With the centenary of the Great War done and dusted, it seems that on the eve of Brexigeddon, a new veil of sacrality has been lain over the wars and war leaders of the 20th century. Even pointing out the ‘mixed’ and problematic reputation of Churchill and his racist views and murderous decision-making is tantamount to treason by the right-wing (mainstream) press. Not a day goes by without a new garbled jingoistic narrative about Britain’s involvement in 20th-century wars being peddled by Tory and UKIP politicians, fear-mongering about refugees, equating the EU with the Nazis and complaining about the victimisation of the UK by our European neighbours. Of course in almost all such cases, Britain is treated as an insidious and uncritical substitute for ‘England’. Most scary of all, we are turning American in our need to publicly express how much we love Britain as a prelude to any discussions of our history or current politics. This is all a downward slide in the national conversation, after much slidings of recent years.
How did it come to this? In a previous post, I’ve pointed out the growth in English nationalism, its regional manifestations, includes heritage at its heart. In short, we cannot consider the heritage profession and academics aloof and not part of this process, even if it is driven by others. For instance, I’ve pointed out the overtly ‘gammon’ celebrations of medieval royalty, from Richard III to Aethelflaed, cannot be divested from the growth of English nationalism in the 21st century, and with it, the groundwork for the Brexit referendum vote and all that’s come subsequently. I’ve also, in peer-reviewed publications, directly identified national foci of mourning and remembrance, including the NMA, as part of this neo-patriotic martial valorisation in British (specifically English) society by drawing on themes from the ancient past and from across the globe in the design of its memorials. Indeed, I’ve previously on this blog suggested that archaeologists and heritage specialists need not only explore the deep-time roots of Brexit (as Andy Gardner (2017) has surveyed), but to explore how our historic environment, including war memorials and monuments, have (indirectly) contributed to this jingoistic climate. Furthermore, I’ve suggested that we need to chart and loudly critique how heritage sites and monuments, museums and publications are mobilised to perpetuate this reinforced nationalistic story in the context of Brexit enacted through local and regional narratives of English exceptionalism (see also Bonacchi 2018; Brophy 2018 for the difficulties in how we negotiate media and public debates around Brexit).
In all of this, the war memorials raised in the 1920s to the Great War throughout the English landscape have largely escaped criticism during the centenary years (2014-18). On the whole they are treated as beyond reproach, or at least ‘mostly harmless’, despite their audiences being far more diverse in the physical world, and global via the digital repositories and media where they are shared. It’s true most bear forms, ornament, symbols and materials that are open to a multiplicity of impressions and responses from across the country and the political spectrum. Yet often this is a deliberate enshrinement in multi-vocal, banal and ambiguous symbolism mobilised from the distant past, including themes from the architecture of classical antiquity, Egyptian, and Celtic/Gothic forms and ornaments to achieve a ‘beyond reproach’-ness. Certainly, most war memorials were designed not to appear triumphalistic and show British service personnel in acts of violence, but there are some that only barely conceal such characteristics.
So when are we entitled to call attention to some of the overtly ‘gammon’ (i.e. explicitly jingoistic) symbolism, language and themes borne by a prominent minority of First World War memorials? Shouldn’t we at least recognise and explore their influence, both as ancestors to more recent memorial projects, and persistent influences as they endure in the English landscape, on the pervasive and increasing patriotism of English society in the early 21st century, including its martial antagonism to England’s neighbours framed in relation to past conflicts?
In doing so, my point is that we aim not to ‘blame’ or ‘denounce’ all conflict commemoration, let alone their commissioners and creators. I certainly would not wish to besmirch those commemorated who by definition would have had no say in the fashion of their memorialisation. However, these monuments have perpetuated beyond their ‘authors’: they persist in the English landscape and are often taken as neutral and innocuous without further critical attention. Their entries in national inventories and multiple publications on war memorials are certainly consciously anodyne about overtly jingoistic language, forms and ornamental motifs, careful not draw attention to their violent and patriotic nature in any critical fashion.
Let’s take one motif found on a series of war memorials: St George slaying the dragon. This is the epitome of medieval Christian allusions deployed as a nationalistic and martial motif to commemorate the dead of the Great War. From our great cities, like Leeds, to small villages in the Cotswolds, like Stanway, this overtly patriotic sculptural addition to war memorials is an increasingly uncomfortable form of medievalism in the contemporary 21st-century English landscape.
Stanway, Gloucestershire, is actually an interesting example, that is revealing of the motives behind the choice of such an expensive and elaborate martial motif. This is a grandiose memorial situated at a cross-roads (junction of the B4077 and south end of Stanton Road) to commemorate a handful of lost lives. It is a collaboration between three sculptures – Alexander Fisher, Sir Philip Sidney Stott and Eric Gill. Being made of North Cotswolds stone from upon the Stanway House estate is symbolic in itself, linking the deaths to the locality and to the landed estate specifically. Moreover, it has a bronze ‘St George and dragon group’ (as described in a neutral fashion by the EH website). There is a Tudor rose and a shell symbol denoting a pilgrim’s badge, prompting the memorial to be considered a point of pilgrimage. The names of the campaigns emblazon each side: Gallipoli, Egypt, France. It was commissioned by the Wemyss family of Stanway to commemorate parishioners who fell, including two children of the Earl and Countess of Wemyss, one in France, one in Egypt.
Their names and titles come first in the short list of names, and the memorial is clearly entirely about their loss to the Wemyss family, into which the other deaths are enfolded. So we have a very personal project, commissioned by Mary Wemyss for her lost children Francis and Yvo: a local aristocratic family singularly driving the commemorative programme in an overtly patriotic and emotive display of neo-medievalism.
In their original context, the George and dragon motif held overt military, Christian, national and imperialistic symbolism, popularly associated with the crusades. Conversations about the display of unbridled aggression on war memorials are as old as memorials themselves, and as Jay Winter, Alex King and others have discussed, too much overt militarism and triumphalism has always been problematic within the spectrum of First World War memorialisation. At Leeds, the George and dragon motif is balanced by other figures, so the overall schema is more balanced. Moreover, most war memorials eschewed such symbolism. However, I’m talking now about 2019 and the legacy we’ve inherited of the few that centre on such motifs to the exclusion of others is startling. Equating these to monuments to 19th-century British imperialists like Rhodes, or statues to Confederacy generals in the American South might outrage some, but the principle remains. In the present context, it is difficult not to see these as a overtly gammon monuments, and there are other uses of statuary, language and symbolism of war memorials that could be considered in the same light.
What to do? Should we call time on these monuments? Raise new monuments to counter/balance them? Contextualise them with information that draws attention to their problematic nature? Whatever we do, we should at least call time on the polite silence of academic discourse about them.
Bonacchi, C. 2018. Public archaeology cannot just ‘fly at dusk’: the reality and complexities of generating public impact, Antiquity 92(366): 1659–1661.
Brophy, K. 2018. The Brexit hypothesis and prehistory. Antiquity 82: 1650–58.
Gardner, A. 2017. Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: a comparative view, Journal of Social Archaeology 17(1): 3-26. http://DOI: 10.1177/1469605316686875