How many First World War memorials are situated on the exact line of the 8th-century linear earthwork – Britain’s greatest monumental rampart – Offa’s Dyke?
Johnstown’s War Memorial (IWM 7173; PRN 36796)
This prominent war memorial in Wrexham County Borough is recorded by the Imperial War Memorials Register as a ‘tapering pillar of White Ashlar stone’ on a two-stepped base. It is inaccurately described as topped by St Michael, holding a sword with a slain dragon. More accurately, it is a knight, presumably St George (or maybe St Michael, fine), piercing the dragon with a lance and with a scrolled shield on his left arm.
It is indeed a beautiful monument, striking in its triangular shape and its slender whiteness. The tricorn shape of the monument allows for three corner flower holders bearing relief crosses. The lower step is now swallowed by a new brick-cobble pavement that expands to a circular kerb and beyond to encompass the entire triangular traffic island.
The text is divided on the pillar: the east face of the lower half commemorates the First World War, with 1914-18 in relief, below which is in leaded text: IN MEMORY OF OUR HEROES WHO FELL. The names of the dead are listed on the south-west and north-west faces.
The more slender upper half of the memorial has been deployed to commemorate the Second World War dead: 1939-45, the list of names and ‘LEST WE FORGET’, all in a smaller text.
The Memorial’s Location
The memorial’s location is at a crossroads: on the western side of the historic N-S Wrexham Road (running from Wrexham to Ruabon) and now situated on a traffic island to the south of intersection with the E-W Maelor Road from Rhosllanerchrugog. This position affords it prominence for those passing by and moving through the village, and also it allows a sizeable area for open-air ceremonies.
There is a further hidden dimension to this position: the war memorial is situated precisely upon the line of Offa’s Dyke, I suspect within its ditch. Fox (1955: 51) describes its likely course here in short but clear terms:
The Dyke joined [from the north, heading south] the Wrexham-Ruabon main road at an acute angle at BM 437.0. The adjacent New Inn, here set askew to the road, was probably built on the line of the earthwork. …. From [the Inn] to Moreton Inn, a distance of half a mile [to the south], the main road is on the line of the Dyke… and the road is a raised causeway…
The likelihood of this is clear in the local topography – the ground falls off both west and east, meaning that the line of the road, and the war memorial adjacent to it, takes the highest ground and the Dyke here would have commanded views both west and east. This can be still seen in the contemporary built-up environment of roads and houses.
I’m not saying that the former, long-lost, line of the Dyke would have been the principal, or even a direct contributing, factor in placing the war memorial. However, farm names and road-names close by do allude to a local consciousness of the Dyke in the village through the 19th century up to the First World War. Instead, I want to make the point that the topographical preferences of the Dyke match to the prominence required by the builders of the war memorial: dominating a subtle ridge, at the intersection of routes. Both Dyke and memorial were positioned in relation to movement and promoting social memory, even if the now-invisible Dyke and the extant war memorial face in opposing directions.
Furthermore, this is a powerful instance of the importance of understanding the Dyke as both tangible and intangible heritage. In explaining the significance of the Dyke for today and for the future, even in places where it is invisible to the viewer we can use the Dyke’s associations with more recent features and monuments to explore and engage communities with their long-term history. In this regard, the juxtaposition of the 20th-century war dead with an early medieval monument is a point of reflection in terms of how conflict has affected the communities of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands.
Fox, C. 1955. Offa’s Dyke. London: British Academy.