
Far less common are memorials showing soldiers in physical action; the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) War Memorial is an excellent example of this rarer type. Unveiled in 1924 and designed by Philip Lindsey Clark, it depicts a group of soldiers: one is striving purposefully, bent forward towards the front of the plinth; this figure has a real sense of dynamism and energy. He is accompanied by a soldier firing a Lewis gun caught in a moment of extreme concentration and attention to his task. Even more unusually for a British war memorial, to one side of the men is the body of a dead soldier. Depicting dead soldiers was, of course, a highly sensitive subject and most communities, sculptors and architects steered away from it: Lindsey Clark may well have drawn some inspiration from the Graspan Royal Marines Memorial in The Mall, which has a similar combination of dead and active soldiers.
Another of Lindsey Clark’s works, in the Borough of Southwark, south London, depicts a towering soldier striving towards the enemy with grim determination.
Royal Artillery Memorial, London
Where memorialising instruments of war caused controversy
Perhaps the most impressive war memorial in Britain, the Royal Artillery Memorial is first and foremost a regimental tribute. Designed by Lionel Pearson and adorned with sculptures by Charles Sargeant Jagger, the memorial is a tribute to the immense power of artillery and its dominant role in the Great War. Bas reliefs show the artillery in action and a huge stone howitzer dominates the profile of the memorial, while sculptures of gunners have a hyper-masculinity in terms of their scale and physical build. The piece is deliberately disturbed by the presence of a dead gunner at the rear of the memorial. He lies, as if on a catafalque, covered by his gas cape, accompanied by the inscription ‘Here Was a Royal Fellowship of Death’.
The memorial caused controversy when it was unveiled in 1925 due to its insistence on the instruments of war themselves and was said to be nothing more than a massive regimental souvenir. This is, of course, exactly the effect the design team had aimed for and it reveals how the civilian, particularly female, bereaved could feel emotionally isolated from a memorial which did not touch their own particular feelings.
Diamond War Memorial, Derry/Londonderry
Where the war at sea is remembered
Situated on the civic space of the Diamond in central Derry/Londonderry, this fine memorial designed by Sydney and Vincent March is also a relative rarity among British war memorials, for it depicts both a soldier and a sailor.
Despite the hugely important role played by the Royal Navy, the war at sea often lacked the drama, passion and very high casualties that marked the land battles. For many British communities it was, therefore, the army that swallowed local men, and it was in land warfare terms that they memorialised the conflict.
This memorial consists of a central obelisk topped by the Angel of Victory, the Christianised version of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, flanked by two shorter plinths on which stand a soldier and a sailor. The sailor carries his duffle bag over his broad shoulders, while the soldier bayonets an invisible enemy. Protracted debate over funding and precise form meant the memorial was not unveiled until 1927.
Derry/Londonderry’s experience was typical of many British towns and cities in this regard. War memorial schemes naturally provoked debate, which often meant that consensus was reached only after much discussion.
Welsh National Memorial, Cardiff
Where classical imagery is blended with Welsh national identity
The decision to erect a national war memorial in Cardiff reveals much about Welsh national identity and pride at the end of the war. Designed by the great ecclesiastical architect Sir Ninian Comper, the memorial takes the form of a classical colonnade enclosing a sunken courtyard, which contains a plinth with statuary by Alfred Bertram Pegram.
Crowning the top of the plinth is a winged naked male figure holding aloft a reversed sword in a pose of victory. On a lower level, male figures hold laurel wreaths of victory. Thus, here in what is now the Welsh capital city, Comper, the ecclesiastical architect, opted for pre-Christian classical imagery and also avoided Celtic symbolism. But, in settling on such a design theme, Comper implied that Cardiff was far more than a provincial hub and centre of local identity, but a city that embraced the classical culture which provided European civilisation with its foundation blocks. However, a link with specifically Welsh culture was made with the use of the Welsh language in the main inscription, and it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in June 1928.
The grandeur of the vision here shows that, at this level, memorials stretched far beyond consolation of the dead and were, in fact, highly potent political symbols making statements about identity, history and culture.
Mark Connelly is professor of modern British military history at the University of Kent