Memorials and Other Ranks

English: Blucher Wellington and Napoleon's def...

Blucher, Wellington and Napoleon’s defeat (1815). They certainly didn’t do it alone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Britain as a whole, war-related memorials were uncommon until 1802 when, in response to Napoleon’s policy of memorialisation, £40,000 (about £1,250,000 today) was set aside by government for the creation of the Committee of National Monuments, from which memorials and monuments were to be constructed. Initially this fund was largely used inside Greater London, however gradually ‘monument mania’ caught on across the country, backed by the public and the insistence of newspapers.  By 1838 the Times was reporting with regret that within a radius of 30 miles inside the city of London there were not more than 17 statues. It found comfort however in the fact that this was a definite improvement over those present twenty years earlier, when less than half that number had been erected, most of them being of monarchs (King, 1998).

The first non-royal public memorials in London were constructed in 1809 and 1816; the first in Devon and Somerset however, are a lot more difficult to determine. Where records in London were meticulous, those in rural areas are not. Bristol and the cities of Exeter and Plymouth display some memorialisation, although most, especially in the latter two, are relatively private affairs situated inside public buildings. A contender for the first such memorial would be the Wellington Monument, on the border between Devon and Somerset on the Blackdown Hills, although only because it was started in 1817 – it was not to be finished for 40 years thereafter (Corke, 2005).

Across the board it is clear that officers are more prominent on memorials and much more common in the wider record of 19th Century memorials than the private soldier. There are many reasons for this including the 19th century class system, record keeping, officers’ use has figureheads, their fame and perceived example etc. By the time of the First World War however, attitudes were starting to change.

The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), often just refered to as the Boer War, was the first conflict to utilise large numbers of Volunteer and Yeomanry Battalions. In this it set a precursor to the mass mobilisation and conscription present in Britain during both World Wars. Coupled with advances in press coverage made during conflicts such as the Crimean War in the 1850’s, people could now see hear and read about the importance of not just the commanders and the armies in general, but about individuals. Medal lists were published, mentions in despatches were read and quoted and complete casualty lists were kept. The people at home became closer to the troops than ever before, and slowly came to realise that all but the highest ranking generals were all in the same boat.

20th Century memorials reflect this change in attitudes. On the Blackdown Hills we can evidence this in several places where ranks are not mentioned at all and the dead are listed alphabetically instead, such as at Buckland St. Mary and Chardstock. In other places such as Corfe ranks are displayed in public outside the church, but all names are presented without rank inside. At Staple Fitzpaine the situation is similar in that names are present in order of rank but without the rank being given, leading to slight confusion on first viewing.

In modern times with our recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan we can see this trend continuing. Modern memorials are either dedicated to all the men and name none of them, or all the men and name all of them, most often without details of rank.

References & Further Reading
Corke, J. 2005 War Memorials in Britain Shire Books, Buckinghamshire
King, A. 1998 Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance Berg, Oxford

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