There are Millions of War Memorials dotted around the globe. Hundreds, possibly thousands dotted around the UK. Some of them are very prominent, in town squares or near the church, others are hidden out of the way, or maybe have seen better days. Sadly, often you will see people skateboarding all over them. I guess to a lot of people they’re just a lump of stone with some names carved in to it.
But are they just a list of names? Of course not. That name just represents one person. A reminded that behind every line, lies a human life that ended, possibly in some far away field, far from home. But like so many things, are we forgetting about war memorials, like we’re forgetting about those who made the ultimate sacrifice? Quite possibly. And now that there is no-one left alive who can recall those days, there is a real danger that those names are becoming just like any other names in any other history book.
Its a shame, because although maybe war memorials are very much a product of their time, and nowadays we would probably do something more engaging to remember, like the help for heroes wristbands, war memorials still tell us so much. Not only about the young men and women who fought for us, but our communities too. We might be living in different times, but in some respects, so many things are still the same.
Take the case of Fareham. Fareham is a small town, on the outskirts of Portsmouth. In 1914 it was an even smaller town, not much larger than a village. Yet its war memorial, outside the Holy Trinity Church, records 254 names of townfolk who died during the First World War. Thats an unbelievable amount of men for one place to lose, if you consider the town probably consisted of a few thousand people. Replicate that for every town like it in the country, then all of a sudden we can understand the scale of the losses.
Each name on the memorial is recorded as just that, a name. But under the surface it is so much more. Almost straight away, using the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online search, we can see that Alban Arnold and Edward Arnold were brothers. Alban, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers, was killed on the Somme in 1916. Edward, of the Royal Artillery, died in 1918 in France. So Mr and Mrs Arnold lost two sons.
You can tell a lot more from war memorials too. If one particular unit recruited from one area, and had a particularly tough battle, then we might find a whole load of deaths on the same day. Also, we notice that there were a large amount of sailors recorded in Fareham, no surprise given how close it is to Portsmouth. The CWGC’s register also tells us the persons age, and any relatives. We could also look at the 1911 census to see where a family was living a few years previously. And Royal Navy service records for the period can also be downloaded from the National Archives website.
Something else you might notice about war memorials: while after the first world war they sprang up everywhere, by the end of the second world war people seemed so tired of fighting that the will did not exist to build new memorials. In most cases plaques were added to existing memorials. In some cases, nothing at all was done.
Am I the only person to think, if only Teachers could pick up on all these resources? Most of the young men on the memorials are only a couple of years older than schoolkids. But the national curriculum decrees that they have to learn about cowboys and indians. So sad.