Transporting the blasted horrors of No Man’s Land to the roadsides, churchyards, market squares and parks of Britain, war memorials situate and sublimate the First World War into the British landscape in the absence of buried bodies. The Fallen may lie close by, but most with be buried in France, Belgium or elsewhere, or else lost in the earth, yet (or never) to be found: the Missing.
The scale of the First World War’s casualties means that all of Britain was affected, and a century on it is being widely commemorated through new memorial strategies that speak to existing modes and traditions, but also take fresh directions. I’ve taken some time off from writing about war memorials, but I’m back to it with a second example of a brand-new memorial, this time in my home-town of Wrexham, Wales, UK. I want to focus on the metal gigantism that is the most distinctive component.
Acquired in 1907 and developed in the inter-war years, the Edwardian Bellevue Park became a focus of war memorialisation immediately after the cessation of conflict. A decommissioned tank was gifted to the people of Wrexham in thanks for their support of the war effort and it was displayed in the park until 1928. Once the tank was sold for scrap and replaced by a statue of Queen Victoria, the park was to wait for the war’s centenary for this public space to receive a new layer of conflict commemoration.
The park received ‘Centenary Field’ status in 2016, and this inspired the Friends of Bellevue Park to consider a new war memorial. The memorial was opened on the park’s south side in October 2017 and reported in The Leader and by Wrexham History. Local dignitaries and people attended the ceremony, including the Salvation Army. Both accounts afford a brief description of the memorial components:
- a 6-foot tall memorial designed by Mossford Memorials with images of the ‘death Penny’ given to relatives of those that died;
- A wood-cut dragon by students from Coleg Cambria.
However, as usual with these memorials, the form and materiality, location and landscape associations of the memorial receive limited comment despite their integrity. Instead, the two published accounts simply focus on its opening ceremony accompanied by a series of images.
First, its location looks open and arbitrary in the photographs, but it is actually carefully situated so as to be in front of a pavilion and on the ridge overlooking the bandstand. Thus, ground falls away steeply to the north, affording a ‘natural’ edge to the ceremonial space. The memorial is thus widely visible within the park, but situated within a specific topographical cul-de-sac away from the busier roads and play areas: a quiet corner for reflection and remembrance.
The memorial itself is in an open but demarcated circular space marked by cobbles and ten regularly spaced low evergreen bushes. The impression is therefore of a vegetal circle akin to a gorsedd stone circle. A single low monolith is within the ceremonial area and there is an inner cobble circle linked to the outer one by three radial cobble lines.
The centre focus has a number of components. There are two boards framing the inner cobble circle, one populated by the aforementioned dragon wood-cut, the other empty.
This leads to the focus of the memorial: the thin black marble arched cenotaph superficially resembles a gravestone, yet it is too tall to resemble a gravestone equivalent. As with many cenotaphs, it alludes to mortuary forms, but in the absence of the dead as corpse or ash.
The linguistic element is key: there is arguably no ‘front’ or ‘back’. South, looking towards the pavilion and the nearest path, is the Welsh inscription. This might be seen as the ‘front’. However, looking over the park towards the town is the English inscription.
all who served
and died in
WW1 1914 – 1918
The representation of the penny follows, below which is the quote:
They shall not grow old
as we that are left
Finally there is the assertion:
We will remember them
Then there are the two floral dimensions: plastic flowers stuck around the sides, framing the cenotaph. Notably, they are not in front of either side: denying a clear front and specific allusions to a grave.
Finally we come to the immediate framing of the cenotaph. Poppies add a metallic gigantism, somewhat disturbing, dimension to the memorial. There are three of different heights, the tallest rivalling the marble memorial, growing out of the grass within the innermost cobble circle. Thus, the ultimate modern symbol of the First World War is therefore present in giant form, within the park setting. Is this taking the vegetal theme of remembrance to new proportions and prominence, reflecting the park setting? Or does it herald a new era where poppies are no longer sufficient in artifical and symbolic forms, but need to become monumental themselves in the numbers they are deployed, and/or their scale?
The precedents for such a prominent deployment of poppies not only come in individual offerings augmenting memorials across the land, but in the fields of poppies added to heritage sites and urban landscapes, notably the 2014 Tower of London ceramic poppies. The poppy seeds were already sown before this, with the large poppy Never Forget poppy memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum. With the centenary of the First World War, we increasingly see the poppy segue between votive and monumental expressions of commemoration.