A guest post by Sol Solntze.
In the UK, World War I memorials are all around us. They are so all around us, in fact, that it is easy to overlook them. I think that Micheal Gove certainly has, with his comments about how the emphasis on the tragedy of the First World War is a left wing conspiracy imposed on the narrative of the conflict by agenda driven historians long after the fact. On the centenary of the beginning of the World War I, perhaps it is time to think about what they can tell us about the attitudes the people who lived through the war and its aftermath had towards it.
Firstly, it is interesting to note that the Cenotaph wasn’t originally built to last. It was a temporary structure provided for the victory march to have something to salute at, the nod to those who didn’t come back intended to be just one part of the end of war celebrations. In actuality, however, it seems for the members of the public who attended the event, this acknowledgement of the glorious dead rather than of the glorious victory, of the anonymous unfortunate collective rather than the heroism of one or two great men was the highlight of the proceedings, and what kept them coming back to visit in large numbers after the parade was over. The temporary monument became permanent because of the reaction of people at the time to it.It might be easy to pass this off as the natural result of the decision not to repatriate the bodies of those who fell abroad, which left the people at home needing something other than individual grave sites to focus their grief. But that’s the point. There were, the country clearly felt, so many people that needed to be mourned. This was considered to be the aspect of the war that needed to be remembered.
The subsequent explosion of memorial building all over the country was a grass roots movement conceived of, organised by and funded by the communities in which they were placed rather than by any central authority. 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, workplace, or social activity. And there are memorials for those who fought in particular regiments or in particular battles.
There also 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. The country was in no mood to glorify this war.
But it is true that neither were they prepared to condemn it utterly. The dead themselves were very rarely portrayed directly, especially not in attitudes which bore any relation to death on the battlefield. In fact, the idealised forms of the figures of soldiers, along with an avoidance of the depiction of the realities of the fighting convey no sense of the horror of war. In addition, Christian symbolism, where it existed, showed the typical First World War soldier as a martyr, someone prepared to sacrifice himself for a just cause. 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.
This kind of thinking, and the idea, often expressed in unveiling speeches, that the sacrifices should not have been made in vain, meant that many of the 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).
Of course, the reality of the post-war depression for many people was clearly not one of experiencing ‘the land fit for heroes’ the dead had supposedly sacrificed themselves to create. In fact, the image and rhetoric surrounding the war memorials and commemoration ceremonies provided an impetus for increasing numbers of people to take a critical view of the war, war memorials, and the impact it had had. Memorials were often the focal point for protests.
Yet many aspects of the memorials actively militated against a critical perspective. There is certainly a nationalistic emphasis to them. This war (and this sacrifice) had been about fighting for ‘the King, Empire and God’. For example, 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.
Nowhere, however, is the traditional bent more evident than the way the two minutes silence was fiercely kept, even at the height of the dissatisfaction of the 1930s. Enforcement was organised both by those in positions of authority, such as the 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 be honest, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the way in which the Armistice Day commemorations took on an increasingly reverential tone is because to allow people to diss the Armistice Day ceremonials would be to admit that the deaths of loved ones had been futile. And the mere fact that war memorials were so widespread, so energetically pursued and the form which they should take often so fought over has a flavour of a nation protesting this point a little too strongly for it not to have been a subconscious niggle at the very least.
But whether you accept this or not, you cannot ignore the point that the deaths of those who took part in World War I were what contemporaries were most interested in remembering about it. That is what the British First World War memorials tell us.
Sol Solntze is a former history graduate who has a tendency to lecture her children on such fascinating topics as the history of agriculture given any provocation whatsoever. She blogs at www.kiddingherself.com
- First World War Memorial, Holborn, London – © Sol Solntze
- The Cenotaph, London – By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- War Memorial Down Ampney – © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
- The “Sentry” War Memorial by Charles Sargeant Jagger – Cnbrb at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons
- War Memorial, S & J Watts, Manchester – © Family Letters