New archive lists tributes to four centuries of war

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An exhaustive archive of Britain's 45,000 war memorials becomes available for public viewing today.

Academics and family-tree compilers will be able trace the names of the fallen dating back to the 17th century through the National Inventory of War Memorials at the Imperial War Museum in London. It records every known marker of national conflict, from simple wooden crosses retrieved from First World War battlefields in France to cenotaphs and inscribed sculptures for members of the armed forces killed in the Falklands and Gulf wars.

Five hundred volunteers took 12 years to complete the computer database, which aims to provide a valuable research tool for military historians and genealogists. Among the war memorials featured is the "Washington Breach" at Bristol Museum. The earliest recorded such plaque in Britain, it was erected in 1643 for those who fell in the English Civil War. Others record the fate of those who fought in the Boer, Crimean, Napoleonic and 20th-century world wars.

Nick Hewitt, the project co-ordinator, said the database's launch had been timed as a poignant precursor to Remembrance Day on Sunday. He said there had been an increasing number of calls for a comprehensive guide to the plaques, crosses and sculptures across the country, particularly after the terror attacks on America on 11 September.

He said: "We have had increased interest in memorials which commemorate the three wars in Afghanistan during the 19th and 20th century in recent times and with this database they can be referred to memorials such as the "Maiwand Lion" in Reading's Forbury Gardens, which marks the second 19th-century war against Afghanistan."

He said the museum had received a number of calls from American journalists inquiring about any memorials listed of buildings which, like the World Trade Centre, had been ravaged by attacks. One such example in the database is a ruined church that stands in Plymouth as a crumbling reminder of the Blitz.

The database, which can be viewed by appointment in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum, also provides a valuable starting point for people who are mapping out family trees. "You do not always know if the 'J Jones' listed on a war inscription is a relation but it sometimes gets you thinking and this is one way you can begin to trace relations," Mr Hewitt said.

One memorial of a soldier on a camel, at Victoria Embankment Gardens in London, commemorates the Imperial Camel Corps during the First World War campaign in the Middle East. Quirkier memorials honour the memory of animals killed in conflicts, such as a headstone in Birmingham for a pet monkey called Jacko who died of fright during a Zeppelin attack in 1917, and a sculpture in Peterborough of a donkey who was the mascot of the 1st Scottish Rifles.

Researchers did extensive fieldwork to unearth unofficial memorials that were put up spontaneously in schools, remote villages and hospitals around Britain in the aftermath of a war. The completion of the archive was helped by a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant of £156,000. The register, administered by the Imperial War Museum and English Heritage, will be updated to include modern memorials as they appear.