Commemoration: Visual texts
Commemoration: Visual texts

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Commemoration: Visual texts

1 Commemoration of war: Visual texts

1.1 Introduction

War memorials are artefacts which commemorate loss – of individuals, armies or battalions – in war and have particular symbolic meaning and form.

Exercise 1

We could define texts as ‘things that people have made or produced’. Do you think war memorials are texts, which reveal how people and nations thought about commemoration?


In everyday use a ‘text’ is something that’s written, so it is surprising that a war memorial is also a ‘text’. In analysing memorials we see how symbols work and how strong the need was (and might still be) to commemorate loss of life in war.

The memorials you may know about are all likely to be either in the United Kingdom or – in the case of the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge – on the battlefield of the First World War. You have probably realized that these mostly reflect Christian symbols. But soldiers of that war came from many faiths, or none at all: and it is interesting to see the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle (Figure 1). Built to commemorate the loss of Indian troops, the memorial, on a large scale, dates from 1927. It has a central column for focus, flanked by lions. There is a trellis-like stone wall that encloses the centre of the memorial, and in this way the sanctuary walls of many Indian temples are recalled. Spend a few minutes now looking at the illustration of the Indian Memorial. Consideration of these public artefacts seems to me to amply demonstrate Ellie Chambers’ view of texts as being ‘open to our interpretation of what they mean’.

Figure 1
Figure 1 The Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle, designed by Herbert Baker. (Photograph: courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Exercise 2

For convenience, perhaps, we divide the study of texts into subject areas, so that we group together the different ways in which we communicate with others. We group together the study of the use of words – in poetry, prose or plays – and call it the study of literature. You will be able to think of other subject areas, of course. Perhaps you might already be thinking about how you would classify the study of war memorials. Was it history? Art history? Architecture? Jot down your answer now.


If you found this difficult, so did I! If all the war memorials were buildings, or sculptured monuments, we could label the study of them reasonably easily – as architecture. But that would be to say that all memorials take a certain form, which is clearly not the case. What we can say for certain is that the losses, particularly of the First World War, were commemorated in most towns and villages of many participating nations – in tangible, structural form. However, as you may already have decided, memorials can take written, and artistic, form through the use of a variety of media; and it seemed to us that we can, through extending our use of the theme, introduce you to two subject groups of texts – art and literature.

It is possible – indeed likely – that those who are engaged in war must consider the possibility of death and the need to be remembered. Indeed, these thoughts could be uppermost in their minds. If these thoughts were openly expressed, what forms do you think they might take? I am not thinking at the moment of names inscribed on a memorial tablet, but some form that is much more private and personal to the individual.

Exercise 3

Please now think of ways in which individuals might want to leave a memorial of themselves.


We will probably not have identical lists. The list I have come up with is:

lettersmusic and songpainting
talking and recordingnovelsplays
poetrydiscussionmaking things
growing thingsphotographymemoirs

My list is by no means complete: you may have thought of many other ways in which individuals may try to leave a remembrance. They may succeed; they may fail. We have, however, a wealth of artefacts that individuals who experienced the war created; and we are going to consider two groups – one under the subject name of art history, one under the subject name of literature.


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