Lurgan War Memorial
Lurgan is one of the places where there was a difference of opinion about what the war memorial should be. Early in 1919 the Lurgan Technical School management committee proposed building a new technical school as a memorial, a strikingly opportunistic suggestion, since if a new school were actually necessary, then it would have been proper for the cost to be met out of existing public funds. The local branch of the Irish federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers – one of a number of ex-service organisations which existed before the British Legion emerged as the biggest group – suggested a public swimming pool, an idea which was taken up by the local Winders’ and Weavers’ Union. Another suggestion was a cottage hospital. After a public meeting in mid-April 1919, however, it was announced that the memorial would be a monument in the Mall. A war memorial committee was formed and began raising the estimated sum required of £3,000. But then, for whatever reason, the whole scheme ground to a halt, and in May 1921 it was announced that (amazingly) subscriptions were being returned ‘owing to a lack of agreement’ on the design the memorial should take.
In 1923 the question of a Lurgan memorial was revived at a public meeting, and it was decided to try again. There was quite a lot of embarrassment that Lurgan had not yet done anything to honour its dead, while other places, even the little local village of Dollingstown, had got on with it. Indeed, at the dedication of the Dollingstown memorial in July 1923, the absence of any memorial, or even any plans for one, in Lurgan was particularly remarked upon. Local pride, therefore, evidently played a part in the eventual construction of the memorial. By this stage another difficulty had been overcome, as the great majority of local opinion had swung behind the idea of a purely symbolic memorial. One person who had previously supported the idea of a cottage hospital had now changed his mind. ‘While the other schemes were admirable,’ he said, ‘a public monument would be to everyone’s favour, as it would be a constant reminder of the sacrifices of the fallen’.4
Over the next twelve months or so, £2,300 was raised for the memorial fund, and a sculptor based in London, Mr L. S. Merrifield, was appointed to design the monument. Merrifield came up with an idea for a small ‘temple’, which would be surmounted with a life-sized figure of a soldier. The temple was to be hexagonal (six-sided) and contain a central pillar on which would be inscribed the names of the fallen. The war memorial committee rejected the idea of a soldier and asked for a ‘winged figure of Victory’ to be substituted. Merrifield obliged with a female figure, holding aloft a palm frond in her right hand. Having rejected the soldier, the memorial committee now found the Victory figure too peaceable, and asked Merrifield if he could put a sword in her right hand, with a circular laurel wreath in her left. The artist, perhaps tired of the successive changes-of-mind, dug his heels in and stuck with Victory as he had originally envisaged.5
In the programme for the unveiling of the memorial (on 23 May 1928) Merrifield described his design as follows:
The Temple is surmounted by a life size winged figure in bronze representing the spirit of Victorious Peace alighting on the earth, her head crowned with bays, her right hand holding aloft a palm branch, while the left is extended in token of blessing.
Although the figure is evidently an angel, the use of bays and the palm branch is a reference to Classical Greek and Roman tradition. The bay tree, laurus nobilis, was the tree of the god Apollo, and believed to be a protection against thunder and lightning. Bay laves were used in Roman times to mark victory, and there was a custom of crowning victorious generals with bays. Palms were used in the ancient world as a symbol of resolution overcoming calamity, and in Rome victorious Gladiators were given a branch of a palm tree. There is, too, a Christian link, with Palm Sunday, and the use of palm fronds to mark Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As with war memorials, here you can find art, history, Classical symbolism and Christian tradition all combined.
The wording on the memorial also reflects the sorts of debates already noted about inscriptions. Keeping with democratic ideas of equal treatment, it was decided that the list of names of the fallen would be in strict alphabetical order, without either rank or regiment. But notions of hierarchy were evidently hard to put away altogether as it was also proposed that the overall inscription should read: ‘In grateful memory of the officers [my emphasis] and men of Lurgan and district’. In the end, however, the democrats prevailed and the final wording was settled simply as: ‘In grateful memory of the Men of Lurgan’.
In the 1920s and after, although in fact more Catholic Irishmen served (and died) in the British services during the First World War than Protestants, commemoration and remembrance ceremonies, especially in the newly-established Northern Ireland, became quite distinctly Protestant and Unionist. One of the interesting aspects about Lurgan is that a special effort was made to ensure that the names of Catholics were included on the memorial. Catholic ex-servicemen in Lurgan, moreover, were rather quicker off the mark in the matter of memorials than the official war memorial committees. In November 1924 a ‘magnificent marble altar rail’ was erected in the parish church, St Peter’s, by Lurgan Catholic ex-servicemen ‘in memory of their fallen comrades’.6 But this memorial no longer exists. As a result of liturgical changes following Vatican II, the altar rail was subsequently removed.
The names on the Lurgan memorial can themselves be researched, though the absence of regimental names or other identifying details can make this quite time-consuming. The best place to start is the extraordinary Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website (address given below), which aims to list all British Commonwealth service personnel who died in the World Wars and some other conflicts. On the memorial there are, for example, three men named Hobbs: ‘A., D. and R’. Using the CWGC site reveals that these were Andrew, David and Robert Hobbs, all of whom died on the terrible first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. All three were in the same unit, the 9th battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (part of the 36th (Ulster) Division). We also learn that David and Robert’s regimental numbers were 14305 and 14302. Since the numbers were allocated as the men enlisted, it is clear that the two must have joined up together. Andrew, whose regimental number was 14259, evidently joined up a short time before the other two. What the website does not tell us, though, is that Andrew, David and Robert were brothers, literally ‘brothers-in-arms’, who joined up together and died together. A fourth brother, Herbert, also served in the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, but, thankfully, he survived, albeit wounded. The CWGC database also provides information about where the dead are buried, or, if they have no known grave, on what monument their names are recorded. All three Hobbs brothers fall into the latter category, and their names are carved on the vast Thiepval ‘Memorial to the Missing’ on the Somme battlefield. The Lurgan war memorial, therefore, is the only real ‘headstone’ they have.
Behind the plain list of names on this memorial (as on others) there are many, many individual stories to be uncovered. Some of these men, for example, had emigrated to Canada, Australia or New Zealand before the war, then come back to Europe (though perhaps not to Lurgan) and now lie forever in France or Belgium. ‘Ruddell, S.’, is Sidford Ruddell, a corporal in the 28th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Manitoba Regiment), son of Nelson and Hannah Ruddell of Laurel Mount, Lurgan. ‘Leathem, J. B.’ is James Balfour Leathem, a private in the 42nd Battalion Australian Infantry, and ‘son of Joseph and Ellen Leathem, Garlan Avenue, Lurgan’. ‘McMurray, R. H.’, is Sergeant Richard McMurray of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, whose parents lived in Lurgan, and who died in August 1918, almost within sight of the war’s end. Most of this information comes from the CWGC website, but for British Empire troops, it can be supplemented by searching databases in Canada and Australia (see below for details).
Another useful source is a publication called Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-1919, which was first published just after the First World War (in 80 parts, by regiment or other equivalent formation), listing everyone who had died in British Army formations. For every entry, it aimed to include the person’s place of birth, as well as that of enlistment; regimental number; rank; cause of death (‘killed in action’ or ‘died of wounds’); and location of death (such as ‘France and Flanders’ or ‘Gallipoli’). The printed version (illustrated here) is quite difficult to use, as the names are further arranged by battalion, which means that if you need know the regiment (and, ideally, the battalion) a particular person served in to find their entry. Both of these can be discovered from the CWGC database. Recently, however, a version of Soldiers Died in the Great War has been published in CD-ROM, which makes it much easier to use.