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.

This England - - Contents - Richard Hay­man

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.

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