Podium: The iconography of war memorials

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The Independent Culture
Alex King

From a paper read by the Victoria and Albert Museum historian at the London School of Economics

GEORGE MOSSE'S book Fallen Soldiers deals with the way the memory of the Great War was reshaped by a mixture of commercialisation and commemoration. He argues that the memory of the Great War was reshaped by a combination of trivialisation through commercialism and entertainment, and sanctification through commemoration, which, together, "masked" war's true nature.

The killing, destruction, maiming and bereavement was evacuated from the public awareness of the war, and a space left which was then filled with positive, consolatory ideas. These ideas represent the war experience as the pursuit of ethical goals, as if it had been a sacred task set for the community which engaged in it. This community was predominantly defined by its nationality, as the war had been organised nationally. Death in this sacred task became a virtuous and valued act of sacrifice.

Memorials were sites where this understanding of the slaughter of war as transcendent sacrifice for the nation was given a lasting expression, and so became the shrines of what Mosse calls the "civic religion of nationalism".

Mosse sees the reshaped memory of the war as a myth. It is a myth of the sacred pursuit, through trials and suffering, of the people's - that is, the nation's - self-fulfilment.

By contrast, Samuel Hynes has identified a quite different reshaping process, ending in a different myth, in his A War Imagined, which is a study of the impact of the First World War on British culture. This was a reshaping in which the belligerent and nationalist attitudes of wartime propaganda became the revulsion against war that was so widespread in Britain in the later Twenties and Thirties.

The iconography of war memorials is generally limited. Either it relies on conventional treatment of conventional themes, or it makes a virtue of an almost mute simplicity of form. It is this reticence in the imagery that has led to the accusation that memorials misrepresent the "reality" of war.

The memorial cross at Brancepeth, County Durham is a very conventional piece of church Gothic by WH Wood of Newcastle upon Tyne, a local architect whose practice was very much involved with the Church. At its unveiling in 1921, the officiating clergyman said this: "...a cross reminded them of the horrors and the wickedness of war, and helped them to the declaration `never again will the earth be blasted by this terrible curse'".

At the unveiling ceremony for Leeds city war memorial, in 1921, the Dean of the Roman Catholic cathedral prayed that it may "...serve to fill us with a horror of war".

For many people - though certainly not all - acknowledgement of what war really had been like was a principal factor in their understanding and interpretation of memorials to the dead.

Usually, the sentiments expressed in these circumstances were fairly uncontentious. But sometimes they could be a good deal more partisan. The London Brighton and South Coast Railway memorial at Victoria station, unveiled in 1921, is simply a large bronze panel bearing a list of names. Apart from that, it has no imagery to speak of. The company chairman, who was unveiling it, used the occasion to pronounce judgement on the meaning of all memorials:

"These memorials are, in a higher sense, not for them but for us, to bid us be conscious of our trust and mindful of our duty. What are this trust and duty? Are they not the trust and duty we owe to our country." That sounds like nationalist talk.

As far as Germany is concerned, building memorials to the dead of the Great War seems to have got off to a slow start. There is some evidence that deep divisions in local politics frequently prevented memorials being built until the end of the Twenties, and it has been suggested that many local memorials were completed only after the Nazis put an end to democratic local politics after 1933.

Richard Bessel says, in his book on Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, that there was no lack of anti-war feeling in Germany at that time. It is interesting that this feeling seems never to have informed the commemoration of the war dead as it did in Britain and, according to Antoine Prost, also in France.

If, as Mosse says, a masking of the true nature of war did take place, and a thoroughly nationalist cult of the dead developed as a result, it is in the institutional context of war commemoration that we should seek the reason. We should look at how the memorials were built and by whom, how interpretations circulated and how the world of local political activism was organised.