I’ve addressed the unique National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire, multiple times on this blog since it is portrayed as the UK’s ‘national’ focus of remembrance. I return to it once again as a companion to the last post discussing the reclining figural sculpture, ‘The Fallen Warrior’ in the Hall of Honour at the Cannock Chase. Here, I wish to briefly discuss the rare examples of representations of dead people as a focus of conflict commemoration as my second post to mark Armistice Day.
I refer to two sets of bronzes figures on either side of the inner walls of the Armed Forces Memorial, sculptures which constitute the centre-piece of the monument which serves as the locus of the entire, complex and diverse, memorial landscape containing hundreds of separate memorials, memorial gardens and woodlands. Nowhere else is the representation of a dead body incorporated into the memorial gardens (with one possible exception: the SANDS memorial garden which has a foetus as its sculptural focus).
Both sets of bronzes are designed and created by Ian Rank-Broadley. While stripped of weapons, divested of their active living military roles in two instances, only one is clothed. The others are (i) covered/out of sight, (ii) completely naked. Together these three corpses are integral elements to the overall and distinctive memorial articulation of martial masculinity in the contemporary landscape in which the figures articulate the transition of the dead from individuated military personnel to hallowed commemorative subject.
On the southern side, by a stone door set ajar, a naked male corpse is being lifted by two dressed hyper-realistic sculptures of orderlies: one woman, one man. Two further figures, both topless males, operate as active ‘mourners’, ushering the corpse into the realm of commemoration. One is intent in the act of carving memory: hammer raised but paused, chisel close to the stone. The carved text states: WE WILL REMEMBER THEM TODAY TOMORROW FOREVER. Complementing this figure which assures the remembrance on Earth, the second figure looks towards the others as if to gain their attention, and points through the aperture to the rising sun, perhaps articulating resurrection.
On the northern side, see seem to see a pair of corpses in contrasting relationships with mourners. First, a male dead body is raised up on a stretcher by comrades while a woman and child mourn, the woman’s arms outstretched upwards towards the cadaver. In late autumn late morning sunlight, a beam runs through a vertical gap in the outer curving wall, through the ajar doorway, across the central wreath to the raised up stretcher’s head, thus illuminating the subject of commemoration.
The third corpse is one caught in the moments after death, huddled in the arms of a male mourner, distraught at his loss of a male fellow combatant.
So, three different interactions with the war dead is set up by these arrangements of sculptures juxtaposing mourners/carers and the dead body:
- The clothed collapsed body cradled in the arms of a crouched man, just dead and awaiting retrieval.
- The stretchered body, mourned and in the process of being transported out of sight above all else. The body cannot be accessed or fully apprehended, it is just visible from a distance and partially visible from below;
- the naked corpse, limp and yet in the process of being retrieved and claimed; it is stark and exposed;
Each thus shows different stylised stages of interaction between the living and the war dead and together they constitute a mode of portraying the heroism and assured commemoration and salvation of the military dead. The corpse is lost but cared for and remembered, illustrating the aspired process of immortalisation within the names carved upon the surrounding walls listing all those who died on active service since the Second World War.
For further posts on the NMA see below:
- The archaeology of the NMA,
- Antique allusions in the NMA’s memorials
- First World War commemoration at the NMA
- Archaeological Dialogues paper focused on monument and material reuse
- The commemoration of the Falklands Conflict at the NMA and elsewhere
- Biographies of monuments at the NMA
- The Camp Bastion Memorial
- From Stonehenge to the National Memorial Arboretum: Megaliths and Martial Masculinity in the British Landscape
- Clone memorials
- Landscapes of life