Last week, my level 5 (2nd-year) archaeology students went on a field trip to explore 20th-century conflict commemoration as part of their module The Contemporary Past. We visited four First World War memorials close to Chester and I selected four that would share themes, but also reveal contrasts. In this sense, they reveal how neighbouring parishes chose to commemorate the dead of the First World War and how each set a precedent, but also posed challenges, for how the dead of future conflicts would be commemorated in relation to the fallen of the Great War.
In taking the students around these war memorials, the aim was not to provide a detailed account of the historical context and circumstances of the individual war memorials, but to consider them in comparative terms as memorials with distinctive materialities, biographies, locations and spatial arrangements, as well as landscape contexts.
A Grade II listed sandstone monument. Unveiled in 1920, this memorial commemorates the dead of the parish in the First World War and the Second World War. Its form is a ‘simple Celtic’ wheel-headed cross on a plinth with a two-stepped base. It cost £190.
We discussed its form and arrangement: its medieval allusions and, in particular, evocations of early medieval crosses from Chester and environs. We also considered how its form was taller and larger, distinct from the memorials in the churchyard marking individual graves and burial plots, thus setting it in relation to, but distinct from, churchyard tombs and gravestones.
It was situated within a rectangular memorial space reached by steps from the main southerly churchyard path just within the lychgate. As such, the memorial provided a dedicated environment for remembrance services and was intended to be engaged with from all sides, even though the front is clearly S looking out from the churchyard to the landscape.
In terms of biography, the four sides of the plinth allowed a separate plaque for the dead of the Second World War relatively easily compared with the other memorials we visited. We talked about the placing of wreaths around bases: here there were the usual steps upon which wreaths might rest.
We also addressed how it was positioned by the principal southern approach to the churchyard just E from a lychgate. While prominent, this actually removed from the primary approach from the village. Sitting on the border of the churchyard beside the gate, it is prominent and yet ‘liminal’ between churchyard and ‘landscape’.
In this location, the memorial possessed views over the landscape, but would never be approached from the south from a distance: the main N-S road runs W from the church and thus nowhere near the war memorial. Meanwhile, the village itself is to the N of the churchyard. Hence, its prominence is symbolic and follows a convention that operates effectively elsewhere, but here at Great Barrow renders the memorial relatively obscure.
An unlisted granite memorial, it is a simple wheel-headed cross facing the N-S road and opposite a lane to the S of the church and churchyard. Separate, rather than part of the churchyard, it still is connected to consecrated ground.
In addition to further medieval allusions, we noted how the downward pointing sword was evoked on the E side facing the main road. There is the base of now-lost railings that would have fenced in the memorial. As such, this was a more orientated memorial than Great Barrow, with a clear and overt ‘front’ facing E onto the road. Still, it shared with Great Barrow in possessing a clearly defined memorial space, around which remembrance services might be conducted.
Rather than a separate plaque added for the Second World War dead: the single name was squashed in beneath the same E face that bears the First World War fallen on the E face. The dead of the two world wars thus merge more intimately at Asthon Hayes than Great Barrow, although both put great efforts into affording parity between the dead of the two conflicts.
We considered the recent offerings, traces of November 2017. There were poppy painted pebbles on the plinth and poppy windmills in a line on the E front facing the road. These constitute modest-sized technologies of remembrance as devotional and mnemonic practices that afford a distinctive temporality to the monument (you can register the passing of time from the last remembrance services, as you can with the deposition of wreaths). They also provide a degree of animation (the movement of the wind through the mills): a theme found in present-day child’s graves.
The memorial is not large, but its position on a bank above the road gave it considerable prominence. Unlike Great Barrow, the roadside location with views out to the E had far greater prominence.
So in terms of landscape context, text, form and ornament, there were both similarities and key differences between the Great Barrow and Ashton Hayes memorials.
A Grade II listed sandstone monument comprising a latin cross on a three-stepped base, it is dated to 1920. This memorial shares many spatial and material similarities to the previous two memorials, but is situated in a E-facing discrete space with a gated side-entrance from the path to the churchyard. It is backed by hedges, obscuring the other graves. The front has stone pillars and iron railings and a wall.
It comprises a stone base with an inscription through a series of plaques. In front is an altar-like stone with a further memorial inscription. This latter feature renders it distinctive from the others, for here there is an additional memorial space, itself liminal between the road and the memorial space.
Again, there is a combination of First World War names (22) and then 3 additional names for the Second World War fallen added to the stone base. A parity of text size and medium was attempted, but inevitably the pre-existing shape of the plinth meant the new plaques had to join on the steps and of a different shape.
The relationship with the churchyard is interesting: the separateness is clear, but the sign for the church is within the memorial space.
A rubbish bin and bench are now situated in front of the failings and wall that front the memorial and its prominent road-facing stance mirrors that of Ashton Hayes, even if its setting is far more elaborate.
The final of the four memorials takes us both into familiary territory and into unknown waters. This 6m-tall sandstone memorial was unveiled in 1920 and cost £500. It is also situated in a ‘liminal’ position within, but at the edge, outside of, the yard of St James’ church.
It is not a wheel-shaped cross, unlike the others. Instead, it is an ornate lantern cross with rich carved details including a cross, Christogram and gothic arches with Tudor roses and acanthus leaves. It is associated with other listed features including the lych gate itself, a sundial and a memorial shelter on the village green opposite.
It bears the names of 36 who died in the First World War and a full 19 who perished in the Second World War. Notably, in contrast to the other memorials, the text is more elaborate and arranged with information about regiment, rank and decorations for the First World War. In this sense it is a far less democratic and more overtly martial memorial.
It has an interesting prehistory, this memorial. The extension to the churchyard is commemorated on the lychgate and seemingly was never used as probably intended: for new graves. Instead it became a focus of a pairing of memorials of size: that to the pre-war vicar, and then the war memorial itself. So the war memorial’s location represents a see-change in the planned expansion of the church.
The memorial has a later inter-war biography. It was partially destroyed in high winds in 1929, and so the gateway and steps were added.
The grandiose nature of the lattering meant that an alternative arrangement was required for the addition of the names of the Second World War dead. So they were added farther down on a single plaque facing the village green.
There are also additional features – plant holders added around the base. One commemorated a military man of the parish.
The most recently shift in the biography is the fact that the gate allowing access to the war memorial from the pavement is now blocked from access by wheelie bins. Hence, the only access is from within the churchyard.
This location, in a corner of the churchyard extension beside the lychgate and looking out over the centre of the village has themes linking it to the other three aforementioned memorials. However, its form (lantern cross), lack of a formal space for remembrance services, and its orientation set it apart.
Trying to get one’s head around the similarities and differences between these four war memorials is difficult enough. Imagine how we compare and contrast the many materialities, biographies and location/landscape contexts of many hundreds? It is a bewildering task. Yet it is only by looking at the war memorials as local responses to national themes, can we dissect the many human and other agencies that informed their creation, use and life-histories.