Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War, churches across the land seem to be creating new shrines within their walls. In addition to flowers and flags, many of these seem to be incorporating a range of militaria, presumably lent by parishioners to materially represent the naval and armed forces of those who served and those who died from the parish. In some cases they evoke the landscapes of the Western Front and the seas where service took place. Some incorporate clearly old artefacts, others modern-day artefacts that stand to represent themes in the First World War.
Lindisfarne’s St. Mary’s church provides an example. Here in this maritime community one can see naval caps and an army helmet, an anchor, fishing nets and lobster pots, barbed wire and bullets. There is a spade and a cut-out horse’s head as well as poppies: real and incorporated into floral arrangements and fabricated within wreaths. All of these items are framed by an altar and juxtaposed with earlier memorials to the war dead of the parish on the north wall of the church.
The result is a diorama of militaria, a microcosm of war within the church space. In another I saw recently, there were sandbags, poppies, a tommy hat and a… model of a carrier pigeon!
Given my previous attention to the utilisation of retrieved and reused militaria at Britain’s national focus of conflict remembrance – the National Memorial Arboretum – it is striking how otherwise disturbing and inappropriate items of war find a comfortable place within our churches at this time of national remembrance. I can only presume that grenades, gas canisters, rifles, machine guns and bayonets remain taboo. Despite the attention afforded by scholars to war memorials, these temporary shrines and their portable components foreground the enduring power of selected materiel culture to commemorate the horrors of 20th-century warfare in the 21st century.