Saturday, December 17, 2005

For the people, by the people

Every year, on Remembrance Day – the nearest Sunday to 11 November (the date of the Armistice that ended the First World War in 1918) – the Queen lays a wreath at the Cenotaph in London's Whitehall to commemorate the millions who died in the wars of the 20th century. But as well as this national monument, there are tens of thousands of other war memorials in Britain, built by local communities to remember their own.
About 750,000 British people – many of them teenagers or barely out of their teens – died during the First World War. Most were buried in what the poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) called 'some corner of a foreign field'.So many British soldiers died in France and Belgium that the government couldn't allow the repatriation of their remains. So, at the end of the war, millions of bereaved Britons had no place to go in Britain to express their grief. The consequence of this absence was the largest public arts project the country had ever seen, as British communities erected local war memorials. There are more than 37,000 First World War memorials, and most of them are still visible today. With their figures of attacking soldiers, gun crews, angels and scrolls listing the names of the dead – from all walks of life – they both commemorate the fallen and are works of art whose powerful presence dominates the public spaces of many a town or village.
The best known of these landmarks is the Whitehall Cenotaph – the name means 'empty tomb' in Greek. A temporary cenotaph made of wood and plaster had been erected for the Peace March of 1919, and this was so popular that a permanent structure of Portland Stone was built. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), it was unveiled on 11 November 1920 by King George V, on the same day as the funeral in Westminster Abbey of the Unknown Warrior (at which the remains of an unidentifiable British serviceman, chosen from a number of bodies exhumed from four battle areas – the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres – were re-buried).We will remember them
All over Britain, local communities raised money to built stone crosses or monuments to remember the sacrifice of thousands. The majority were built and unveiled between 1919 and 1922. If one town or village could not afford its own memorial, two or three villages would club together.
Although these were works of art, they also had a job to do: they were meant to heal, to reunite on a symbolic level the living and the dead who had been torn apart by the conflict. The memorials had many meanings: they conveyed a sense of loss, national pride in victory and they took the place of absent graves.
If some were built by famous artists and designers, such as Lutyens or Eric Gill (in Briantspuddle, Dorset), many more were built by local craftsman. In Burslem, Staffordshire, for example, the designer, sculptor and mason were all local. Many memorials were ornate, but some were much simpler. For example, a number of battlefield crosses – the original grave markers – were brought back to Britain and displayed here.
In St Albans Church, Acton, a tablet was placed underneath a battlefield cross: 'This cross of an unknown warrior was delivered into the charge of the youth of St Albans by the members of the British Legion (Acton branch) Sunday 9 February 1930. So he passed on – and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.'


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