War Memorials - They should be remembered

There are over 50,000 war memorials in the United Kingdom. Many are publicly recognised and in a good state of repair, but concern has been expressed in recent years that a lack of proper awareness and regard for certain war memorials has resulted in their neglect, inappropriate disposal or destruction. Although war memorials in public places may not suffer in this way, it is those which are on or in private property, not generally accessible, and not recorded, which are most likely to be lost through oversight or ignorance.

There are many ways in which war memorials are placed under risk, the most common dangers being vandalism, erosion and neglect. The shocking effect of vandal damage to war memorials unfortunately remains common and widespread. From casual and opportunist thoughtless graffiti to deliberate and damaging attacks, these memorials are being placed under unnecessary danger. Reported incidents involve systematic scratching of stone memorials, breaking-off the arms of soldier figures and theft of portable memorials. Additionally, Rolls of Honour and plaques are neglected or randomly being disposed of, thrown away or even completely destroyed probably with little or no knowledge of what they are or without attempt to trace their origins.

War memorials come in many forms. While free-standing and wall-mounted commemorative crosses and plaques are perhaps the most common, there are also many other memorials including part of complete structures. Others consist of inscribed free-standing or wall-mounted stone, metal or wooden memorial, but wartime casualties have also been commemorated in other ways including books, windows and complete structures such as buildings and bridges. The purpose and function of these memorials are not always recorded or displayed and they may no longer be recognised for what they are. If there has been a change of ownership of the premises, records regarding the memorial may be lost and the new owners unaware of the memorials in their possession.

Responsibility for war memorial upkeep usually rests with the memorials’ owners. However, ownership is not always easy to establish particularly in cases where a village memorial was funded by public subscription and put up on donated land by an ad-hoc committee that dissolved itself once the work was completed. Ownership may have been formally handed over to a war memorial trust or a local secular or ecclesiastical authority, but often there was simply an assumption that the memorial would be cared for. A war memorial in, say, a churchyard may therefore be the shared responsibility of the parish council, parochial church council or local authority.

However, under the War Memorials (Local Authorities Powers) Act of 1923 (amended 1948), local councils are empowered to carry out "maintenance, repair and protection of war memorials in their area, whether vested in them or not and to incur reasonable expenditure" for this purpose. Local councils are also empowered to "correct any error or omission in the inscription on any such memorial". This legislation is permissive rather than conferring any obligation on the council.

In order to rectify an unacceptable and somewhat sad situation, the Home Office is currently in consultation with a number of organisations to provide custodians with a Code of Practice on how best to restore and maintain these valuable and historic monuments. The Code will request custodians to log details of the memorials including their identification, written records, type of structure and condition with all information being entered onto a central database.

Once the memorials have been documented, assessed and any immediate action taken to preserve, protect or repair them, the Code advises that a regular documented inspection routine should be introduced to ensure that the memorial is kept in an acceptable condition. This is the best way of securing the memorial’s future and of keeping further repair requirements to a minimum.

It is accepted that buildings and land may be subject to change of use or ownership, or may need to undergo structural or other alterations and it may not be possible or appropriate to keep a memorial in the place in which it was erected (or is now located). In such circumstances custodians should be asked to consider the future of any war memorials likely to be affected.

Most, but not all, memorials relate to the First and Second World Wars and statutory protection is given to those which are, or form part of, a listed building, scheduled ancient monument or conservation area. However, advice can be obtained to ascertain whether or not a memorial is protected.

The building maintenance sector of the construction industry is generally perceived as those structures familiar to us all e.g commercial premises, hospitals, schools, houses. It is unlikely, therefore, that the upkeep and maintenance of war memorials are automatically brought under the wings of maintenance surveyors, managers or contractors. It was, therefore, with much honour that the IMBM accepted the Home Office’s invitation to contribute to the consultation document and to be in a position to help preserve this sensitive and sometime traumatic area of our heritage.

Questions that have been asked:

"Why does my local War Memorial have the dates 1914-1919 when WWI ended in 1918?"
The majority of war memorials have the dates 1914-1918 to record that fighting in WWI was ended by the Armistice, signed at 11.00 am on 11 November 1918 at Compiegne. However, some memorials have 1919 because, although fighting had ceased, the Peace Treaty with Germany was not signed until 28 June 1919 at Versailles. Peace Day in Britain was held on 19 July 1919 but the Versailles Treaty was followed by further treaties throughout 1919 and 1920, such as the Trianon Treaty signed with the newly created Republic of Hungary in June 1920. So, very occasionally, you may also see dates 1914-1920 on WWI memorials.

Who was the Unknown Warrior?
The Rev'd David Railton is usually credited with, in 1916, having had the idea of returning an unknown serviceman to Britain for burial, and great care was taken to ensure the complete anonymity of the soldier laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 1920. A committee headed by Lord Curzon arranged disinterment of four unrecognisable bodies from the Aisne, Somme, Arras and Ypres battlefields. Placed in identical coffins at St Pol chapel, one was chosen by a blindfolded officer, Brigadier-General J Wyatt DSO, and having been laid in an oak coffin at Boulogne, was brought to Dover by HMS Verdun. The body was buried in London with full honours and a handful of Flanders soil at the same time as Le Soldat Inconnu was interred beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The war memorial at Cottenham in Cambridgeshire seems to have a fish by the left leg of the soldier and nobody knows why. Can you please tell me anything about the fish?
The UK National Inventory of War Memorials at the Imperial War Museum have suggested a number of explanations:1) Symbolising the role of the Royal Navy. 2) Symbol of Christianity. 3) Emblematic of the Greek Myth about the transportation of dead heroes. 4) Part of a regimental badge. The Cottenham memorial appears to have a dolphin. This is frequently associated with the Royal Navy and Marine Regiments, but also features in Greek Mythology - dolphins carry heroes after their death; and the nymphs of the sea (Nereids) ride upon dolphins. Arnold Whittick's book "Symbols" offers both these interpretations.

The Cottenham memorial is very similar in style and composition to the Craven Arms war memorial in St John's Churchyard, Stokesay, Shropshire (Storr Barber of Leominster, 1921) which has a large dolphin at the soldier figure's back. This has been explained locally as emblematic of the sea (The King's Shropshire Light Infantry raised in 1755 served as a maritime regiment in the Seven Years War, so there is a marine connection) and symbolic of the mythological hero-carrying dolphins.

The Home Office
Friends of War Memorials

Learned Papers Links

Noise Pollution Issues in Dwellings
Maintenance of The ‘Mod’ Estate
Conservation Issues in Building Maintenance Management

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