I have been thinking about memorialisation recently. When I came across this document from the Imperial War Museum, I thought I would put my thoughts into this blog. The IWM document looks at the history of memorialisation and covers a wide period of time. I wanted to look at the section regarding the 19th century.
This is what is says:
‘In the years prior to the First World War, warfare was of a markedly different nature. For example, in the 19th century, war and colonial skirmishes occupied a major part of Britain’s history, but the soldiers of these wars were professionals, isolated from the society which they served. Commemoration of the war dead was the exception rather than the norm and it was mainly restricted to officers, a privileged elite largely drawn from families for whom death in action was an occupational hazard. One example (above) is this rather prosaic memorial in Coddenham Parish Church, Suffolk to Capt Bacon who fell in a naval battle in 1666 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War 1665 – 1667.
In contrast, the rank and file were viewed by many as the sweepings of society, only one stage removed from criminals and often the two groups were seen as interchangeable. If a son had “gone for a soldier” this was not an event to be viewed with pride.
Where memorials were erected to groups of men, they were usually regimental ones, such as this one (left) erected by the Brigade of Guards in Westminster, London to those who fell in the Crimean War.’
© Imperial War Museum – UK National Inventory of War Memorials November 2001
The first point made by the document is that 19th century soldiers were isolated from society, a view supported to some extent by Edward Spiers’ landmark book, The Army and society 1815-1914.
However, I feel this view is incorrect.
In fact, I believe that the British army was an organic body moulded and shaped by societal views. An argument reflected by the strength of the cult of militarism in 19th century Britain.
I offer two pieces of evidence to support this argument:
1. Crimean War: The publication of soldier’s letters in The Times and other newspapers, produced wide spread pubic support for the British soldiers in Russia. In addition, numerous publicly initiated schemes existed to help the army, ranging from simple fund raising to the registration of new inventions for use in the field.
2. Victoria Cross: The initiation of this medal was greeted with wide spread public support. This was illustrated by the first presentation of the medal at Hyde Park in 1857. This event was attended by literally thousands of people, with the awardees being mobbed as they tried to leave the park.
This said the opening thrust of the document is interesting. It identifies the First World War as marking a turning point in the way society viewed war, an argument all military historians would support. In addition, it recognises the haphazard manner in which soldiers were recognised. I think this is an important issue.
In the 19th century the duty of memorisation fell to the regiment, the community or the Church. There was no larger body offering an alternative path of memorialisation.
The document also recognises the difference that existed in remembering single individuals and groups of men. My research has shown that during this time society would readily recognise units of men, the Army as a whole, officers and generals. However, they were far more reluctant to recognise the simple soldier or a single man. This is reflected in the honours system and begins to explain why the individuality Victoria Cross made it such a powerful medal.
This means that you find a typical type of memorialisation for soldiers killed in conflicts during the 19th century. It tends to be a small plaque (or possibly discrete monument) which lists the names of the men killed. These men will belong to a community such as individual unit or village. However, in comparison to later wars, these memorials are very rare. You can also find individual inscriptions for soldiers, though these tend to be for officers and are found at either gravesides or in institutions that the deceased possessed an emotional connection (e.g. local church).
Therefore in turning my attention to modern society I propose that we currently face two distinct issues:
1. A lack of centralised scheme or system for recognising soldiers killed in action. With governments and regiments reluctant to make public demonstrations of grief, it is left to public bodies, such as the British legion or the Church, to arrange uncoordinated and haphazard acts of remembrance.
2. A desire to recognise the individual. The raise of individual power in British society has left many people with a desire to recognise the death of a single person, such as roadside shrines. We have little experience of this method of memorialisation, beyond graveside inscriptions and church plaques, and therefore have no blueprint on which to base our grief.