The Twentieth Century Society

War memorials in London: Introduction

For descriptions and photos of individual memorials use the map and search box on the war memorials home page.

The United Kingdom National Inventory of War Memorials, (UKNIWM) now has over 60,000 sites on its database and the number continues to grow each year. The variety and diversity of these memorials is staggering. Yet we are still to fully understand the architectural significance of the huge number of sites built by Lutyens, Herbert Baker, Charles Holden and others, despite the fact that the building programme for domestic memorials and overseas cemeteries easily eclipsed any public works undertaking before or since.

The C20 Society looks at memorials rather differently from the vital organisations set up specifically to document, conserve and care for memorial sites. The War Memorials Trust, whose conservation work remains vitally important to the upkeep of UK memorials, is foremost among these groups. English Heritage have listed a significant amount of memorials, and like us, they do judge the monuments for architectural and artistic significance, while bearing in mind the inherent importance of the sites in a social and historic context. Monuments say as much about the living as they do about the commemorated dead. In burial and mourning, we embark on a rite of passage aided in ritual and procession. Built memorials can be an expression of honour, gratitude, admiration, bravery, guilt, horror, anger; they can also stand as icons to be learnt from or summarise more general feelings and moral attitudes.

The need for monuments in every town across the country in the years immediately after the two World Wars is obvious, not least when we remember than many had loved ones that were buried overseas or whose bodies were never recovered. Yet the contemporary need for additional memorials is more complex, reflecting the diminishing numbers of those with living memory of the events, and the desires of modern society to recognise the ‘forgotten’ participants of conflicts.

The London memorials chosen display a range of artistic responses to commemoration, both after major conflict and more recently, some of which address the current concern about to memorialise particular groups. The selection is as much about the lesser-known memorials to specific divisions, and some privately-initiated memorials, as it is national memorials (and their grander statements). The former, despite commemorating groups, remind us that the men and women who gave their lives were individuals and led a ‘normal’ existence outside of conflict, be they railway workers, insurance clerks, or even freemasons. In looking at these monuments, we also touch upon the effects of war on the City of London itself. British propaganda portrayed the smoke-surrounded St Paul’s Cathedral as the ultimate symbol of London’s endurance, but the truth was that only luck stopped a number of bombs which landed on the church from detonating before the fire-fighters and disposal team could intervene. The entries include some of the City churches damaged and given new meaning by the Second World War, as well as recent public monuments to the civilians of London.

Our hope is that by publicising a range of memorials, we will be able to get a glimpse of how artistic responses to the tragedy of war have changed in the course of the 20th century – who is being remembered and why, how has the artist or architect tried to impart those feelings and how successful have they been? And how were the mourners of yesterday, today and tomorrow expected to respond to, and even interact with, to such monuments?

Jon Wright