The Importance of British First World War Memorials

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There can be no doubt about the impact of the First World War on the people of Britain and around the world. The sheer number of war memorials erected in all corners of the globe attest to that. All of these memorials have many things in common, however, there are some interesting differences. The lack of First World War memorials in the former USSR is significant, for example, although their profusion and yet similarity of purpose to British memorials for the Second World War
is also inteteresting. Equally telling is fact that Australian and Canadian war memorials have much more of a tendency to record the names of all who fought, rather than merely those who died.

Yet at the same time, War Memorials are something that, in the UK at least, have faded into the background over time; they are part of the landscape yet barely noticed by the majority of people except, perhaps, on Remembrance Day. What this article looks at, then, is the circumstances surrounding the erection of war memorials in Britain, the form of the monuments themselves and the rituals that were carried out around them. The aim is to examine not just what they and the rituals they inspire can tell us about contemporary attitudes to warfare and the First World War in particular, but also how the emotions and the values they stand for have changed over time and been shaped by subsequent events.


There is the potential for a number of different aspects of a war to be remembered: glorious victories of expert commanders, heroic deeds of brave individuals, the qualities of national character which have pulled a country through and so on. In Britain, there is a very coherent tone to the memorialisation of the First World War and the Whitehall Cenotaph is the ultimate expression of this.

It was also one of the first memorials to be erected after the war. The original Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for a Victory March by troops on Peace Day to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. It was intended as a temporary structure for the purpose of providing a saluting point in memory of The Glorious Dead (the inscription on the side). This salute was not intended to be the highlight of Peace Day, but in fact it seems to have been seen as such by the many many members of the public who attended the ceremony and who subsequently visited the Cenotaph in the weeks and months to follow. Eventually, the temporary structure was replaced with the permanent one we can still see today. Its association with the dead of the war, rather than with a glorious victory, and its status as a collective monument, rather than that of the heroic deeds of one or two great men set the tone (and often the form) for First World War memorials throughout the country. It also set the way war was commemorated ever after in Britain.

The Glorious Dead

The overriding importance that people gave to remembering the dead is not surprising as this was one of the first wars to involve the widespread use of citizen soldiers rather than a professional army. Along with the sheer number of young men who were involved came a very high death rate. Very few families in Britain could have failed to be touched by the loss of someone close.

In addition, virtually none of the war dead were to be buried at home. The Imperial War Graves Commission balanced the impracticability of mass repatriation of bodies against the unfairness of allowing it to be done on an individual basis (favouring the wealthy) and decided that soldiers were to be buried where they died. In addition, there was very little to celebrate in the victory aside from the cessation of hostilities and so the memorials were to become focal points for the grief of a nation, and dedicated not to victory, or even to those who served more generally, but to those who died in the war.>

Today, it is interesting to consider if there is the potential that this overwhelming focus on this aspect of the war, and the sheer number of memorials dedicated to it throughout the country has reinforced what is now the general perception of the First World War being an exercise in futility and bungling, particularly when this becomes contrasted with the Second World War.

It is worth pointing out that it was not an interpretation lost on observers of the war memorials at other times in the past. Domestic problems of economic depression in the 1930s combined with a growing awareness of the threat posed by totalitarian states served to make war memorials and Armistice Day a focal point for protests. Why were war memorials particularly suited as the inspiration for these activities, however?

Form and Function

It is certainly true that there seems right from the beginning to have been a deliberate avoidance of militaristic images. Again and again, figures of soldiers are depicted as standing at ease or in positions of mourning rather than marching or attacking with military purpose. An upturned gun was a particularly popular motif. Interestingly, however, the dead themselves were very rarely portrayed directly, especially not in attitudes which bore any relation to death on the battlefield. In fact, the idealized forms of the figures of soldiers, along with an avoidance of the depiction of the realities of war convey no sense of the horrors of war. This is, perhaps, the result of the memorials being primarily commissioned by those who did not fight.

Sacrifice, on the other hand, was a major theme. Christian symbolism, where it existed, often portrayed the dead as martyrs; the typical First World War soldier was someone prepared to sacrifice himself for a just cause. Crosses were also common. Indeed, a new type of cross became widespread in expressing this idea, the Cross of Sacrifice - a cross with an upturned sword pointing downwards on its face, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield for the Imperial War Graves Commission.

The emphasis was on sacrifice with a purpose. There was a feeling, often expressed during the opening ceremonies for the memorials and in later Armistice celebrations, that those who survived and future generations to come should live up to the example of the glorious dead, should not allow their sacrifice to be in vain. Those left alive should work for and try to improve the community they belonged to, both at a national and local level.

It is this which meant that many memorials took a utilitarian form. They were intended to benefit the community in some way through the provision of charity to a section of community members (often war widows or children), or by providing or improving a local service or facility (projects ranged from a new 'memorial' hospital to a 'memorial' village hall to a 'memorial' park). Even where arguments raged about whether a utilitarian or aesthetic memorial should be constructed, it was an argument about which type of memorial would best suit the inspirational purpose the memorials were conceived as having.

Who built them where?

This explains the lengths to which memorial committees went to ensure that war memorials represented a view of the war dead which showed their equality of sacrifice. War memorials were not centrally organised, but conceived of, organised by and paid for the communities in which they were placed.

'Community' here could have a number of different meanings. There are the memorials which were linked to a civic administrative area, such as an urban borough or a village. There are memorials which remember those who belonged to a particular religious community. There are memorials which are dedicated to those who were attached to a particular school, or workplace, or social activity. And there are memorials for those who fought in particular regiments or in particular battles. Of course, this meant that some names would appear on a number of different memorials.

The instigators of a memorial project were often the leaders of the community, whether they were the mayor and the local council, the vicar and his parish council, the major landowner, an employer or headteacher of a school. Often, there was a concern to make the memorial as relevant and acceptable to as many different groups within the community as possible. Obviously, this was most noticeable the more diverse the community was. The organisation of civic memorials were accompanied by the formation of memorial committees made up of representatives from, say, the council, local politicians, different religious groups, places of trade and industry, schools, community facilities such as hospitals and so on. Even religious communities were not immune from this inclusiveness, however, with committees for memorials destined for the local Anglican church including representatives even from other (Christain) denominations. This, of course, happened mainly when the church based memorial was intended to also be the memorial of the local community - usually the parish - as a whole, although in some cases there would also be an inclusive civic memorial as well.


One effect of this was to ensure that many memorials these committees produced were quite ambiguous in their representations. They were intended to be many things to many people. In addition to the many memorials opting for neutral geometric designs, of which the Cenotaph is the ultimate expression, it is often difficult, for example, to tell who the figure in figurative memorials is meant to represent: the dead to whom the memorial is dedicated or ex servicemen honouring their lost colleague. This ambiguity also reinforced the idea of the equality of the dead, as did the emphasis that every headstone in the mass cemeteries abroad and even the few in graveyards in the UK should be fashioned the same, with minor variations only for inscriptions and religious symbols.

The ultimate expression of this ambiguity, of course, is the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, who was placed in Westminster Abbey on 11th November 1920. A great deal of trouble was taken to ensure that the body could not be identified in anyway. The name 'Warrior' does not designate a particular branch of the armed forces. Even the starting point was concealed by having bodies brought from different battlefields and one chosen at random. As a result, many people were able to, and did, identify with the person buried in the Abbey.


Of course, the reality of the post war experience for many people, was clearly not one of equally experiencing the benefits of 'the land fit for heroes' the dead had sacrificed themselves to create. It was the image and rhetoric surrounding the war memorials and commemoration ceremonies which provided the impetus for the increasing numbers of people prepared to take a critical view of both the meaning of the war, the war memorials and the impact it had had on their present day in the 30s.

Yet it important not to overstress this. There were many aspects of the memorials which actively militated against a critical perspective. In fact, the main function of the memorials and their subsequent commemoration seems to have been to act as a mechanism to preserve the continuity of British society in a time of troubles. This is shown in the way that the Armistice Day commemorations took on an increasingly reverential tone designed to protect, to preserve in stone unchanged, the memory of the dead and the values they were perceived to have died for.

This aspect of the memorials can also be seen in the emphasis that this war (and this sacrifice) had been about fighting for 'the King, Empire and God', and there are some nationalistic elements apparent in the memorials to support this. The Celtic Cross was a particularly popular type of cross to erect, whereas crucifixes were often seen as the preserve of foreign, Roman Catholic influences and avoided. Images of St George or from the Arthurian legend of the Grail quest were also widely used. There was also a certain amount of local pride involved, particularly in the more intimate memorials of specific institutions or in the civic memorials, and it was often the suspicion that civic pride was the main driving force behind a proposal to erect a utilitarian memorial which sparked controversy about its appropriateness.

Nowhere, however, is the traditional bent more evident than in the way in which the two minutes silence was fiercely kept, even at the height of the dissatisfaction of the 30s. Enforcement was organised both by those in positions of authority, such as policemen, who ensured that traffic stopped at the appropriate time, and by ordinary participants themselves. There are examples of dissenters being harassed, and even beaten for refusing to conform. To diss the Armistice Day ceremonials would be to admit that the deaths of loved ones had been futile, which went against everything the First World War memorials, Armistice Day and the silence stood for. This was ultimately why, perhaps, such a reassessment of the war was impossible until time meant that commentators had no longer been personally touched by the bereavement the First World War caused.


In fact, the impulse to defend this particular memory may have faded, but it still has not disappeared entirely, as evidenced in movements to preserve the memorials unchanged which survive to the present day. One such organisation is the War Memorials Trust which " for the protection and conservation of war memorials within the UK to ensure these monuments remain part of our communities forever. War memorials commemorate our shared past, an important part of our national culture."

And today, in the shadow of controversial, protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan where any cessation of hostilities will almost certainly lack a definite sense of victory, memorials to war dead may once again take on a greater significance than at any time since the end of the First World War.

Further Reading

Connelly, M; The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London, 1916 - 1939; The Royal Historical Society/ The Boydell Press 2002.

Dyer, G; The Missing of the Somme; Phoenix Press 1994.

Gaffney, A; Aftermath: Remembering the Great War in Wales; University of Wales Press 1998.

King, A; Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Rememberance; Berg/ Oxford International Publishers Ltd 1998.

Lloyd, D W; Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia and Canada 1919 – 1939; Berg/ Oxford International Publishers Ltd 1998.

Relevant Websites

The United Kingdom National Inventory of War Memorials

The War Memorials Trust

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