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The origins of war memorials

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Virtually every town in the country has one - and many villages, too. There are nearly 40,000 of them across Britain. And yet, most of us pass them by without a second glance apart, maybe, from the weeks leading up to 11 November every year. We are talking, of course, about 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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  • Comment number 1.

    I read Phil Carradice's piece on war memorials with great interest, especially his reference to the one poised on the castle grounds in Aberystwyth. It holds a commanding position looking out to sea and, as Phil rightly says, is a testament to the wisdom and imagination of the far-sighted people who commissioned such an unusual tribute in the 1920s. How tragic, and ironic, that 'the war to end all wars' proved nothing of the kind.

  • Comment number 2.

    Am I correct in thinking that the little village of Herbrandston, between Milford Haven and Dale, may be almost unique (if not unique) among our communities in that it doesn't have a war memorial - since no-one from the village lost his life in either war?

  • Comment number 3.

    That's a really interesting question - one to which I don't know the answer. Perhaps somebody out there does. One thought - would any dead from Herbrandston be commemorated on larger memorials, like the one at Milford?

  • Comment number 4.

    The fact that Herbandston had no fatalities during either war is certainly widely accepted and has recently been confirmed by the vicar, the Reverend Sian Hughes. The Squire of the Manor, Major Stokes, was among those who went to fight during the First War, when the village's population was around 300.


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