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STUDYING WAR MEMORIALS

While some people and organisations compile lists of war memorials, others compile list of the names on them; some try to preserve them yet others continue to build ever more war memorials as if there weren’t enough of them already. War memorials are fascinating cultural objects and can reveal all sorts of interesting things about the values of the people who pay for them, the people who built them and the people that used them.

A hint of these values can be gleaned by simply looking at the memorial but a look at the newspapers of the time can also be informative, sometime revealing heated debates about the form a memorial should take. Reports of planning committees, minutes of local council meetings can be a rich source of information.

Forget about all the sentimental talk about war memorials and follow the information trail back in time. Chances are you will find a story of intrigue, of competition and money. But never forget that the names on these memorials represent wasted lives. Some of the men foolishly volunteered because they had some romantic notion about war, for some it was a way out of crippling poverty; many more were forced to join up and ordered to walk into machine gun fire but ultimately it was the national leaders that blundered into the war that caused so many memorials to be built – much as they do today.

What exactly is a war memorial?’ asks Richard Garrett in The Final Betrayal ‘Is it a massive tombstone commemorating the dead, or is it a celebration of military achievement? ‘