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War memorials and commemoration
War memorials and commemoration

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7 Matching form and purpose

Now let us look at war memorials themselves. We have already agreed that their form takes a shape that we think appropriate. The question to ask is: Why do we think that one building, one shape, is more appropriate than another?

Exercise 7

Please turn back to your own example, and let me ask you … What other examples of war memorials can you think of, in this country or elsewhere?


I expect that you found at least one example. War memorials come in many shapes, and may have added purposes. Your original example may have been in the shape of an obelisk, a column or a cross (Figure 1). These are the most widely used forms. But there are lots of other forms. You may have found, or may know of, a set of memorial gates leading to a churchyard, or a chapel added to a church or a school. There might be a functional element to the memorial – a clock, a fountain or a village hall. There may be statues, free-standing or as decoration on other forms. Let us look closer at why memorials take the form they do.

For this, we need to look back to the past. The notion of commemoration of war, and of loss in war, is not confined to the First and Second World Wars, though it was particularly in the aftermath of the First World War that the construction of the war memorials we are familiar with was so widespread among the opposing nations. But we have many examples in existence from previous times, and previous civilisations.

The Egyptians gave us one form, the obelisk, which continued to be used by both the Greeks and the Romans. It was, however, the Romans who developed the use of the column, particularly as a victory celebration. Whereas Egyptian obelisks are constructed from one piece of stone, columns are, generally speaking, constructed from separate pieces placed on one another, and different materials could be used – stone, but also marble and, eventually, concrete. You will be able to think of many examples of columns. No prizes for recalling Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square in London, commemorating both victory over the French and also commemorating Nelson himself.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Obelisk, column and cross
Illustration F Lavendon, Buckinghamshire, Mike Levers/The Open University

The third form is the cross. This had no part in the ancient world of Egypt or, in any significant way, in Rome. But the cross evolved over the centuries as Christianity spread: it formed the sign of the crusaders who occupied themselves in religious wars. It forms for Christians now a major part of their symbolism.

These three constructions, therefore – obelisk, column and cross – are still the forms most often found in memorials dating from the First World War. But there are other forms that we would recognise as having a memorial function, however long ago they were constructed.

Arches are used in many places, particularly where a large focus is needed for a triumphal setting, as with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The cenotaph – the word comes from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’ and means a monument that commemorates people buried elsewhere – is another form of memorial, and in addition to the Cenotaph in London there are many others. The desire for a memorial may result in a building. Some were constructed centuries ago, and are still in use, such as the Chelsea Hospital in London, built in 1682 by Charles II to offer a home to unmarried soldiers, and to commemorate their colleagues who did not survive.

Additions were made to existing buildings, in the form of chapels, a hospital wing, or a village hall. Some memorials may use statues – a general mounted on horseback on the top of a column, a group of soldiers forming a memorial to a whole regiment's loss – and we will be looking in detail at one such memorial. Then there are many examples of plaques containing lists of names, found often on church walls, school and university chapels, in clubs, large organisations, shops, stations.

I haven't mentioned all the possible forms of war memorial, and you may easily think of others. The point is that, whatever the shape of the memorial, there has to be agreement that the form is appropriate in order that the meaning, and therefore the function, is assured. Many issues are raised by this: whose opinion prevails, who pays, how do memorials get built?

Any agreement reached has complex origins; and it is interesting to think of instances where this agreement is not maintained, or to some extent compromised, and why this should be so. But what we can be clear about at this point is that the agreement or disagreement arises out of our history and cultural background.