There is so much variety in the materiality, texts, contexts and landscape situation of First World War memorials but so many of the smaller monuments get ignored or sidelined. It seems that Compton Beauchamp‘s war memorial fits this pattern, since does not appear to be listed by Historic England and the equally difficult-to-search Imperial War Museum’s online register of war memorials seems to omit it too. Yet it holds a particular Archaeodeath interest.
The location is prominent and strategic for such a modest monument. It is located south of, and outside the village. This small monolith set in a just-visible base, strategically positioned just SW and on higher ground above the parish’s most important crossroad. In the NW-SE aligned strip parish running up onto the Berkshire Downs the crossroads results from the intersection of the SW-NE route running across the parish at the base of downland scarp (B4507) and the road running NW-SE through the parish south from the village up Knighton Hill onto the down.
The form of the monument is simple and diminutive: a simple megalith. This is a particularly rare form of war memorial, lacking Christian and martial motifs, it simply and starkly stands, like a prehistoric monolith or a grandiose milestone. The text is barely legible and certainly not visible from the roads, so it is distinctive in requiring the passer-by to come close to apprehend its memorial subject.
Only the front side of the monolith has been worked to create a flat surface to receive a text. The inscription is also interesting, containing a list of all of the parish of Compton Beauchamp and Knighton who served in the years ‘MCMXIV – MCMXIX’. Indeed, the Latin rendering of the years 1914-19 is odd in itself for a 20th-century war memorial. Is this a deliberate ‘antique’ allusion in the context of the 1910s? A short list of names follows, running down the slender monument in alphabetical order.
The stark simplicity and location of the monument, as well as its distinctive inclusive and perhaps deliberately archaic text commemorating those that served as opposed to those that dies, suggests to me that this monument deserves more attention and research than it seems to have received.
As an archaeologist, I am compelled to make a connection between the choice of a pointed monolith as a war memorial and the close proximity of megalithic monuments of prehistoric origin. To the north is a natural sarsen stone at ‘Snivelling Corner’ where folklore links to the legend of Wayland the Smith. Meanwhile, to the SE, up the lane (Knighton Hill) from the war memorial, is the multi-phased Neolithic chambered tomb of Wayland’s Smithy on the Ridgeway, with its legend of being the smithy of Wayland, and who folklore claims will re-shoe any horse if coins are left at the monument. Might the choice of location and materiality, and perhaps also text, together constitute a further example of how First World War memorials articulated links between the landscapes of conflict and England’s parochial landscape of ‘home’? Yet equally, does this monument also evoke the prehistoric past in commemorating those that served and fell in the Great War? If so, its rough stone form and isolated crossroad location elide a powerful link to place and the past.