Lest we forget: alumni caring for war memorials

War MemorialsImage: Frances Moreton, Roger Bardell and Peter McCormic at the Rifle Brigade memorial near Victoria Station in London

The granite Celtic cross in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in the south Cambridgeshire village of Little Gransden lists the name of five men from the village who died in the First World War. The stone was intended to be a permanent memorial to these young men, just as thousands of other villages, towns and cities erected memorials to the 700,000 British soldiers and sailors who didn’t return home from the Great War.

Even granite has limits to its permanence. Wind, pollution, frost, improper maintenance and the occasional acts of vandalism all damage stone. This memorial, however, remains in good shape, in part because of a grant from War Memorials Trust, a charity led by three King’s alumni: Chair Peter McCormick (Law, 1973); Director Frances Moreton (War Studies, 1998); and Treasurer Roger Bardell (History, 1962).

The trust’s fundamental purpose is to protect and conserve war memorials across the UK, a mission it fulfils principally by providing advice and grants to local communities. Not all war memorials are stone markers, of course. They’re also bells, church windows, plaques and even organs. The trust, working with outside experts, can provide advice for preserving just about any type of memorial.

For the estimated eight per cent of memorials considered to be in poor condition, neglect is the chief problem. For most of Britain’s history, war memorials were rare, and the few erected before the 20th century were more likely to honour generals and admirals. It wasn’t until the Boer War that communities started recognising the sacrifice of ‘the common soldier’, says Moreton.

Then came the First World War, which was a massively different sort of conflict, with soldiers conscripted and an unprecedented number of casualties. Two-thirds of the UK’s war memorials were dedicated after that conflict. Since the bodies of dead soldiers were not brought home from the battlefields of France, Belgium and Germany, communities needed a place to grieve.

‘When they were erected, they were in effect graves, because at that time most people couldn’t travel easily to places such as France,’ says Moreton. Two decades later, communities added more names to their memorials, honouring a generation of neighbours who had marched off to another horrific war.

‘It’s extremely moving when you see a community memorial in a small village, and the same surname appears among those who died in the two World Wars,’ says McCormick.

Bardell says the 1990s was the next decade to experience a major increase in the number of memorials. These often recognised the service of society, not just the men and women of a specific village, he says, and they represented an opportunity for ageing veterans of the Second World War to ensure that their fallen comrades would be remembered.

Moreton says the First World War centenary has generated more enquiries. In addition to the charity’s fundraising work, the government is making up to £3 million available for memorials as one-off funding.

All three have their favourite memorials. Bardell says he’s particularly touched by the memorial at New College, Oxford, which also lists German alumni who died in the Great War. Moreton cites the memorial in Princess Street Gardens in Edinburgh, which conveys a ‘sense of collectiveness’.

For McCormick, it’s the community memorial near his home in Burnham Deepdale. ‘It’s a beautiful memorial in a beautiful place, and it’s where I get peace.’

>> You can learn more about the trust at www.warmemorials.org

>> Read more stories from Spring In Touch on our news and features pages

Article posted: May, 2015

 

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