The Changing Role of War Memorials
The First World War was a watershed moment in history with regards to the technological strides made in the field of warfare; never before seen weaponry and engines of destruction pillaged the battlefields between 1914 and 1918, sowing death and devastation across the globe.
Through this slaughter not only were the methods of waging war forever transformed, but the aftermath meant so too were the ways in which society dealt with death and bereavement.
Though their meaning and influence may be debated in modern society, there can be no argument regarding the initial purpose of war memorials in Britain. Having suffered so grievously the general populace was in a state of mass mourning, and the erection of war memorials in civic spaces across Britain was to provide focal points for the bereaved to enact this mourning.
During and following the First World War there existed, as described by Jay Winter, a fictive kinship; those who lost loved ones shared a connection, belonging to an imagined community of the nation’s bereaved. The initial war memorials constructed from 1914 onwards often commemorated the act of enlistment, glorifying those who chose to fight for their nation. These memorials echo the past traditions of set piece warfare, battles that lasted only the better part of a day; the sentiment that it would all be over by Christmas. Once the truth of modern warfare became apparent, the long slog of a war of attrition, war memorials began to reflect reality. The extensive casualty lists of battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele destroyed the initial jingoism and enthusiasm for the war. Support for the war still existed throughout its duration, but now took the form of a stoic duty rather than an exuberant celebration.
The war memorials constructed following the First World War were collective symbols that spoke for the communities of men, women and children mourning the death of sons, husbands, brothers and fathers. These memorials expressed the sheer sadness and pain that these people were feeling, as well as demonstrating the debt that many felt they owed to the war dead; a debt that could not be properly repaid. Because of the dead’s selflessness, the living were now able to go about their lives in freedom; the greatest respect that could be paid to honour the dead was to utilise this freedom and prevent war from engulfing the nation once more.
War memorials were dedicated to the living just as much as the dead, and it is only now that the war has passed from living memory that the political symbolism that they bear has come to the fore. These war memorials are now used as central symbols for commemoration on the annual days of remembrance, instead of spaces of mourning for those who had tangible connections to the dead. In modern society the fictive kinship of the bereaved no longer exists, as anyone with a first-hand connection to the First World War has sadly passed away. The true horror and cost of the First World War was carried in the minds and hearts of the bereaved, giving real meaning to the war memorials that have outlived those they were built in service of.
Today, these memorials serve a different purpose, as focal points of national pride, showcasing patriotic rhetoric and endorsing current military campaigns.
The Liverpool Cenotaph during the Remembrance Day services, 11th November 2018 (left) and the same site just 5 days later (right), now a Christmas market. Initially war memorials such as this would be permanent sites of mourning for the bereaved, yet in the modern day their importance is focused on just a few days of the year.