Remembrance: War Memorials

Today, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I submitted my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the last of three about commemoration and remembrance.

At 11 o’clock this morning, I attended a short remembrance ceremony next to the war memorial in my college.  Like many across the country, we marked the two-minute silence for the anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Since 1945, the main official remembrance has been held on the closest Sunday to Armistice Day – i.e. Remembrance Sunday. Despite the revival of the November 11th observance, this Sunday will see the main remembrance events across the country, from Whitehall to village squares.  These events will largely focus around the local (or, in the case of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, national) war memorial.

What exactly are these war memorials for?  What do they tell us?

In his excellent play/film The History Boys, Alan Bennett has one of the teachers delivering this line:

It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

In a way, the teacher Mr Irwin is right, war memorials and commemoration are about forgetting.  Since the character is clearly based on a certain Professor Ferguson , it is not too surprising that the case is stated slightly more cynically and iconoclastically than is justified, though. It is not about ignoring the reasons for the war, but about moving on.  The idea of a site and a time in which the memory of the war and the war dead are focused in about both remembering and forgetting.
War memorials and commemoration serve to remind people who might forget about the sacrifices made for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, and the (unfortunately still present) need to provide for those who fought and fight for those freedoms. The also give those (and, more importantly, gave those in the 1920s) who struggle to get on with their lives in the wake of bereavement in war the chance to focus their grief in one location and one day, hopefully leaving them free to live their lives.


What do war memorials tell us? In France, which suffered far greater losses in both world wars, the war memorials are ‘monuments aux morts’ – monuments to the dead – whereas  French historian Annette Becker has suggested that Anglophone ‘war memorials’ are monuments to the war more broadly. Similarly American historian Jay Winter has referred to commemoration as telling the war story in its local, familial and parochial form.

This is not what war memorials as most people would understand them (i.e. war memorial monuments, or ‘useful’ memorials like cottages, playing fields and hospitals) do.  What they do is serve as a ‘surrogate grave’, a focal point for memories of the war years and of the war dead.  They do not tell us much about those years other than that this group of (usually) men did not return.  They do not tell the story of the war, but rather warn that we should not forget it, and express hope that it will not happen again (how depressing it must have been to add a second generation’s names to these monuments after 1945!). The vast majority of war memorials simply list the war dead, some list all who served (and some churches still display their wartime lists of local men who were serving, alongside their memorials to the war dead).  Beyond the death and less commonly the temporary absence of local servicemen, they do not tell the local story in most cases – although exceptions are out there, such as Colchester’s acknowledgement of the civilian war effort.  They also only rarely express what the war was fought over (or at least the wartime narrative of its purpose) – defending ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘honour’, and saving Britain from the ravages of a ‘frightful’ foe that had killed thousands of Belgian and French civilians and sent others to labour in Germany.  Our war memorials are monuments to the dead, they tell us of the men who did not return to tell their own war stories or to continue their civilian lives.  Now the war story to most people (particularly the local war story of a town or village) is these men and their deaths.

Does this matter?  Isn’t it right that we should remember these men over those who returned.  In one sense, yes, we should – they were not able to become civilians again and live out their days, so we should remember them.  There are two problems with this though. First, we forget those who fought and returned, many of them wounded physically or mentally. Second, by reducing the public story of the war to the deaths of a handful, a few thousand, or a million dead men from the local village or town or from the British Empire, we lose sight of why they fought and why those deaths were felt – at the time – to be acceptable. Without the sense that the Great War was an existential conflict fought for the future of Britain and of freedom and democracy, it seems incredible that so many lives could be sacrificed. Seeing the war as futile is a justified position, particularly since the 1920s and 30s failed to bring world peace and domestic prosperity and a Second World War followed soon after.  We should not project these ideas back to 1916 or 1918, though. The war had a very real meaning for the people who fought then, one strong enough that enormous sacrifices could be justified to win it.

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