The ‘cloister’ at the NMA containing dislocated ‘homeless’ memorials to the First and Second World Wars

Archaeologists are increasingly contributing to the study of the First World War – its material cultures and landscapes – within the British Isles and the zones of conflict. Part of this contribution is the study of First World War commemoration.

The Gallipoli memorial – designed by a Turkish artist, it is distinctive in its bare trees that subvert the growing arboreal metaphor for commemoration of the NMA as a whole.

I have just posted about the NMA with regard to its uses of antiquity and its commemoration of the Second World War and those that have served and died post 1945 including the Falklands Conflict. Yet this 21st-century memorial landscape commemorates the First World War in many of its memorial gardens and groves. Here, as argued before, we can best understand the NMA as an assemblage, where some themes cross-cut multiple memorials, creating spatial and material networks of memorial association.

First, the site contains many dislocated and relocated memorials to the dead of the First World War. Second, it contains memorials to many First World War campaigns and landscapes, for example, the Gallipoli memorial. Third, the First World War is also present in the memorial gardens and woods to regiments who served, including the Irish Infantry Grove, where trees invoke the primordial antiquity of Ireland’s landscape. Fourth, perhaps the most evocative memorial is perhaps the ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial erected before the official UK government’s pardon to those named within it, executed for desertion and cowardice during the First World War.

Close-up of the stark wooden pillars, replicating posts of execution, one each for one life, that mark the ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial

In many ways, the NMA, like much of the British landscape, is dominated by the Great War. Despite the many other conflicts, groups and subjects commemorated within its grounds, the First World War is directly and indirectly referred to throughout via texts, materials and memorial forms.

The NMA reminds us how our commemorative practices and memorials, just like our society more broadly, still lives the in shadow of the Great War. I mean this both in the sense of the popular imagination, but also physically through the tangible presence of war memorials throughout the British landscape. In the constant revisionist and counter-revisionist debates about the course and legacy of the First World War, this memorial legacy is not only alive and well in our anniversary ‘celebrations’ and our new memorials, but also through the memorial and cenotaphic presence of the dead on home soil, while their bodies are lost or interred in war grave cemeteries in the former conflict zones.

Relocated war memorial, the NMA