At the Bournemouth TAG conference in December 2013 I presented a paper in a session on ‘Archaeologies of Margaret Thatcher’ focusing on the commemoration of the Falklands Conflict in the British Isles. I centred my scrutiny on the South Atlantic Taskforce Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire. I proposed that a key ingredient of commemorative programme involved mnemonic citation through the material form of stones, as well as the significance afforded to stones transported from the Falkland Islands themselves.
On Saturday, I had the opportunity to visit the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, at Pangbourne College, Berkshire. The college is an independent co-educational institution with strong maritime military links.
The chapel was built in 2000 as a national focus for remembrance of the Falklands Conflict of May and June 1982, in which a British taskforce re-took the Falkland Islands and South Georgia following an Argentine invasion. The conflict cost 258 British lives and many more Argentine casualities on land, sea and in the air. The conflict remains a focus of controversy and tension between the UK and Argentina to this day.
The Landscape of the Chapel
I met with an open chapel without anyone else visiting. My two kids explored whilst I took a photographic record. There are many material components, inside and out, and I won’t give a detailed account of all of them.
However, I do want to draw attention to the allusions to the landscape of the South Atlantic islands prominent in the grounds of the chapel through a memorial cairn of stones. This is part of the ‘Stones from Home’ memorial project that began in 2002.
There are other allusions too. To the north of the chapel are bronze sculptures of three albatrosses. To the south, there are various plants brought from the Falkland Islands. In these ways, animals, plants and stones project a connection between Berkshire and the South Atlantic. There is an awkwardly isolated circular brick memorial to commemorate the SAS involved in the conflict with a suitably secretive small memorial plaque.
The Chapel and its Spaces
Inside the chapel, are the names of every serviceman lost in the conflict, Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Flight Auxiliary, Royal Marines and British Army. The landscape of the South Atlantic and the Falkland Islands in particular are cited in other ways. Indeed the entire building is boat-shaped, prompting a sense of the maritime armada that set forth in 1982.
The main front doors’ glass panels invoke different components of landscape experienced in the South Atlantic: the cold ice, rocks, sea, and sky of the islands, and the memorial window projects a sense of seascape. The education room has a timeline and photographs of the conflict, and there is even a display case with scale models of every ship that took part in the armada, from HMS Hermes to QE2.
Militaria are rare, but there is a bell memorialising the loss of RFA Sir Galahad (it isn’t clear if it is the original one, presumably it is a replica or a re-cast?) and the ensign from HMS Glamorgan.
A further dimension is how memorials to the ‘old boys’ of the college have themselves been displaced and found a new home within the Falklands Island Memorial Chapel. In other words, deaths and ‘sacrifices’ from past conflicts consolidate the memorial programme of the Falklands Conflict. These include a stained glass window and individual memorial plaques.
I left somewhat vindicated about my views, expressed in the just-published articles in the International Journal of Heritage Studies and Archaeological Dialogues, regarding the importance of material reuse as a commemorative strategy in British memorial culture, drawing upon a long tradition of translating archaeology (the Elgin Marbles and Cleopatra’s Needle come to mind) and stone to create the commemorative environment for British military endeavours worldwide on home territory. The memorial cairn outside the eastern end of the chapel is a clear example of the idea of creating compositions from retrieved rocks but at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel there were many further ‘authentic’ and ‘replica’ allusions to the South Atlantic in stone and other media.
Still, I also left a little disconcerted. Partly this was because I have never before visited a UK independent school, let alone visited a memorial chapel in the grounds of one. Partly I was disconcerted by the fact that my usual visits to chapels and churches are far older buildings, seldom to one constructed as recently as 2000. It was also disconcerting that this is a still-active memorial to a conflict in which many veterans still live and yet its newness jarred with the fact that it seemed so empty and desolate.
There are many further views I might express here, but one is that I can see why veterans and their families wanted a memorial at the NMA. This is because, the NMA is a more public and popular site of remembrance, to contrast with the more private memorial chapel in an (equally) landlocked environment but in the accessible but private grounds of an exclusive school. Despite the college’s long military traditions, this felt to me to be a somewhat incongruous setting to commemorate British military action in the South Atlantic. Still, this is an important node in the complex memorial web honouring the dead of this recent British conflict and one that defined the era and had lasting ramifications internationally but also upon Britain’s politics and society.