The origins of war memorials

Amazingly, given the military and maritime history of Britain, there were very few war memorials - in the sense that we know them today - before 1918. In Georgian and Victorian Britain most soldiers joined the army to escape poverty and retribution from the law, so when they died nobody considered commemorating them.

Officers might be remembered on a tablet in their local church but for the ordinary soldier there was little or no form of remembrance. When they were remembered it was as a mass, as a member of a Regiment or, as in the case of the Culloden battlefield, as a member of a specific clan.

World War One changed all that. It was a war fought, not by what Wellington and his generals considered to be "scum", but by volunteer armies - clerks and steel workers, miners and shopkeepers. These were men who would be remembered.

War memorials had their origins in the shrines that bereaved people set up on the village green or simply on the street corner during the war years, the modern equivalent being the flowers left by friends and relatives at the roadside after a fatal car accident. When peace came in 1918 there was a demand for permanent memorials to the fallen.

"The memorials were community affairs," says Marcus Payne, Senior Librarian at Penarth Library. "Perhaps for the first time people were demanding something off the government or their councils. They got it. And the process continued after the Second World War. Nowadays, of course, the lists of the dead contained on the memorials are used by family historians and by schoolchildren looking at the history of their town."

The memorials from World Wars One and Two are hugely moving, be they imposing structures like the one on the sea front at Swansea or the smaller Abergavenny memorial that has the figure of a British Tommy, arms resting on his rifle. One of the most impressive is Charles Jagger's tribute to men of the Great Western Railway, a soldier reading a letter from home, which can be seen on Paddington station. Eric Gill's obelisk at Chirk with the carved figure of a soldier crouching under his greatcoat is a magnificent piece of artwork.

The memorial at Aberystwyth, designed by Mario Rutelli in 1923, is unusual in that it does not feature soldiers but, rather, Winged Victory on the top and the nude female figure of Humanity on the bottom. Some memorials are marked by their location, such as the isolated cross at Freshwater West in Pembrokeshire which stands high above the dunes, gazing out in solitary splendour over the Atlantic.

"War Memorials are invaluable to historians," comments Marcus Payne, "but they are also an important part of society. I look at the recent tributes to the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan in Wootton Bassett - a great tribute - and then I wonder how those men are going to be permanently remembered."

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