Studying a war memorial
Here are some of things which can be done to explore the history and significance of a local war memorial.
Questions to ask: Where is the memorial? Is the placing of particular importance? Has it always been in the same place? If not, why was it moved?
Sources of information: old maps; the local council; ex-servicemen; the local British Legion.
Questions to ask: What size is the memorial? What materials is it made of? Is it a figure, and, if so, what sort of figure: a soldier, a symbolic angel, or what? If a soldier, is he in a particular uniform, and what stance is he in? If another kind of symbolic figure, is it an angel, or a symbol of ‘Victory’, or something else? What other details can you see: swords, crosses, palm fronds, wreaths, etc? What might they represent? Sometimes there are bronze plaques with illustrations: what do they show? Is there any indication who designed the memorial?
Sources of information: site visit; use your eyes! Sometimes the base of a statue is signed by the sculptor; occasionally there is a plaque naming the designer.
Questions to ask: what is the main inscription? Does it include both World Wars? What dates does it give for the First World War (1914-18 or 1914-19), and why should 1919 be given? Does it give any hint why the men died? Is it in English, or Latin, or any other language? (There is at least one Irish war memorial with an inscription in Irish.) Is the inscription a quotation from some famous author?
Sources of information: site visit (again); check inscriptions in a Dictionary of Quotations (some give translations of Latin phrases).
Questions to ask: how are the names arranged—alphabetically, by rank, by unit, or a combination of these? Have medals (such as the Victoria Cross (VC) or Military Cross (MC)) been noted? What does the arrangement of the names say about social attitudes of the time and place? Are there any women? What more can you find out about the people named?
Sources of information: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, and other sources mentioned below (‘Some sources for military family history’), are good for further information about individuals.
5 History of the memorial.
Questions to ask: who organised the designing and funding of the memorial? What did it cost? When was it put up and unveiled? Who attended the unveiling? What sorts of speeches were made at the dedication, and at annual Remembrance services? Sources of information: local newspapers are generally very good for this sort of thing (Local Studies Libraries often have microfilm copies of old newspapers). A good way to find out when a memorial was erected is to look at reports of the annual Armistice Day (11 November) ceremonies from 1919 onwards. Sooner or later you will come across a mention of the ‘new’ war memorial. If you are lucky, it will have been dedicated on or near Armistice Day, otherwise you may have to work backwards from that date. For Northern Ireland memorials you can also check reports of services on 1 July, the anniversary of the battle of the Somme, which should help further to narrow down the date of the memorial. There was a weekly magazine called the Irish Builder which in the 1920s regularly reported progress on and the erection of war memorials. The minutes of some war memorial committees have survived in the Local Authority records kept at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, 66 Balmoral Avenue, Belfast.
Once you have worked on the history of one memorial, you can begin to do the same for memorials in neighbouring towns and villages. Then you can compare and contrast them. Why did different places choose to commemorate their war dead in different ways?