For a blog about death and memory in the human past, I have pledged to keep down my discussions of war commemoration to an absolute minimum rather than add to the zombie commemorative culture of war anniversaries. However, again I find myself inspired to write about ‘typical’ First World War memorials rather than the exceptional monuments that attract attention for their distinctive artistic merit or unusual or national significance.
For those interested, I have posted previously about First World War memorials;
- once about my local war memorial here,
- about the commemoration of the First World War in churches here
- and at the commemoration of the First World War at the National Memorial Arboretum here.
This post has two themes:
- The protracted biographies of First World War memorials
- The textual slide towards commemorative incongruityof some war memorials
For these two themes, my case study is the same: the Connah’s Quay and Shotton War Memorial, located on Connah’s Quay High Street. National War Memorial inventory number 7116. Further details about the war memorial can also be found here and here. I visited this memorial when out walking with my twins to Wepre Park from Shotton railway station.
From the time of their commissioning and erection, in this case in 1927, First World War memorials have experienced many stages of use for ceremonies and other memorial functions, been subject to erosion and accidental damage, sometimes vandalism and theft, and phases of refurbishment. What is also striking is how, despite superficially seemingly pervasive and fixed landmarks, they can be moved. Even if static, their surroundings re-landscaped and paved; creating changing environments. Memorials are subject to augmented and transformed uses.
In particular, war memorials accrue commemorative texts over time, honouring the dead from successive conflicts and thus recasting each time the relationships between the dead from these conflicts. Sometimes memorials only barely retain their sense of integrity while others have to adapt their form to receive the names of the dead of each successive conflict. The biographies of these memorials are written onto them with multiple texts and material embellishments.
The Connah’s Quay and Shotton is a good example.
- On two sides of the pillar are bronze memorial plaques outlining the context of the memorial and where those named fell in the conflict
- On the west and east faces of the pillar are the names of over 200 names of the First World War dead;
- northern front bears a memorial plaque to the dead of the Second World War, notably with two names appended at a later date;
- there is a further plaque commemorating those who died since 1945: three in Korea, two in Cyprus, and one in the Falklands;
- The final plaque is to a serviceman killed in Iraq in 2007;
Of course the ‘biography’ of a memorial like this is not simply about what gets added or removed. The static original messages remain, but take on new significances with each generation.
Hence, the Connah’s Quay and Shotton memorial is also valuable as an example for the way in which a original text upon a war memorials, rather than achieving a neutral timelessness, jars with contemporary responses and sentiments towards war. Triumphalism has always been eschewed on memorials, but patriotism takes ever different forms, making some memorials’ texts awkward to a modern eye (at least this is my view, others might read it as of enduring significance…). The quote inscribed on the stone base of the monument is attributed to Rudyard Kipling and represents, to my mind, a chilling patriotism and mindless robustness in the face of mass human death that is difficult to stomach. At least that is how it reads when selected out of context, regardless of whether it held this stark message in its original literary context. Likewise, the incongruity of ‘England’, admittedly close by, is certainly now incongruous on a memorial in a Flintshire town (a part of Wales forever England?):
WHAT STAND IS FREEDOM FALL?
WHO DIES IF ENGLAND LIVE?
Almost to add insult to injury, this bellicose text is repeated on both the western and eastern base of the memorial. Was this quotation ever representing a consensus view? What sentiments does this text now offer? It is difficult to ignore how this text is powerful and disturbing in ways perhaps unintended, as the memorial has aged and received repeated textual additions.