Atrocity Memorial

atrocity memorial

This is one of the carvings on the war memorial at Sledmere in north-east Yorkshire. It’s the only memorial I’ve come across that shows a scene like this – an unpleasant-looking German soldier deliberately setting fire to a church.

The memorial is to the local Waggoners Reserve. Sir Mark Sykes, a local landowner and M.P. who had served in the Boer War, realised that there would be a large demand for horse-drawn transport in wartime, and in 1912 recruited local farmworkers, on a retainer of fifteen shillings a year, to be a reserve transport unit. They seem to have been given no military training, but were chosen as men good with horses. You can see something about their war service here.

After the war, Sir Mark, a skilled amateur cartoonist, designed the memorial, which included scenes of the Waggoners at home and at war, as well as the atrocity scenes. You can see more of the carvings here.

I don’t know what the reaction to the memorial was in 1919 when it was erected, but in 1938 there was controversy, when the German consul at Liverpool expressed disquiet at the display of such scenes. (And yes, when one considers how the Germans were behaving in 1938, one’s irony-meter is already working overtime.) Here’s the Times report:

sledmere times

The thing is, this memorial does seem to be unique. Just about every other one was dignified and neutral in tone, with a sad, or proud or steadfast figure, perhaps, or (most commonly) just a plain abstract obelisk.

Why are there not more memorials that show clearly what people thought they were fighting against? Was it a matter of good taste, and a desire to avoid any kind of triumphalism, or any hint of knocking an enemy when he was down?

Or is this the exception because it was the brainchild of one man (the individualistic Sir Mark) while others are blander because they are the product of committees?

The image at the top of this post is from a postcard given to me by the War Memorials Trust, who had a stand at the Commemoration and Memory conference at the Imperial War Museum North last week. It was a most stimulating conference. Maybe I’ll write more about it later.


  1. Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Very interesting, as Jessica tweeted. In Belgium I’v only seen dignified memorials. Wonder if the Commonwealth War Graves Commission agreed with other national agencies that dignity and forgiveness where possible was to be the norm in art memorialising war?

    • Posted March 3, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps a factor at Sledmere was that Sir Mark died in 1919, before the memorial was erected. There must have been a strong desire to honour his original plan, whatever qualms others might have had about the appropriateness of the designs.
      Here’s a picture of Sir Mark Sykes – who is, of course, most notable for his part in the Sykes-Picot agreement in the Middle East – a division of the territories from which the world is still suffering today.
      mark sykes

      • Bill
        Posted March 4, 2016 at 1:39 am | Permalink

        Amongst other achievements, Sir Mark is also credited in some versions as designing the still used flag of Palestine, although I think he intended it as a more comprehensive Arab symbol (“Black fess for the Abbasids of Baghdad, white for the Omayyads of Damascus, green for the Alids of Kerbela, and red chevron for Mudhar heredity.”)

  2. Posted March 4, 2016 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    The Centre Block on Canada’s Parliament Hill is a memorial “of the valour of those Canadians who in the Great War fought for the liberties of Canada, of the empire and of humanity.” The original building was razed in a fire 100 years ago and rebuilding started during the war. The Memorial Chamber and other commemorations are moving tributes to the human cost of war. But the stonecarvers of a small, often overlooked element of the building – a Vimy Ridge memorial – took up the theory that German spies were behind the fire. Carvings include a masked German spy and Kaiser Wilhelm. Best photos I’ve found are here:

  3. Posted May 16, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just come across this in Arnold Bennett’s journal for 1917, about a dinner at the Carlton Club:

    Sir Mark Sykes the most interesting man there. he did a very original caricature of F. E. Smith and me. I heard he was the best amateur actor in England. He certainly has brains, and political brains.

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