By November 1920, some ‘three millions of money‘ had been spent on ‘memorials of various kinds and designs…in the United Kingdom,’ as reported the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald. In today’s money, that’s roughly £87,000,000 – the equivalent of £2 donated by every person in Britain.
The strength of the nation’s desire to remember their war dead is manifested in these memorials, as the population struggled to come to terms with the great losses suffered during the First World War, in which 744,000 men lost their lives in the course of military and naval action.
And over a hundred years later, we don’t have an exact count of how many war memorials were erected across the United Kingdom, but estimates put the figure at around 100,000. Every community had a place of remembrance, all across the nation’s towns, villages, and suburbs, which were most often paid for by the local people themselves, via subscription funds and donations.
So in this special blog, we will take a look at how a nation remembered, and why the war memorial was chosen to enact this task. We will look at the generosity of the local communities who funded the building of such memorials, and at the moving unveiling ceremonies that often marked a poignant outpouring of grief, remembrance and celebration. And finally, we will look at the legacy of these war memorials, and how communities intended them to be viewed by future generations, all using newspaper pages taken from The Archive.
Top tip: to discover more about the history of your local war memorial, try searching the name of your locality coupled with the word ‘memorial,’ between the years 1918 and 1925.
‘A Place of Reverence’
Almost as soon as the Armistice was signed, a need to remember those who had given their lives during the past four years of conflict, the ‘war to end all wars,’ became apparent.
At the opening of the Drumchapel war memorial, Glasgow, in November 1920 the Reverend J.H. Dickie told the gathered crowd:
Immediately the Great War was won we discovered that there was a strong desire in the community to perpetuate the memory of those who gave their lives for our lives, homes, and liberties. A public meeting of the parishioners was called, and a widespread and hearty response was at once forthcoming.
Local communities rallied into action, with public meetings being held across the country to discuss what form their remembrance should take. Here is an account of one such meeting in County Antrim, March 1919, from the Ballymoney Free Press and Northern Counties Advertiser:
The provision of a war memorial in honour of the men from the town and district who fought in the great campaign of 1914-18, and especially to commemorate the sacrifice made by those who sealed their patriotism with their lives, was discussed at a largely-attended public meeting in the Town Hall, Portrush, on Friday Evening.
Many people from the town turned out, demonstrating this ‘strong desire’ to remember, but for some communities, it was undecided as to what form this remembrance should take. For example, the ‘War Memorial Scheme for Ollerton,’ a town in Nottinghamshire, had several ideas for what their memorial should be. Ideas included ‘a Parish Institute, drinking fountain, stained glass window in the Parish church, and the erection of a monument,’ as details the Mansfield Reporter.
…wondered what form the memorial should take. At one time, he inclined towards a building, at another, towards a fine piece of statuary. His difficulty was that if a building were put down, what were they to use it for?
Fellow committee member Mr. T. Delgaty Dunn suggested the ‘idea of a shrine,’ whilst Mr. Stewart Carmichael ‘put forward the idea of a triumphal arch, an arch such as the Arc de Triomphe in the Champs d’Elysees in Paris.’ Whatever form the memorial took, however, it would be a ‘place of reverence,’ and the place for it was chosen, namely Melville House, which was ‘unanimously approved’ at the meeting.
At the same time, other communities looked at more practical ways of remembering their war dead. In August 1922 the West Sussex Gazette reported how a memorial subscription on the Isle of Wight had raised £500 for the ‘endowment of a bed at the Royal Isle of Wight County Hospital,’ as well as raising £1,350 for a war memorial. When the Marquis of Carisbrooke, who had lost ‘his own brother in France,’ unveiled the memorial, he ‘commended the memorial committee for their efforts to alleviate sickness and suffering in their project for honouring the glorious dead.’
Meanwhile, most communities had decided on what form their remembrance would take. At Ollerton, as details the Mansfield Reporter, a war memorial was settled on, after a local peer donated a piece of ground for the construction of the memorial.
‘Big Schemes’ and ‘Most Generous’ Donations
And so, with the war memorial chosen by many communities as their locus of remembrance, funds now had to be raised in order for them to be built.
In Ollerton, the sum needed was put at £200, or about £5,000 today, and as the Mansfield Reporter relates, a committee was established ‘for the purpose of collecting subscriptions for the purpose of a memorial.’ Meanwhile, a ‘big scheme’ was adopted in the parish of Branksome, a suburb of Poole, as reports the Bournemouth Guardian:
Big proposals for a war memorial scheme for the parish of All Saints with St. Aldhelm’s, Branksome, were put forward on Wednesday evening at a parish meeting held in St. Aldhelm’s Schoolroom. The schemes suggested were for the placing of two memorials in each church containing the names of the fallen parishioners and members of the congregation, and the erection of a parish hall and gymnasium, which the Vicar (the Rev. Cannon Macleane) mentioned may cost about £6,000. Both schemes were approved by the meeting.
This indeed was a ‘big scheme,’ the required funds equalling about £174,000 today. But the response to this call for funds was wholehearted, as people gave generously in order to remember those who had lost their lives during the First World War.
Indeed, the Reverend J.H. Dickie, speaking at the unveiling of the war memorial in Drumchapel, Glasgow, praised the local community for their generosity, as reports the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald, 5 November 1920:
I am glad to be able to say that response to the memorial fund from the people of Drumchapel has been most generous.
And by the end of 1920, communities were still continuing their fundraising efforts. The Kirkcaldy War Memorial Committee advertised in the Fife Free Press, & Kirkcaldy Guardian a ‘Renewed Appeal for Funds,’ detailing two different plans for situating their war memorial. The Committee was hoping to raise £10,000 total for their memorial scheme, nearly £300,000 today, and had already raised £7,000 for the purpose. However, they were intent on reaching their target, as to ‘enable the Memorial to be carried out in a manner worthy of its object.’
The ‘Saddest and Greatest Day’
With so much effort going into the creation of war memorials across the country, the day of their unveiling was set to be a poignant moment.
Let’s travel back to August 1919, to the unveiling of Footdee’s war memorial in Aberdeen. What is perhaps striking to us now is that these unveiling ceremonies did not necessarily take place on Remembrance Day in November, demonstrating that the need to remember was not confined to any particular date.
Footdee’s war memorial, which ‘stands on Porca Quay’ at 22 feet high, as describes the Aberdeen Weekly Journal, was placed as to overlook ‘the harbour entrance channel.’ On the white granite memorial there was a depicted ‘a Gordon highlander facing the land, and…a seaman, representative of the Naval Forces, looking out to sea,’ whilst it was inscribed with these words:
Erected by the inhabitants of Footdee and friends as a lasting token of thanks to the sailors and soldiers of the district who gave their ungrudging service, and in grateful memory of those who gave their all. 1914 1919. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Indeed, of the 160 Footdee men who enlisted, 27 ‘made the supreme sacrifice,’ and they were honoured at the August ceremony, where:
In honour of the occasion, banners were hung across New Pier Road, and naval emblems were displayed around the monument, at the base of which were placed several beautiful wreaths. In front of the platform, a body of sailors and soldiers were drawn up two deep, under Mr George Baxter and Captain Trail respectively.
The last post was played, ‘a ceremony profoundly affecting in its touching memories, many of the women being in tears.’
Such emotion was played out at unveiling ceremonies across the United Kingdom. At the unveiling of the Drumchapel war memorial in December 1920, Captain A.J. Campbell-Colquhoun spoke these moving words, as reports the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald:
This is a sad and solemn moment. We feel full of sorrow and sympathy for those to whom these sad losses have come. We grieve that these brave men were taken in the flower of their youth.
Meanwhile, the Marquis of Granby unveiled the war memorial at Rowsley, a village in Derbyshire, noting how he had been in the village just as the war began, and how he had ‘little thought’ of the ‘most important and pathetic’ duty he was now called upon to perform. His speech is detailed in the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal, February 1921:
But it has so happened, and although it is a very sad and solemn moment and one that I shall always remember, I am particularly glad to be here amongst you to day to unveil this monument, and to pay tribute in the best and most fitting way to those Rowsley friends and comrades who have through their courage and patriotism, finished their lives on this earth. They are not to be pitied to my way of thinking – as they have achieved their greatest and most glorious action, and are now happy.
Indeed, alongside the sense of mourning, there is a sense of celebration, in remembering the heroism of those who lost their lives. It makes for difficult reading today, that these fallen men were considered to be ‘happy,’ but this was part of the grief process, to picture the ‘glorious dead’ as beyond worldly suffering.
This was a sentiment echoed at the unveiling of the war memorial at Littleborough, a town near Rochdale. The Rochdale Times in 1922 reports on how the ceremony was attended by a ‘large crowd of sympathetic spectators,’ a ‘fitting background’ being provided by the ‘everlasting hills.’ A hundred ex-Service men were in attendance, accompanied by the ‘near relatives of the men who fell in the war.’
They were addressed by Justice of the Peace Mr. E.B. Clegg, a chairman of the war memorial committee, who expressed his:
…great honour to have been asked to take part in what was the saddest and yet the greatest day, he thought, in the history of Littleborough – the saddest because their hearts were filled with sorrow at the remembrance of their relatives, their men and their neighbours, whose names were inscribed on the tablets of the memorial, and the greatest because their hearts were filled with pride that in the terrible testing days of the great war the men of Littleborough did their part and did it nobly.
‘Tangible and Lasting’
And of course, the war memorials that were erected across the United Kingdom were intended to be a lasting focus of remembrance, and we still gather at them today every Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday in order to remember all those who have lost their lives due to conflict. But how did people at the time think war memorials would and should be viewed in the coming years?
The Reverend J.S. Pyper, addressing a meeting at Portrush, County Antrim, hoped that the memorial would be ‘looked upon with dim eyes and feelings of swelling pride by present and succeeding generations,’ as reports the Ballymoney Free Press and Northern Counties Advertiser in March 1919.
Meanwhile the Reverend J.H. Dickie, speaking at the unveiling of the Drumchapel war memorial, also had an eye on future generations, as records the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald:
The memorial is designed to keep those men in everlasting remembrance…And I would only add that my advice to the young people of this district is this: Every time you look upon this memorial call to mind the heroism of those who gave their lives for you, for there is no doubt but for them and their comrades we would not be standing here to-day.
At the same ceremony, Captain A.J. Campbell-Colquhoun spoke of the ‘tangible and lasting memorial’ which had been erected to commemorate the fourteen men of the area who had lost their lives, out of a population of 750. In three Drumchapel households, ‘two members made the supreme sacrifice.’
The losses of the First World War were all pervasive, and touched on rural and urban communities alike across the nation. And with the war memorials built, it was now for communities to maintain them, and to keep the fallen forever in their minds. These are the words of Reverend Cathels, at the unveiling of the Hawick Parish Church memorial in June 1921, from the Hawick News and Border Chronicle:
We have met to-day in the worship of Almighty God, to remember and to honour the men who went out from our midst at the call of duty, and who returned not, because they died in our defence. In their honoured memory we have placed in this House of Prayer a Memorial of them, which it shall be the sacred duty of the Kirk Session of this church to guard and to preserve as always.
The Reverend then read out the names of the fallen, inscribed on the memorial for perpetuity.