On War Memorials

For much of my life I was indifferent to war memorials. They stood there in the middle of every town and village, often useful as landmarks, but surely all more or less the same?

It was only when I started seriously studying the Great War, and especially its cultural effects, that I began to realise how very various and interesting memorials are. Some are grandiose, others simple. Some list battlefields, others just names. This one has a heroic bronze statue of a knight killing a dragon; that one shows a dead body, shrouded. This one includes the name of a woman killed making munitions. Each memorial is different, and reflects the assumptions and choices of those who arranged its erection.

During the years from 1919, committees in every town and village earnestly discussed what form their memorial should take. Should it have a statue, or be an abstract monolith? (Cost was sometimes a factor with this one.) Should its wording reflect religious sentiments, or be inclusive of those with non-Christian faiths, or with none? Look closely at a memorial, and you can decode a good deal about the community surrounding it in the early twenties. Their fate over the years often tells us something, too, about changing perceptions of the war.

Go abroad and you may find memorials that quite upend your ideas of what the war was about. It was when I went to Latvia, and in Riga saw a monument to those who died in the Great War between 1917 to 1921 that I realised quite how provincial our ideas about the war can be.

I’ve been reading an excellent book about memorials to a different war: Prisoners of History: What monuments to the Second World War tell us about our history and ourselves, by Keith Lowe.

The book discusses memorials all over the world, focusing especially on those that have caused controversy. (Most local British memorials for 1939-1945 seem to have been uncontroversial, a matter of adding more names to the existing 14-18 monument. Did this reflect the feeling that the two wars were in effect just two stages of the same struggle?)

Most memorials remember heroes or victims; the most heroic of all is the huge The Motherland Calls statue in Volgagrad (85 metres high, made with 2,500 metric tonnes of metal and 5,500 tonnes of concrete). Its scale matches that of the battle of Stalingrad, where two million men died. It was erected as an expression of Soviet power and confidence, but, as Keith Lowe says,

During the 1990s, when Russian power was crumbling, the Motherland statue also began to fall apart. Decaying pipes around the ‘Lake of Tears’ began to leak water into the hill around the statue, making the soil unstable. By the year 2000, deep cracks had begun to appear in the statue’s shoulders. A few years later, reports emerged that it was listing 20 centimetres to one side. The cash-strapped Russian government kept promising to pay for reconstruction work, but the money never arrived. Nobody knew whether this official neglect was due to Russia’s new-found poverty, or its new-found ambivalence towards its Soviet past.

Under Putin , whose nationalism has looked back to Stalin more kindly than other recent regimes, the monument has been restored. People from all over Russia come here to pay their respects to their forefathers.

Bomber Command memorial

The only British memorial the book discusses in detail is the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park. Intensive bombing, especially of civilian targets, is probably the most controversial aspect of the Allied war effort. Historians still argue about whether it was a necessary means to victory, and many argue that it constituted a war crime. The memorial was not built until 2012; among Doric columns, a group of men look up at the heavens. It is bigger than any other London memorial, which makes it seem defiant in its presentation as heroes of these men often seen as villains, even during the actual war years; the destruction of Dresden caused many moral qualms in Britain. After the war, the men of Bomber Command felt hat their achievements were being swept under the carpet as an embarrassment. It took many years before popular sentiment (encouraged by newspapers, and by nostalgia for classic war films like Reach for the Sky and The Dam Busters) demanded recognition of their service. Keith Lowe sees the seven figures represented on the monument as figurs out of their time:

They are a group of heroes who appear to have nothing heroic to do. They have finished their mission, but have been cheated of their glory, and now they merely stand there, gazing across London’s Green Park, waiting stoically to see what new disappointments might be looming on the horizon.

Some memorials reveal most by what they don’t say. The Netherlands National Monument in Amsterdam was erected in 1946. A tribute to the country’s suffering under the Occupation, it expressed its inclusiveness by including an urn of earth from each of Holland’s eleven provinces, each recalling a particular atrocity. Later a twelfth urn was added, with earth from the Dutch East Indies, in recognition of suffering there at the hands of the Japanese. This memorial to national suffering, however, made no mention of the community that had suffered most during these year – Holland’s Jews, who had accounted for half of all Dutch casualties. In Holland’s preferred myth of national endurance and resistance, the Jews had no place.

The memorial described in this book that I found most interesting was the Peace Statue in Seoul, South Korea.

During the war, many Korean men an women had been conscripted by the Japanese for industrial work, and tens of thousands of Korean women were abducted and put into brothels as ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese troops. This was a source of national shame for the Koreans, and received hardly any public mention for forty years, until, in the late eighties, the silence was broken and stories were told.The Japanese at first tried to deny everything, but more and more women from across Asia came forward to tell their stories. There was outrage in Seoul, and demands were made of the Japanese for apologies and reparations, which came grudgingly.

In 2011 this statue was erected in Seoul, opposite the Japanese Embassy. A young woman stares accusingly (but not aggressively) across at her persecutors, a permanent reminder of past misdeeds.

All war memorials, I think, have a double message. They say ‘We remember’, but also ‘You should remember.’ The typical British town and village memorials were built as expressions of community feeling, but even they have an undertone, telling non-conformists what they should be feeling about ‘The Glorious Dead’, or ‘The Fallen’ or whatever euphemism is currently in use. They define all the dead as heroes who has given their lives, diverting us from possibly remembering that some must have been as unpleasant as the bullies who made Isaac Rosenberg’s military life a misery. They tell us what to feel, not always successfully. I remember chilly November afternoons when we schoolchildren were lined up at the local war memorial while someone delivered pieties. My mood at those times was not especially pious…

‘You should remember’ is very much the tone of many Holocaust memorials. In streets in the cities of germany (and of many other nations) there are stolpersteine (stumbling stones) deliberately set in the pavement to make you walk carefully, and to remember the Jewish victims of nazism who lived near there. In some Polish towns large Holocaust memorials have been established in public squares, with the idea that locals could not ignore them, and so would be brought to a consideration of the district’s complicity in what occurred there. I have heard that the locals have often proved themselves very well able to ignore them, and to take them for granted like any other piece of street furniture, without especial reverence.

In contrast to this I think of Huddersfield, the town where I now live. Its main War memorial is a large Greek-columned edifice in a park (the wording on which is interestingly minimal, perhaps as a way of making it acceptable to both militarists and pacifists, both of which were plentiful in the town in the 1920s.) There is no official memorial in the town centre, so locals sometimes co-opt something to act as one. In the middle of town there is a market cross, which has found many uses in its time. Emmeline Pankhurst spoke from its steps, for example, and a rather sad man was preaching for Jesus there the other week. In November it attracts small crosses with poppies, and sometimes larger floral tributes. When the soldier Lee Rigby was murdered in a terrorist attack a few years back, there were a large number of bouquets and messages placed there by people who wanted to state their strong feelings publicly. Occasions do not need to be war-related, though. A couple of years back there was a distressing controversy about whether a young boy should be removed from a life-support machine. Messages in his support found their home on the market cross. So where in Poland memorials can be relegated to street-furniture by those who do not want to hear their message, in Huddersfield mere street furniture is given a more dignified role when emotions run high.

Which is a digression from Keith Lowe’s excellent book. So I’ll end by just saying that it is highly recommended.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    More good reading – thank you!

    The Wagoners’ Memorial in Sledmere is well worth the detour:


    ‘…It stands 6 feet (1.8 m) high, with an octagonal plinth of five steps leading up to squat stone column of Portland stone, with stone carvings, with conical canopy and pinnacle, once topped by a cross (now lost). The central column is surrounded by four narrower columns, supporting a carved entablature, and inscription on the frieze. The masonry was built by Alfred Barr and the naive art sculptures made by Carlo Domenico Magnoni, curving around a central column in three sections, similar to Trajan’s Column, showing scenes from the history of the Wagoners, from Sykes enlisting them, through them being called up, travelling to France, and graphic scenes of conflict. It was described by Pevsner as “curiously homely”. The memorial is also inscribed with a five-verse poem in the local dialect….’

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    The last time we were in Sankt Pölten in Lower Austria, waiting four hours for a train transfer, I was immensely struck by three memorials:

    a] A large WW1 memorial on the wall in a central street with dozens and dozens of names, just like ours – except they’d died on the Eastern Front in Galicia and Russia and Slovenia. You had to picture mountainous or snow-bound scenes unlike the Somme but just as cruel.

    b] A list of names outside the site of the former synagogue of those families who’d been taken away and murdered. Hitler was born only 200 km away.

    c] A small plaque in the station commemorating the railwaymen who’d been executed as members of the resistance, an always necessary reminder that Austria’s is not a simple story of evil compliance or innocent victimhood but something altogether more difficult to imagine and grasp.

    I’m still absorbing the brief history lesson.

  3. Paul Norman
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    Looks interesting. I am reminded of ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning’ by Jay Winter which has a long and very interesting chapter on WW1 memorials.

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