Remembering Tommy A tour of England’s war memorials
Richard Hayman takes a tour of war memorials dedicated to the brave British soldiers who fought and died for their country.
WHEN the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, the long years of remembrance began. WWI was different from any previous conflict, because for the first time in British history, the casualties of war belonged to a citizen army.
This time a conscious effort was made to recover the bodies of the dead, to identify them and to give them a dignified and personal burial, whatever their rank.
British Tommies were laid to rest in foreign fields, and a decision was made to discourage repatriating the dead to their home parish, a practice that would only have been possible for the well-off. It meant that the men who died together were buried together.
Many men had no known grave, however, including those lost at sea.
When the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) was founded in 1917, one of its priorities was to build monuments to the missing.
Well-tended cemeteries and monuments run like a ribbon through Belgium and France, but that was little comfort to the wives and mothers who wanted a grave they could tend and visit. That need was answered by the erection of local war memorials.
War memorials were not new. They had been erected in honour of great victories against Napoleon’s France, for example, but these were celebrated as triumphs, not remembered as sacrifices.
As the reach of Britain’s empire increased in the nineteenth century, so it was drawn into conflicts on various fronts.
Memorials honoured the dead of these conflicts, such as the Indian Mutiny (1857-58) and the Crimean War (185356), and especially the Boer War (18991902), but the death toll in 1914-18 was unprecedented. More British soldiers died on the first day of the battle of the Somme than in the entire Boer War.
After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission encouraged the erection of local war memorials. Local committees were set up to raise funds, commission a memorial and find a suitable site where it could be installed.
The result is that nearly every village, town and city in England has a monument to the First World War, and many places have several.
There are civic memorials, but also workplace memorials (to railway workers or postal workers, for example), school and college memorials commemorating alumni, regimental memorials and private individual memorials. A lot of them are no more than a simple plaque on a building that we all pass on a daily basis without noticing.
The form that war memorials take varies a lot. There are crosses, obelisks, sculptures of servicemen or classical figures and various types of utilitarian buildings from memorial halls to hospitals and churchyard lychgates.
Leading sculptors of Edwardian Britain, such as Albert Toft (1862-1949) and Adrian Jones (1845-1938), enjoyed extended later careers as they were kept in business by town and village committees, although most rural communities were constrained by their budget and opted for something more modest.
There were standard models that
parishes could copy. They included the cenotaph of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Celtic crosses and the “Cross Of Sacrifice” designed by Reginald Blomfield.
Various common phrases were used on the memorials, one of the best known of which is the biblical quotation “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”, which was suggested by Rudyard Kipling.
Most list the names of the dead, sometimes saying where they fell; others provide a roll of honour that lists all of the men from a parish that served in the conflict.
In these simple but poignant memorials in quiet churchyards, crossroads and village greens, the great trauma of the twentieth century is brought home to just about every community in the land.
There is a marked lack of triumphalism in remembering a war that was such a qualified victory, and nothing like the clear-cut victory of 1945.
The Cenotaph in Whitehall by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a simple abstract monument that is elegiac rather than triumphant, caught the mood of a nation determined never to forget.
This was a war fought by “Everyman”, and so it is fitting that the focus of many memorials is just such a figure: a private soldier.
Dead soldiers are sometimes listed on memorials not by rank, but in alphabetical order. After all, shrapnel was no respecter of rank and the public-school-educated officer class bore its share of the losses with the labouring Tommies.
In death everybody became gruesomely equal, a fact emphasised by the standardised gravestones of the War Graves Commission.
The figure of Tommy on war memorials shows him to be the hero of the war, but rarely is he portrayed in triumph over the enemy.
In many cases his rifle is pointing downward in a gesture of reflection, or he is shown in the heat of battle, in a manner that tries to convey the sweat and toil of trench warfare.
The overriding theme is mourning for the loss of a generation of mainly young men.
The sense of victory is portrayed discreetly on war memorials by means of allegorical female figures, or saints slaying dragons.
Although the infantryman is the focus of many memorials, the contribution and sacrifice made by other services was not forgotten.
Aircraft flew from the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy endured heavy losses at Jutland, and merchant seamen also perished from attacks by enemy submarines.
During the war, the first Zeppelin air raids had brought civilian casualties – a new experience for Britons, and for women in particular.
All of them were commemorated in some way (and even the downed Zeppelin crews are commemorated in the Germany military cemetery in Staffordshire).
The hope that 1918 signalled the end of the war to end all wars was sadly unfulfilled.
Names from WWII were added to these memorials and read like a postscript to the same conflict, which is perhaps what they were.
Stop and read the lists of names and it brings home the scale of the tragedy as you try to figure out which of the Downes, Sidebottom or Robson soldiers were brothers or cousins.
It is a sobering thought.
The war memorial in Shrewsbury is like a mini classical temple, sheltering the figure of St Michael.
A small bronze relief from the base of the Grade II listed war memorial at Sevenoaks in Kent, designed by Walker of Chelsea. The scene details a wartime scene in the life of the Royal Air Force.
For the memorial at East Brent in Somerset, four men stand at the base of a cross, to commemorate each of the services: soldier, airman, sailor and merchant seaman.
Port Sunlight war memorial in Cheshire, with sculpture by Sir William Goscombe John, commemorates men of the Lever Brothers soap factory.
The city of Birmingham constructed a “hall of memory” to remember the fallen, which features sculptures by Albert Toft, who had previously provided the figure of the city’s Boer War memorial. Here, a seated figure with capstan represents the Naval services.
The Royal Gloucestershire Hussars yeomanry has its own war memorial outside Gloucester Cathedral. It has bronze relief panels by Adrian Jones that commemorate the campaigns it fought in.
Soldier and sailor unfurl a standard in a sculpture by James Beresford on the war memorial in Cannock in Staffordshire.
Adrian Jones provided the sculpture of Tommy for the war memorial in Bridgnorth, Shropshire.
Sandon memorial in Staffordshire stands prominently by the main road, and has a sculpture by Albert Toft, showing an infantryman at ease. Twenty-three men of the Sandon estate died in the First World War.
William Goscombe John’s sculptures on the Port Sunlight war memorial include all the services, including this lifelike Lewis gunner.