Recently, I revisited the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) with students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester.
I have previously posted about my archaeological interest in the NMA, located near Alrewas, Staffordshire. Constructed for the millennium in a disused gravel quarry, it is ‘where our nation remembers’, so says their website and literature. I am interested in the archaeological dimensions to the memorials; the overt design of memorials using manifold antique media, and the reuse of specific artefacts and materials to evoke the subjects of commemoration. See my posts on the archaeology of the NMA here and here. If these interest you, perhaps have a look at post-print versions of my publications on the NMA here and here.
Every time I return to the NMA, I realise how many of the memorials receive additions and sometimes major rearrangements. This is not only a space where the arboreal dimensions change with the seasons and grow over the years, but also the monuments themselves evolve. In my recent visit, I noticed a series of these. I would suggest these are monuments that proved to be inadequate in their original design, or are re-dedications of existing memorials and gardens.
The Dunkirk memorial commemorates the battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in May/June 1940 through Operation Dynamo.
It has been reworked since I last visited. Indeed, when I visited in 2014, the area near the entrance where the Dunkirk memorial was situated was being completely reworked and memorials had been removed. The memorial is now back and doesn’t look like it has ever left. Yet it is completely different and repositioned. It is now more central within the zone between the road and the carpark.
Many of the components are the same and the principal focal point remains identical: a Tommy hat balanced on a Lee Enfield rifle, powerfully evoking the concept of a temporary burial on a beach.
This feature has now been augmented with large replica groynes and a wider expanse sand which together create a sense of the Dunkirk beach from which the evacuation took place.
This is one of a few of beach reconstructions at the NMA; others are the RNLI memorial and the D-Day memorial; all are remarkably evocative if incongruous given how far Alrewas is from the sea in any direction of travel.
The original sand was imported from Dunkirk but it is unclear whether this material allusion to the beaches of northern France have been retained or fallen to the wayside.
The rather bizarre model of a German Stuka being chased by a British fighter remains, but is now set to one side.
Another dimension that is new are memorial plaques to individuals as well as to the campaigns themselves. There is also a memorial bench with the name ‘Dunkirk’ added to it.
In summary, we have a reworked memorial that is relocated, expanded and reorganised to create the collective campaign focus and spaces for personalised memorialisation of the battle and evacuation. What is also worth noting is that the Dunkirk memorial is at the front of the NMA, beside the car park and somewhat in limbo as a result. It is not a comfortable place to dwell, somewhere to encounter on your way in and way out. Somehow it remains somewhat dislocated: a point of arrival and disembarkation, just like the Dunkirk beaches.
The Falklands Memorial Walk
Part of the Allied Special Forces grove opened in 2003, this is an interesting one, since I am quite sure this used to be dedicated by the Western Front Association. Now, broadly contemporary with the dedication of the Falklands Conflict Memorial elsewhere at the NMA, it seems the Falklands Conflict has replaced it from March 2014.
There are a series of memorials here: a memorial assemblage. There are plaques to commemorate the three Falklands civilians killed in the conflict, individual servicemen, and memorials to commemorate the Falklands Islands Resistance and the memorial way itself. These are distributed in a grove of trees with borders and within a path and a large cane goose or swan sculpture that pre-dates the Falklands Walk. Incorporated into this path is the Pegagus Bridge memorial (D-Day) and various other elements. So this is a bizarre memorial environment in which the Falklands is linked to various Second World War resistance memorials and other earlier commemorative associations.
The Never Forget Memorial
The third monument that has been significantly reworked is the poppy memorial – the Never Forget Memorial – which is the Royal British Legion’s own memorial focus (the RBL now run the NMA). For £2 per month, you can have a dedicatory poppy added to the memorial.
This monument was present here at my first visit five years ago but in 2013 it was raised up from ground level and afforded with coherent memorial walls and with a poppy-shaped stone plaque explaining the memorial’s function and significance. What is interesting is that this constitutes something of a rewriting of history because the news article in the Daily Telegraph makes no mention that there had been a memorial of comparable size present on the site before. This is a delicious irony for the ‘Never Forget’ memorial…
The problem with these memorials is that they look static, timeless and coherent. Yet only through multiple visits is it evident just how fluid some of these memorials actually are. Archaeologists talk about monument biographies with regard to long-term augmentation and reworking of monuments over time. Yet here we see an active forgetting of the past but obscuring their augmentation as rededication. Is there an archive recording these micro and macro-transformations of the NMA’s memorials through a relatively short history of creation and use since the millennium? It is a stark warning against anyone studying 20th and 21st-century memorials who thinks they constant static and permanent monuments. The NMA’s memorials are always in motion it seems.