By Keith Jeffery, Professor of Modern History, University of Ulster
Scattered in cities, towns and villages in Ireland (and lots of other places around the world) are war memorials. Often in a prominent, central position, sometimes neglected and sometimes treasured, they commemorate those who served and died in the World Wars and other conflicts of the twentieth century. Although in Britain and Ireland there are some memorials to earlier conflicts (such as the Crimean War, 1850-54, and the South African War, 1899-1902), the very great majority of war memorials date from the First World War of 1914-18 and they were mostly first erected in the years immediately following the war.
They exist for two reasons.
First, the casualties were so high, so many people died, that groups and communities felt compelled to mark their loss, and the sacrifice of so many young people, in some permanent public way. The Great War was the first ‘total’ war in which the United Kingdom was engaged. In previous wars quite large numbers of men had volunteered to fight, but nothing on the scale of 1914-18. The British army in the South African War, for example, numbered about 500,000, with 22,000 fatal casualties, while in the First World War, 5,700,000 people were mobilised in the armed services, of whom over 800,000 were killed or died of wounds. In the UK, there was a ‘nation-in-arms’ for the very first time, underpinned by conscription (compulsory military service) in England, Scotland and Wales (though not in Ireland).
The second reason for the war memorials comes from the decision made early in the war that war dead should be buried on the battle zone itself, close to where they fell. The principle established by what became the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was that equality of sacrifice should be matched by equality of treatment. Rich families, who could afford to do so, would not be allowed to bring their fallen home, nor would there be any differentiation in treatment between officers and men. Thus emerged the series of peaceful and beautiful war cemeteries along the line of the Western Front in Belgium, France and elsewhere, with their ranks of matching white Portland stone headstones marking permanently that admirable equality of treatment.1 But there was a further problem. At the end of the war the Commission calculated that almost half of the dead had no identifiable grave or were simply ‘missing’. In the war cemeteries one frequently comes across a headstone with the inscription ‘Known unto God’, and the unidentified are commemorated by name on a number of ‘Memorials to the Missing’, including, for example, the great Thiepval memorial on the Somme with 70,000 names, and the Menin Gate at Ypres with 54,000 names. These are, certainly, fine and appropriate monuments, but they are far from home and difficult for relatives to visit. Desiring some specific place to commemorate, and mourn, their dead, relatives warmly supported the idea of a local war memorial, which could represent the loved one’s actual gravestone. In this way, war memorials become substitute, or surrogate, headstones, where the dead were symbolically placed at the centre of their own community.