A Place of Honour

War Memorial Heritage in the United Kingdom

Colin Amery


  Five snow-capped bronze soldiers stand watch at The Guards Memorial, London
  The Guards Memorial, Horse Guards Parade, London (Photo: iStockphoto.com/Johnny Greig)  

There is something extremely moving about the way the Cenotaph at the heart of London remains the focus of the nation’s war memories. The simple, almost abstract dignity of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ design has proved to be timeless and powerful. Every year the neat, black-clad figure of the Queen steps backwards from laying her wreath of scarlet poppies and solemnly bows before the monumental stone. The concise inscription, ‘The Glorious Dead’, still evokes intense memories and emotions (it was chosen by Rudyard Kipling, whose son was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915).

War memorials seek to reunite those separated by conflict. They express a sense of grief and loss. The Classical world commemorated heroes and deeds of heroism more than sacrifice, and the burial places of triumphant rulers often have a wider resonance as reminders of conflict. The American Civil War (1861-65) produced some of the earliest war memorials that were closely related to specific battlefields. Conquest has also been commemorated by major buildings like the Parthenon and Battle Abbey near Hastings in Sussex.

In the United Kingdom, although the sacrifices in the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and the fighting in the Crimea (1853-1856) are commemorated, it is really only after the Boer War (1899-1902) that memorials become both numerous and significant. It was the advent of global conflict in the 20th century, however, that saw memorials multiply and spread across the UK as never before. The two world wars inevitably generated a special culture of memorials because, for almost the first time, there was a realisation that all ranks of fighting men and women who had sacrificed their lives should be commemorated. The deaths of some 700,000 British soldiers in World War I (WWI) led to the building of the local memorials that are such a familiar sight in our towns and villages. The scale of this mass commemoration is clear from the Imperial War Museum’s ongoing National Inventory of War Memorials which, it is estimated, will run to over 100,000 memorials.

  Stone wheel-cross memorial adorned with sword and foliage designs  
  Limestone wheel-cross war memorial at St Lawrence’s Church, Eyam, Derbyshire (Photo: iStockphoto.com/RF Stock)  
  The Edith Cavell memorial, which bears the legend 'Humanity' above Cavell's statue  
  Memorial to the nurse and humanitarian Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place, London: Cavell was executed by a German firing squad in 1915 for helping Allied prisoners to escape from occupied Belgium
(Photo: War Memorials Trust)
  The Burma Star stained glass window which includes depictions of Burmese landscape and jungle plants with the Burma Star campaign medal suspended above  
  The Burma Star window at St John the Baptist Church, Cardiff commemorates those killed in Burma during WWII (Photo: St John the Baptist Church, Cardiff)  

It is not always realised that although at least two thirds of the memorials on the inventory relate to WWI they were not nationally funded or organised in any way by the government. While the Imperial War Graves Commission was set up in 1917 at the initiative of Fabian Ware (it became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960), it was established only to create cemeteries abroad for those killed while serving in the British Empire and Commonwealth forces. In Britain it was down to local committees to raise funds, find suitable sites and select the designs of every local war memorial. An advisory committee was set up in 1919 to offer advice on memorial designs provided by the Royal Sculpture Association and an exhibition of designs was organised by the Royal Academy, accompanied by a pamphlet suggesting suitable inscriptions.

Extraordinary local effort went into ensuring the lists of names were accurate. There were no national government instructions so local war memorial committees had immense responsibilities. It was the independent nature of every local committee that led to the enormous variety of war memorials, not just in terms of design but sometimes in terms of the medium itself. Should memorials have a useful purpose? Should they be hospitals, gardens or community halls, for example? How traditional should the design be and how could they be designed to reflect the universality of the sacrifice? Different communities answered these questions in different ways. Memorials included chapels, bell or clock towers, hospital wings or wards, gardens and sports fields, village halls, reading rooms, fountains, murals and mosaics. In churches alone, memorials take the form of lych gates, stained glass windows, plaques, lecterns, organs and screens.

The work of the local memorial committees was a remarkable process that must have been a united effort inspired by the common loss. Nothing is more difficult than achieving agreement on aesthetic matters and the results are inevitably mixed in quality. They are, nevertheless, united in sentiment and the wish to record the community’s losses and honour the various wartime roles its members had played. It is intriguing to examine the breadth of design solutions across the country.

There are the memorials to individual heroes or commanders ranging from field marshals to political leaders. These sometimes followed tradition by showing leaders mounted on horseback or looking belligerent, like Ivor Roberts-Jones’ iconic statue of Churchill in Parliament Square. Memorials to individuals were sometimes designed to emphasise bravery or devotion to duty, like the statues to Edith Cavell which seem to encompass the efforts of all the women who worked in the nursing field. There are memorials, often in churches, to individual family members lost at a very young age. The work of the poet Rupert Brooke or the ‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’ sentiment of Laurence Binyon’s famous poem seems to have inspired these figurative memorials – eternal youth somehow offering a comfort for youth eternally lost.

Equally numerous are the monuments that record the efforts and sacrifices of groups of service personnel – individual regiments or squadrons or ships’ companies. These are often both inspiring and heartbreaking, recording as they do the selfless efforts of groups of young servicemen, sometimes shown with their ages and the parishes to which they belonged.

Towns, cities and villages recorded their dead on sites that range from church walls and graveyards to street corners and traffic islands. In major cities like Rochdale, Manchester and Derby, the WWI memorials incorporate effigies of the dead soldier, usually draped in his greatcoat and elevated on a plinth. They served as catalysts for the town’s bereaved families, who could identify their own losses through the universal image of the dead warrior. The emotional power of the WWI memorials was often such that the names of those lost in WWII were added to them: a new generation of personal sacrifices inscribed beside the old.

Businesses whose staff had died during the two world wars often created special memorials in their shops or offices. Schools and colleges, too, took care to remember their dead – the moving cloister by Sir Herbert Baker at Winchester College comes to mind, as does the Gate of Honour at Mill Hill School. Both memorials continue to remind new generations of pupils of the sacrifices of their forebears. Elsewhere, groups of tradesmen are commemorated or civilian workers in the munitions factories or those in the home front emergency services.

The changing ‘language’ of war memorials, the variety of forms, styles and subjects that they have taken historically, reflects intense national debates about what constitutes an appropriate memorial. The question remains unresolved today: selecting a design for the latest memorial for those who have been killed in conflicts since the end of WWII, at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire, was a source of much debate. As conflicts become more divisive and less morally clear-cut, deciding how to commemorate the nation’s war dead may well become an even more controversial issue.


  Restored bronze roll of honour plaque with large crucifix at centre  
  Bronze Roll of Honour plaque at All Saints Church, West Dulwich, recently restored with the help of a WMT grant (Photo: All Saints Church, West Dulwich)  

The more memorials there are, the more there is to maintain to ensure the dead continue to be honoured. War Memorials Trust (WMT) was set up in 1997 in response to a growing need to establish clear responsibility for the maintenance and protection of the nation’s war memorials. Their creation by local committee holds the seeds of doubt about who is responsible for their maintenance. Uncertainty over ownership can lead to neglect and vulnerability. Sometimes the original creators of a memorial have long vanished and it is not unknown for memorials to be sold, moved into storage or destroyed. Sometimes they have been subject to vandalism and inevitably they are eroded by physical decay. Current economic conditions offer a further threat with war memorials squeezed of the often minimal resources they receive.

WMT has a clear purpose as an independent charity to identify war memorials and to provide advocacy and guidance on repairs, training in maintenance to the highest standards and financial grants for conservation. It cannot, however, achieve this alone. Many will turn to their local war memorials to commemorate the forthcoming centenary of WWI. Interest in our war memorials, already stimulated by current conflicts and a growing interest in genealogy, will increase further. WMT hopes that people across the country will respond to the challenges facing our war memorial heritage.

The simplest way to protect our war memorials is through monitoring. If members of the community keep a regular eye on memorials, theft or damage can be reported quickly and decay or deterioration can be monitored so action can be taken when required. Appropriate maintenance, undertaken with an understanding of the importance of conservation, could prevent many of the substantial problems faced by the war memorial custodians who approach WMT for help with repair bills. Too often, our war memorials fade into the background of our daily landscape; we forget to look at them and we assume someone is caring for them when there is, in fact, no legal duty on anyone to do so.


  Richard Goulden bronze depicting winged figure holding sword aloft
  Richard Goulden’s bronze memorial sculpture at the entrance to St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, in the City of London; Goulden served on the Western Front in 1915-1916 (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)

WMT administers a number of grant programmes which help local communities to undertake the repair and conservation of war memorials of all types and dates. Offering grants, normally of up to 50 per cent, the programmes encourage best conservation practice. Local communities are encouraged to contact the charity if they feel they may be eligible for support which can fund repair, conservation or prevention works, as well as condition and structural surveys. The trust administers schemes on behalf of English Heritage, The Wolfson Foundation and Historic Scotland as well as its own Small Grants Scheme, for which WMT raises all funds itself. Recent grant awards range from £140 towards the cost of pinning the arm of the war memorial cross at the entrance to Holy Trinity Churchyard in Great Hockham in Norfolk through to £7,936 for a substantial conservation project on the Blitz memorial in Plymouth. WMT features all its grants on a searchable online database (www.warmemorials.org/search-grants) designed to demonstrate how it can help and assist applicants and identify best practice.

Among the trust’s current key initiatives is a campaign to encourage local authorities to designate a War Memorials Officer. The initiative is building a growing network of people involved in war memorial conservation and encouraging local responsibility for the care of memorials. The trust already has a well-established and growing core of regional volunteers (although more are always needed) who are working in their local area to preserve their war memorials and promote awareness of the charity.

Another of the trust’s key projects is called ‘In Memoriam 2014’. This partnership project, run by WMT and the Smartwater Foundation, is a protective programme to mark memorials with Smartwater, a security marking fluid that offers robust traceability in the event of theft, especially of metals. The fluid is being provided free of charge to war memorial custodians (see www.inmemoriam2014.org for details).

Caring for war memorials is, of course, a long term project, so educating and inspiring future generations to respect and care for the great heritage of our war memorials is critical. The trust is committed to an education programme at all levels about the history and vulnerability of war memorials and has appointed a learning officer to further this aim.

WMT is a charity with a membership and it needs to continue to grow a network of supporters, members and volunteers to help extend national awareness of our war memorials and the need to protect and preserve them. The trust’s website (www.warmemorials.org) is a great source of information about this important and effective charity which deserves wider national support. It is also an excellent resource for all those interested in the history of war memorials or their conservation.

Historic Churches, 2011


COLIN AMERY has been a trustee of the War Memorials Trust since 2005. A former director of World Monuments Fund Britain and current president of the Lutyens Trust, he was the architecture correspondent for the Financial Times for 20 years. His books include Lutyens: The Work of the English Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1981).

Further information


Churches (general)

Stained glass

Statuary and stone carving




Advisory bodies and associations

Cast iron

Metalwork, bronze

Sculptors and statuary

Stained glass




Site Map