The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

War memorials

The Twentieth Century was a century of conflict. War memorials therefore loom large in the architectural history of the period.

During the inter-war decades in particular, following the First World War, the design of memorials formed a significant part of the work of a number of important British architects, such as Robert Lorimer, Herbert Baker, Reginald Blomfield and, above all, Edwin Lutyens, the creator of the Cenotaph in London, while memorial work sustained the careers of many sculptors.

Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Thiepval, Sir Edwin Lutyens
Search below for details of this and many other war memorials and cemeteries

Photo © Gavin Stamp

It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the Twentieth Century Society should take an interest in the design of war memorials and organise events involving visits to them. These were both in Britain and abroad, for many war memorials and cemeteries were constructed across the Channel as so many of the dead lay in foreign fields.

The material here derives from six tours of memorials generated by the First World War. Two were in London and four were on the Continent. The first two European tours, based on Ypres and Arras, explored the parts of the Western Front in Flanders and Picardy where British troops were particularly involved. These visited both major memorials such as the Menin Gate at Ypres and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval as well as some of the hundreds of cemeteries constructed by the Imperial War Graves Commission. Although primarily concerned with British memorials and cemeteries, these tours did not neglect to include sites where the dead of France, Belgium and Germany lie. This theme was developed in the third tour, based on Reims, which explored the Champagne region and the Argonne as far east as the “mincing machine” of Verdun. This was the area where the French had held the Western Front and where the Americans intervened in 1918, and later built conspicuously large memorials. The fourth tour explored a much less familiar theatre of war, the mountainous fringes of the Veneto, where the Italians erected impressive memorials and ossuaries which today are little known.

The C20 Society’s Sites of Memory project included making this information about C20th war memorials available online and creating self-guided walks in London. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

London War Memorials

Two tours of war memorials in London were organised by Jon Wright, while he was Senior Conservation Advisor for the C20 Society. You can Download guided walk leaflets to war memorials in Westminster and the City of London, or click to read his introduction.

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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

Corbie Communal Cemetery by Gavin Stamp
Corbie Communal Cemetery

Photo © by Gavin Stamp

European war memorials

The tours in Belgium and France were conducted by Gavin Stamp and the Italian tour was organised by Nicholas Long, with help from Hannah Malone. The tour notes were written by Gavin Stamp, who was also responsible for the introductory essays which discussed both the architecture and the military and historical contexts which gave rise to these melancholy architectural creations. The essay dealing with Italy is much longer as the literature in English on both the campaign against Austria-Hungary in the Veneto and the Italian memorials is limited compared with that dealing with the Western Front. You can read the introductions about each area here:

Flanders & Picardy

Champagne & Argonne

The Veneto

We are grateful to John East for allowing us to use his photographs, to Freya Wigzell for her editorial work, and for the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has enabled us to present this material online, and organise associated tours of the London war memorials.

Gavin Stamp

Search War memorials

Either enter the name of a place or memorial or choose from the drop down list. The list groups memorials in London and then by country

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