War Memorials: Discovery and Engagement

Partnership working keeps the memory of the First World War alive in local communities.

The war memorial has become one of the most familiar symbols of remembrance. Found in almost every town and village, we have become so accustomed to their presence that it is easy for them to go unnoticed. As Robert Musil, the Austrian philosopher, declared, ‘there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.’ But the centenary of the First World War and its focus on the conflict’s unprecedented loss of life has brought these monuments back into focus.

Through the First World War Memorials Programme, Historic England has been working in partnership with Civic Voice, Imperial War Museums (IWM) and War Memorials Trust to help communities and school children engage with and explore their local war memorial heritage. Throughout the centenary period the partners have been working together with the public and students to discover both the stories behind the nation’s war memorials and the role that we can all play in their future protection.

Helping volunteers to explore their local heritage

Civic Voice has held almost 200 workshops with civic societies, universities and community groups to help people care for and safeguard their local war memorials by undertaking condition surveys and sharing their results with War Memorials Trust. For the first time in such a large-scale national project, volunteers were also invited to submit their local war memorials for inclusion on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE).

The programme’s focus on all First World War memorials has resulted in a host of new discoveries about previously overlooked commemorations.

 The programme’s focus on all First World War memorials, not just those that are well known or sculpturally significant, has resulted in a host of new discoveries about previously overlooked commemorations.

University of Birmingham student Coralie Acheson researched over forty war memorials and successfully applied for them to be added to the NHLE. These included the monument in the tiny village of West Keal in Lincolnshire: here it was discovered that the memorial was designed by Sir John Ninian Comper and includes a sculpture by William Drinkwater Gough. Coralie’s research also revealed that Keswick War Memorial in Cumbria contained significant sculptural elements. The monument, which was unveiled in a ceremony on 21 May 1922, was sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood, who also worked on the iconic Machine Gun Corps Memorial in Hyde Park, London.

A war memorial with a poppy wreath laid on its plinth.
Keswick War Memorial, Cumbria. © Coralie Acheson

In addition to researching local war memorials, Civic Voice has also been working to help communities engage in their long-term care by carrying out condition surveys. These are simple conservation surveys that involve visiting a war monument and answering a set of questions about its state of preservation: the results can be uploaded onto War Memorials Online.

Through these surveys it has been discovered that six per cent of war memorials can be considered in poor condition and one per cent as in very bad condition. Large-scale community engagement in this way allows the condition of the UK’s war memorials to be monitored and for preventative action to be undertaken if needed. Together with protection through listing, this ensures that monuments can continue to stand as fitting tributes to the nation’s war dead for many years to come.

A group of people studying a war memorial.
Volunteers attending a Civic Voice Workshop assess the condition of Leamington Spa War Memorial. © Civic Voice.

Engaging young people in their local history

Assessing the condition of memorials, undertaking necessary repairs and protecting free-standing monuments through listing are all vital for their long-term sustainability. 

Equally important is ensuring that the next generation understand the significance of memorials and how to care for them.

 Through the First World War Memorials Programme, Historic England’s Heritage Schools Managers and War Memorials Trust Learning Officers have worked with schools to teach students about the history and significance of memorials and to help them research the lives of those listed on their local examples.

A group of children in a classroom learning about the First World War.
Students from John Randall Primary School near Telford learn about the centenary of the First World War and its memorials. © Historic England

Some students even went on to make films about war memorials or imagined narratives for those inscribed on them.

A group of school children filming a war memorial.
Pupils from Moat Community College in Leicester filming a First World War film at their local war memorial. © Historic England

At the time of their construction, many monuments were are the heart of community life. But over time, as people with familial connections have died or moved away, the stories have been lost or are known only to family members. When pupils from Hackforth and Hornby Church of England Primary School in North Yorkshire carried out research into their local church war memorial they discovered that there were descendants of those listed on the memorial still living in the village. These descendants came into the school to share their memories with the children and to ensure that their stories were passed on to the next generation.

After researching the lives behind the names, some students went on to learn about what life must have been like on the home front during the First World War. Pupils from Waterville Primary School in Tyne and Wear researched the impact of the war on their community by looking at war memorials, military records and a range of artefacts, including letters written to and from soldiers serving on the front line. After completing their research, they wrote a play with their class teacher, based on what they had learnt about the war, and created a character called James through which they reimagined the experience of joining up for the war and the effect that this had on his friends and family.

Whilst learning about the history of the memorials, students were also taught that they too can play an important role in their future by carrying out condition surveys and by applying to protect them through listing.

A group of school children carrying out a survey of a war memorial.
Students from John Randall Primary School assessing the condition of their local war memorial. Lucy Millson-Watkins. © Historic England

By engaging with the physical structure, students were able to identify whether or not it was in good condition and if it needed any repairs, thus helping to preserve it for future generations. One student commented:

‘I think it is important to look after memorials because they are an important part of our heritage.  With them being there we can pay our respects for the soldiers who gave their today for our tomorrow.’  Edward, Year 6

 Throughout the programme it was realised that it was not only schools which wanted to engage young people in heritage in this way. Many groups that had carried out research into memorials were unsure how they could share their findings with a younger audience.

In response, the First World War Memorials Programme ran a series of ‘Engaging Young People in Heritage’ workshops.

Workshops brought together community groups and researchers who wanted to share their knowledge.

 These workshops brought together community groups and researchers who had been working on war memorials and wanted to share their knowledge. Attendees learned how best to approach schools and youth groups and how to make their research accessible to a younger audience. The workshops also gave them the opportunity to learn directly from those who had already run successful projects.

Two people engaged in a lively discussion.
Participants at an ‘Engaging Young People in Heritage Workshop’ in Birmingham share their experiences. Lucy Millson-Watkins © Historic England

Co-ordinating the research findings

For all of these activities to take place it is vital that communities, students and custodians have access to relevant information. Through the First World War Memorials Programme, Historic England has been working with IWM and War Memorials Trust to make information as accessible as possible. There is now a central location, the IWM’s War Memorials Register, which not only provides historical information on a monument but also links directly to War Memorials Online, which describes its condition and, if it is listed, gives access to the list entry on the appropriate national heritage website.

IWM’s War Memorials Register also holds a searchable database of over one million names recorded on memorials, allowing individuals to find where their family members are commemorated. Through all of these initiatives, the First World War Memorials Programme has been working to engage as many people as possible with their local monument and to ensure that they are no longer passed by unnoticed.

About the author

Emma Login

Emma Login

First World War Memorials Programme Manager, Historic England

Emma joined Historic England in 2016 as the First World War Memorials Programme Manager. Before this she worked as a heritage consultant on ‘Landscapes of Life’, an exhibition on Remembrance and war memorials at the National Memorial Arboretum. Emma studied at the University of Birmingham where, in 2015, she was awarded her Ph.D. from the Ironbridge Institute of Cultural Heritage. Her research explored processes of war memorial construction and her thesis, ‘Set in Stone? War Memorialisation as a Long-Term and Continuing Process in the UK, France and the USA’, was published in 2016 by Archaeopress.

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