November 11th 1920. The Cenotaph was unveiled to the British public. It stands in Whitehall, as the national War Memorial for the United Kingdom. Just a year before on the Peace Day Celebrations, Edwin Lutyens erected a temporary wooden memorial in the same place, as a representation of those whose bodies remain elsewhere. From that point, Lutyens’ Cenotaph transformed from wood to Portland and became a focal point of national grief for the thousands who lost loved ones during the 1914-1918 war. Even today, the Cenotaph’s non-denominational form has ensured its relevance to all the dead of the British Empire and its universal message of grief and human cost of victory,
resonates amongst modern audiences.
The Cenotaph embodied a place of mourning, and this filtered out around the United Kingdom in the 1920s. The “de-centering of the war memorials” redefined the landscape of cities, towns and villages, as every community from Northern Ireland and Scotland, and all but a few parishes in England and Wales lost someone in the war. In a great age of memorial building, the local sites allowed individual grief to be transformed into “public mourning of the dead as the nation tried to accept the brutal facts of death in war”. Coupled with the official policy of not repatriating the dead, memorialisation catered to the nation’s process of grief.
The memorials were locally funded and overseen by a local committee, who would decide what form the memorial would take, where it would be located, and who would be commemorated on it. Some committees limited commemoration to those killed or even to those who returned. Whilst some committees were flexible to individual requests, there was no central list of casualties for each area, “information had to be collected door-to-door or by post, through Church or local press announcements, or by word of mouth”. The public naming of the local war dead, in familiar spaces – village greens, local churches, school halls, university cloisters – was a testament to the memory of the dead “with the homes and institutions they had sought to defend”.
It is estimated that there are over 100,000 war memorials in the United Kingdom, that range from crosses, obelisks, statues, gardens, or benches and they commemorate individuals, regiments, members of local communities or school alumni. A memorial in St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Middleton-on-the-Hill, is included in the 100,000. The stone memorial, topped by a lantern, is unique as it commemorates all those who went to fight, but all came home. This is known as a ‘Thankful Village’. It is believed that just over 50 parishes in England and Wales had all their men returned. The memorial in Middleton-on-the-Hill is one of thanks, as it reads “A thank offering to Almighty God, “At evening time it shall be light”, for the safe return of all men from this parish, who fought in the Great War”. This parish is one of 14 ‘Doubly Thankful Villages’ as all their men returned safely from the Second World War too.
Those villages were lucky to be thankful, as some communities unimaginably suffered. In July 1916 “a blackout descended” across Accrington, as “720 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack on July 1st, 584 were killed, wounded or missing”. 1 st July was a day that stuck with Accrington, when on 1 st July 1922, 15,000 mourners listened to the Last Post, as the 60ft obelisk with a sculpture of a maternal figure mourning the 865 Accrington men, looked down on them”. The memorial preserves the memory of these men, “originally erected to meet a dire emotional need that can remain even after those who put it up have gone”, and today we can feel the intensely strong emotional relationship embedded within the memorial.
The astounding entity of war memorials is that not one is the same to the other. The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment War Memorial has been the focal point of the Westfield Village since August 1926. The memorial shows “a soldier giving a drink to a distressed comrade” and this is significant to the village it stands in . Westfield Village was founded of 30 homes in 1924 by public and individual subscription to provide accommodation and employment for disabled veterans- primarily from the King’s Own Royal Lancaster regiment. The sculptor Jennie Delahunt wanted the memorial “to capture the ethos of the village- the able helping the less able”. Even today the village provides a home for ex-servicemen.
As no memorials are the same in shape, they all share a poignant emotional meaning attributed to them. In Loughborough, the Carillon Tower War Memorial was built between 1922 and 1923, by John Taylor & Company, who had lost three men in their family. It is a rare sonic memorial, with 47 bells, each creating a different note on the musical scale. The bells are inscribed with the names of fallen, with the largest bell – the Taylor bell- a memorial to the three Taylor’s inscribed upon it: “in proud and loving memory of three nephews killed in action in France”.
In Oxfordshire, a rare private memorial to Harold and Edward Price, was created by their sister Lady Stretta Holland in February. Edward was a submariner in the Royal Navy and was captured in April 1915, after the British Naval Fleet failed passage through the Darenelles. He died a prisoner-of-war in Baghdad 1916. Harold fought at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914, he managed to bring home a brass numeral from the destroyed Cloth Hall clock tower. He died after a gas attack in the Second Battle of Ypres. Lady Holland organised for a monolith of local Cotswold stone to be hauled by a team of 18 horses and Harold’s Cloth Hall numeral was embedded in the stone, with an inscription honouring the brothers’ lives.
In Bungay, Suffolk, they decided to commemorate the 101 men who died, in a unique way. It was decided that new street signs “in honour of the peace and as an act of remembrance” would be commissioned. Locally cast by Harry Rumsby’s Ironworks & Foundry, the identical white with black lettering signs can spot at least 32 signs around Bungay. From the flat Suffolk lands, to England’s highest peak, war memorials can be found. The summit of Scafell Pike was presented to the National Trust as a war memorial in 1919 by Lord Leconfield, who served in the 1st Life Guards and own significant land in the then Cumberland. Set in the wall of the summit shelter, a plaque reads, “in perpetual memory of the men of the Lake District who fell for God and King, for freedom, peace and right in the Great War 1914-1918”.
Today in 2020, as we drive through our villages or towns, walk the dog through a park, go to Church, or school, “the local memorials of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still stand witness and testify the loss of life in the war; materially and psychologically this is a war that is still lived with”. Take a moment of your day, go and read their names. Keep them alive in thought as they are kept memorialised.
This article was written for the Great War Group magazine Salient Points, November 2020