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How Have War Memorials Changed Over Time And What Does This Tell Us About Wider Societal Attitudes To The Commemoration Of Warfare And Its Victims?

3838 words - 16 pages

The twentieth century, the century of total war, of industrial warfare and of conscript armies, has left behind survivors and later generations who engage time and again in memorialisation and acts of remembrance as commemoration. In combatant countries there is a proliferation of memorials; memorial gates, memorial halls, memorial hospitals, memorial clocks. And of course the ubiquitous monumental masonry as obelisks and statues, plinths and columns scattered across the landscape. In Australia alone around 4,000 memorials exist; there are over 36,000 in the towns and villages of France and a further 40,000 scattered the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Frequently people pass ...view middle of the document...

King outlines two purposes of commemoration commonly discussed by commentators. The first purpose concurs with Mayo - “affirmation and propagation of political ideas about wars and the nations which fight them.” The second purpose “the need to express and resolve emotional traumas caused by war” applies to individual mourners and veterans as much as to groups. This paper will consider both purposes.

These definitions make it clear that a successful ‘reading’ of a war memorial occurs within the context of the prevailing social attitudes of the time the memorial was constructed. Heathcote makes the point that a memorial “contains within it not only the superficial gesture towards remembrance and the dead but a wealth of information about the priorities, politics and sensibilities of those who built it.” He goes on, “a memorial will tell us more about its builders than about those to whom it is dedicated.”

A brief initial survey of warfare and memorialisation during the 19th century provides a background for understanding 20th century practices. The 19th century focused on the heroes of warfare. Significant monuments in London include Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square memorialising Horatio Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar. Wellington Arch, a triumphal statement was built to commemorate England’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars. And there is Cleopatra’s Needle commemorating Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1819. Across the Channel in Paris the Arc de Triomphe was commissioned to celebrate Napoleon’s victories in 1805. And in Berlin the Victory Column stands tall. All of these memorials offer triumphalist nationalist messages. And through them the leaders in battle are elevated to the status of national heroes, heroic figures of action, equated with the patriotic fervour of the time.

These 19th century memorials offered no memory of the ordinary soldier. At Waterloo on June 18th Wellington lost fifteen thousand men but no names of ordinary soldiers are recorded. Forty-five thousand died in the Crimean War from battles and disease. They were “shovelled into the ground and so forgotten” as Thackeray recorded it. These soldiers were packed into common unmarked graves, a common funerary practice among poorer people at the time. Oblivion reached ludicrous heights in the Second Afghan War after the Battle of Maiwand when 962 officers and men were buried with a single marker whilst a pet dog of the regiment that survived was invited to Osborne House where he was awarded a medal by Queen Victoria. The stuffed body of “Bobbie” of the Royal Berkshires remains preserved in the regimental museum.

By the end of the 19th century we begin to see a shift away from the lionising of the heroes of war towards recognition of the individual soldier. This coincides with the emergence of the nation state and the involvement of ordinary citizens as volunteers in armed forces. The Boer...

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