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War Memorials

Names and inscriptions


Many, but not all, war memorials include lists of the dead and some also include those who served. Names were omitted for several reasons. There might have been rather too many names, as in the case of Belfast, where over 40,000 men joined up and over 4,000 perished. Sometimes the effort to collect and record the names was undermined by delays in erecting the memorials themselves. The County Antrim memorial at the Knockagh overlooking Carrickfergus was not completed until the late 1930s, as was the Newry memorial. Another factor was expense. Carving names, or using bronze lettering, was not cheap, and in some places there was just not the money to include names on the memorial. In Nenagh (Co. Tipperary), for example, there was scarcely enough money to put up the memorial, let alone add any names.


The arrangement of the names, however, does vary from place to place. First was the question of whether everyone who served, as well as those who fell, should be included. As already noted with Belfast, one consideration was numbers, and it was hardly practical to name all 40,000 on the city memorial. There was a debate in some places in Great Britain as to whether some distinction should be made between volunteers and conscripts. Certainly those who had gone willingly should be commemorated, but why, argued some, should those who were forced to go? From the beginning of 1916 compulsory military service was applied in England, Scotland and Wales, and although it was threatened in Ireland (with dire political consequences) it was never introduced here. This is the reason why some Irish war memorials say ‘In grateful memory to the following men who willingly served…’ No English memorial can say willingly if it includes everyone who served during the war. In general, big places, with lots of names to record only listed the dead, while smaller places frequently included all those who served as well.


Then there was the matter of what information should be included with the names, and how they should be arranged. Some memorials include the branch of the services (regiment, ship etc), with rank and decorations; some just list names. The admirable principle of the Imperial War Graves Commission of equal treatment of all, whatever rank they might have been, was not always followed in domestic war memorials, where officers were often given priority in death, as they had enjoyed in life. In Groomsport, for instance, the four men who were killed were listed in alphabetical order, but those who served and survived were carefully arranged in order of rank. In neighbouring Donaghadee, the names are solely in alphabetical order, with a separate section only for the men from ‘Millisle District’. But why, one wonders, were the Donaghadee men treated more equally than the Groomsport ones? In Stewartstown (Co. Tyrone) the names are given in rank order, but also arranged by unit. Here most of the men served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (the local regiment), but there were other Irish regiments, such as the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, as well as one man who served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The Ballycastle memorial divides the men into units, but lists them strictly by alphabetical order within each section.


Almost all the names on these war memorials are those of men, but there are a few women’s names to be found. There are two hundred men and two nurses named on the Dungannon war memorial, which, very unusually, is dedicated ‘In memory of the soldiers and nurses of Dungannon who gave their lives for freedom and humanity in the Great War’. There is one memorial exclusively dedicated to nurses, which stands in St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Donegall Street, Belfast. This lists eighteen sisters and staff nurses of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service who lost their lives in the war. Women, of course, were much more likely to be bereaved than to lose their lives themselves. Pictures of Remembrance Services in the 1920s are often dominated by the widows, mothers and orphans of the dead. Women frequently took a major part in raising money for war memorials, a fact specifically noted on the Clogher (Co. Tyrone) memorial, which states that it had been ‘erected by fellow countrymen and women’. Women are represented, too, in the City of Derry Guildhall where there is a magnificent series of stained-glass windows commemorating all the Irish Divisions and infantry regiments which fought in the war. If you look closely, you will read that ‘these windows were erected by the Women Voluntary Warworkers in Londonderry in proud and affectionate remembrance of the men and women of this city who, responding to the call of King & Empire, served or made the supreme sacrifice during the Great War 1914-1918’.


Some memorials give slightly different dates than might be expected for the First World War. Most say 1914-1918, but some say 1914-1919. When the war ended on 11 November 1918, it was technically just an ‘armistice’, that is to say, a temporary cessation of hostilities. But the war with Germany did not formally end until the peace treaty was signed in June 1919, thus, for some, the First World War was actually ‘1914-19’. The peace treaty with Turkey was not finally signed until 1923, but no memorials say ‘The Great War, 1914-23’!


The inscriptions on the memorials are worth studying as well, for they can well give us an insight into why (or why people thought) all those many thousands of Irish people died in the First World War. In Ballywalter, Comber and Newtownards (all Co. Down) they died for ‘King and Country’; it was just ‘Country’ in Bray (Co. Wicklow). Sometimes the inscriptions are in Latin. ‘Pro Deo et Patria’ (For God and Country) says the Belfast Cenotaph, while in Bangor it says; Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – ‘sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country – a sentiment which might raise a few eyebrows today. In Castlebellingham the men died for ‘Ireland’ and in Cork ‘for the freedom of small nations’. There are only a few ideals: in Ballycastle it is ‘freedom and justice’; in Downpatrick (Co. Down) they died for ‘others’; and in Lisburn (Co. Antrim) and Portadown (Co. Armagh) they died ‘that we might live’. The most common inscriptions, however, omit any specific object: most of the men appear not to have died for any specific reason, that is to say, they simply ‘died’, or ‘laid down their lives’, or ‘made the supreme sacrifice’. It is worth thinking about why there might have been this vagueness about the actual purpose of the war when people were putting up memorials in 1920s.

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