Culture notes

A history of remembrance

An English Heritage exhibition atop Wellington Arch explores six London memorials

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

One fight that seems to have been won is that spearheaded by the War Memorials Trust to preserve the thousands of memorials — monuments, statues, plinths, tablets — erected across the country to honour our war dead. Through conservation grants and hard graft, and a clampdown on the scrap-metal trade, many decaying and vandalised memorials have been rescued.

Inventories are being compiled, guides published, and now English Heritage is staging an exhibition atop Wellington Arch (until 30 November) that explores the history of six London memorials in its keeping. Two are visible from the arch: Jagger’s Royal Artillery masterpiece (above) and Derwent Wood’s more controversial David, commemorating the Suicide Club, aka the Machine Gun Corps. The others are the Cenotaph, Edith Cavell, the Belgian Gratitude Memorial and Earl Haig.

Their stories are told with plenty of supporting items, such as maquettes, sketches, letters and even a Vickers gun. It’s been calculated that it would take three-and-a-half days for the British and Empire dead of the Great War to march past the Cenotaph four abreast. Shining a light on the way we came to terms with loss on this scale, the exhibition also reveals the personalities of the artists: Hardiman struggling not to have to make a realistic likeness of Poperinghe, Haig’s favourite horse; Jagger’s insistence on including the effigy of a dead gunner, even if he had to pay for it himself; Derwent Wood fashioning masks for disfigured survivors. The dead lay abroad, the living had to get on with making a new world.

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  • Terry Field

    There is a lack of understanding of the dismal reality in most of the comments I have read in this season of ‘remembrance’.
    The nature of human social organisation is that we group together, and find more or less natural boundaries to the group. And the group identifies itself against external, other groups.
    From this, we self-justify, feel good about ourselves and abhor the failings of others – we use our young to project our social will, arm them for the purpose,and that always involves the murder of members of other groups.
    These anecdotes, recollections, dream-histories and maudlin pre-ocupations make us feel better about ourselves, and look to bind up ‘our’ social wounds.
    But where is a voice that says these acts are a key unavoidable result of the existence of the structures of the group; the State; the Nation.
    The increasing power of the state; the increased coerciveness of its organs of propaganda, the increased willingness of its members to succumb to its point of view in seeing ‘truth’, all these things enhance the probability that the slaughters will be without end; that we will kill ourselves, and all other forms of life, with continuous and all-pervasive self-justification, and with certainty that (for those who still believe) God is With Us.
    No hope remains.