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War memorials and commemoration
War memorials and commemoration

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6 Personal response to a memorial

But, you may be thinking, all our agreement up to now has shown that these perceptions and assumptions come from a common understanding of the appropriate form and meaning of a war memorial. Where, might you ask, does personal response come in? Are we not individuals who have different ways of looking at artefacts and of deciding what – if anything – they mean? This question opens up a big area of discussion, one which will be taken up many times later.

Clearly, as individuals, we might agree or disagree with any meaning, but in doing so we do not deny that it has a meaning, and that meaning is the result of its form and its function. I shall return to this point later on when we look at a specific monument. All I want to say here is that I think we shall understand more if we work out how meaning is conveyed, and what goes into our own personal response to this.

Turn back to the list I made of what I expected to find on a war memorial. I had included poppies, and when I looked at my war memorial I found them. You may have expected to find, and perhaps did find, poppies on your example. If you did not, have a look at Illustrations D and E.

Illustration D Woburn Sands and Aspley Heath, Buckinghamshire, Mike Levers/The Open University
Illustration E Woburn Sands and Aspley Health, Buckinghamshire, Mike Levers/The Open University

The poppy grew in the region where much of the severest fighting of the First World War took place. The flower is often mentioned by soldiers writing home. It was perhaps its blood-red colour and its abundance that led to its becoming a symbol for the loss of life in the war. Also Homer in the Iliad in the 8th-7th century BCE had used the image of a fallen poppy to describe the death of a young warrior.

Poppies also grew in abundance where these Homeric battles took place, near the coast of Asia Minor – the sight too of the battle of Gallipoli in the First World War. We also know that the Homeric images of poppies were known to many soldiers and poets. We can agree, I think, that the poppy has a function when it is placed on a war memorial, and that it is a particularly British symbol. We have others, too – lilies, laurel; and other nations will have similar symbols.

But you will have realised that the poppy, or whatever flower is being used, becomes a symbol only in certain circumstances. A field of poppies in summer does not hold, I think, any symbolism, though we might be reminded of their use elsewhere. In a similar way, a red rose exists as a red rose, becoming a symbol of love only when it is used to express that feeling. Poppies and lilies become symbols when they, as flowers, are re-presented as another form, becoming bouquets, wreaths, artificial buttonholes and garlands.

Artificial poppies also hold a different element of meaning when they are sold to raise money, for wearing them says not only ‘I remember’ but also ‘I have paid’. It is interesting to note that the meaning given to the red poppy has been used even by those who totally reject war: they have built upon the red poppy's symbolism by using a white poppy in contrast, to denote pacifism.

So we can say that the poppy's form (as a re-presentation of a well-known flower) and its function (acting as a symbol for the bloodshed of war) are woven together to provide us with its meaning.