On a recent field trip I revisited, and visited for the first time, some west Cheshire war memorials with my ‘Contemporary Past’ second-year students. My blog from last year about the earlier field trip is here. Meanwhile, I’ve recently discussed the military dedication of the garden of remembrance in the churchyard extension at Great Barrow.
National inventories, compiled by volunteers and/or varying in the date of creation and the detail provided, are valuable but sometimes also frustrating. Waverton’s war memorial is a case in point. Situated in the grounds of St Peter’s church, Waverton, this is an unpresuming war memorial: this was the very reason of our visit. In many regards it is a toned-down monument in a modest, orderly grid-layout churchyard.
The IWM describe it as a ‘simple Celtic cross on a square plinth with a three-stepped base’. The English Heritage entry adds mention of the tapering shaft and that it is composed of sandstone. The IWM describe the inscription as:
ERECTED BY THE PARISHIONERS OF/ WAVERTON AND HATTON IN/ GRATEFUL MEMORY OF THESE MEN/ WHO DIED FOR THEIR COUNTRY/ 1914 – 1919/ (NAMES)/
ALSO/ IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF/ THESE MEN/ WHO DIED FOR THEIR COUNTRY/ 1939 – 1945/ (NAMES)
They describe the inscription as legible and commemorating 13 names from the First World War and 2 from the Second World War.
The monument cost £110 by public sponsorship (details not recorded) and was unveiled by the Bishop of Chester 31 May 1920.
In justifying its designation, English Heritage state it to be: “an eloquent witness to the tragic impact of world events on the local community, and the sacrifice it made in the conflicts of the C20.” in regards its historical interest. In architectural terms, it is “a tall and imposing war memorial cross decorated with carved interlace patterns, in the Celtic style.” It possesses a ‘group value’ along with the church and sundial.
The nature of these online records afford a range of valuable information regarding these memorials, but from an ‘archaeodeath’ perspective – considering these as traces of memorialisation in the early 20th century and their subsequent life-histories, they leave a lot of key points difficult to discern or completely omitted. I’ve discussed this before regarding a range of different memorials, but here I want to group theme around form and ornament, text, materiality, biography and spatial setting.
Form and ornament
The formal description is fine, although the IWM entry does not describe the interlace ornamentation on the cross. The EH listed does describe it as low-relief ‘Celtic interlace’ on the cross-head only, although this common misuse of interlace as ‘Celtic’ deserves mention.
Both descriptions omit to mention that the ‘Celtic’ nature of the cross is that it is a ‘circle-headed’ cross and that, in addition to the interlace on the cross, the circle is ornamented with beading. Neither entry that the ends of the cross-arms are also ornamented with interlace.
These are basic observations lacking about the texts.
First, the entries do not state the obvious: the inscriptions are upon the plinth.
Second, the original 1920 memorial text is carved into the west-facing, public side of the monument facing the principal N-S path in the churchyard running south from the western front of the church and the main churchyard entrance. In this position, the monument and its text also look westwards to the churchyard boundary and beyond.
Third, the implications of the position of the Second World War text isn’t described, but it is actually on the opposing, east-facing, side of the plinth. This is pretty standard, but means that the Second World War names are additional, and more difficult to see: only discerned by standing on other adjoining grave-plots.
Fourth, while described as ‘legible’ by the IWM entry, without oblique lighting, the Second World War memorial inscription on the east face is actually rather difficult to discern against the patination of the stone.
As you can see from the photographs above and below, even the west-facing inscription is difficult to discern from a distance, making it one of the most illegible texts on any war memorial I’ve ever seen.
These entries are intent on describing the permanent dimensions of the memorial, but they fail to mention any detail of its material qualities. Describing it as ‘sandstone’ isn’t sufficient, since this doesn’t give a sense of its colour and precise texture and its notable patina of lichens. At a superficial glance, this certainly appeared different from the old red sandstone of war memorials in neighbouring parishes, and I’m left wondering why.
The monument’s biography – age and successions of uses – is not mentioned by either entry: the addition of Second World War names is simply taken as ‘given’.
The entries do not attend the fluctuating ephemeral material cultures of remembrance services. Since I visited just over 2 months after the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, it was interesting to see the arrangement of wreaths had been placed on the south-side of the monument, tucked up against the next gravestone, and not really visible anymore. Meanwhile, the individual crosses were facing the main path: westwards.
As mentioned above, the war memorial is prominently placed within the churchyard on the main path south from the church. However, what is notable is that this memorial doesn’t sit in a liminal position on the edge of the churchyard, but among the graves! Indeed, the burial plots come right up to the very edge of the monument.
This is a very different arrangement from, and thus contrasting relations with, other war memorials positioned on the edges of churchyards by lychgates, or indeed in separate areas adjoining the churchyard but separate from it. Moreover, there is no formally demarcated space around the memorial, unlike others that can possess substantial pavements and fenced areas for crowds to gather at remembrance services. This is therefore a notable distinction between Waverton and many other neighbouring monuments.
Finally, what isn’t mentioned is the grouping of the war memorial with other, private, war graves. At Waverton, it is notable that the grave immediately to the south commemorates someone killed in the Second World War as part of a family gravestone with overt martial symbolism – a wreath over a cross. Close proximity to the war memorial might well have been deliberate, and afforded a close relationship between the mourned individual and the broader context of their ‘sacrifice’.
War memorials are a valuable part of our historic environment of interest and value to local communities and researchers alike. National inventories are valuable but seductive: they afford a sense of a ‘completed’ recorded. A short visit as part of a student field trip can yield how misleading this is and how easy it can be for new insights and basic observations to be made that are not in the records. This fact says much about the lack of attention to detail and blinkered approach to data-recording that inventories exhibit. Multiple strands of evidence are missing regarding in the formal structuring of national inventories can miss so much. So, it is amazing what important and additional observations can be added to the official records of First World War memorials by a keen-eyed set of visitors talking about a monument together.
This unpresupposing memorial superficially appears to have little to say, or might be regarded as just ‘typical’. Yet, by being placed within, not at the edge of, the churchyard, this high cross dominates the churchyard space and is positioned so that graves come to press up close to it. Moreover, its medieval allusions are apparent in its interlaced and beaded circle-headed cross. Meanwhile, it bears a text that is only discernible in raking sunlight.
Because of these qualities, this simple monument constructs a very different relationship to surrounding graves and to the churchyard and church, as well as the wider community. It is safely protected within, not public-facing outside, the churchyard environment. This affords little ceremonial space, but it does make the memorial a close-knit part of the mortuary space.
This is exactly what I mean about an archaeological perspective on the contemporary past. It isn’t necessarily about different ideas or methods, but about an eye for detail and allowing local memorials to speak to regional, national and global stories of conflict commemoration in the 20th and 21st centuries through multiple facets of their materials, spaces and biographies.
This is what I say to my students and why I encourage them that we can tackle 20th-century war memorials, early medieval sculpture and prehistoric mortuary practice on an equal footing as the archaeology of death and memory.