War Memorials

By Keith Jeffery

Scattered in cities, towns and villages in Ireland (and lots of other places around the world) are war memorials. Often in a prominent, central position, sometimes neglected and sometimes treasured, they commemorate those who served and died in the World Wars and other conflicts of the twentieth century. Although in Britain and Ireland there are some memorials to earlier conflicts (such as the Crimean War, 1850-54, and the South African War, 1899-1902), the very great majority of war memorials date from the First World War of 1914-18 and they were mostly first erected in the years immediately following the war.

They exist for two reasons.

First, the casualties were so high, so many people died, that groups and communities felt compelled to mark their loss, and the sacrifice of so many young people, in some permanent public way. The Great War was the first ‘total’ war in which the United Kingdom was engaged. In previous wars quite large numbers of men had volunteered to fight, but nothing on the scale of 1914-18. The British army in the South African War, for example, numbered about 500,000, with 22,000 fatal casualties, while in the First World War, 5,700,000 people were mobilised in the armed services, of whom over 800,000 were killed or died of wounds. In the UK, there was a ‘nation-in-arms’ for the very first time, underpinned by conscription (compulsory military service) in England, Scotland and Wales (though not in Ireland).

The second reason for the war memorials comes from the decision made early in the war that war dead should be buried on the battle zone itself, close to where they fell. The principle established by what became the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was that equality of sacrifice should be matched by equality of treatment. Rich families, who could afford to do so, would not be allowed to bring their fallen home, nor would there be any differentiation in treatment between officers and men. Thus emerged the series of peaceful and beautiful war cemeteries along the line of the Western Front in Belgium, France and elsewhere, with their ranks of matching white Portland stone headstones marking permanently that admirable equality of treatment.1 But there was a further problem. At the end of the war the Commission calculated that almost half of the dead had no identifiable grave or were simply ‘missing’. In the war cemeteries one frequently comes across a headstone with the inscription ‘Known unto God’, and the unidentified are commemorated by name on a number of ‘Memorials to the Missing’, including, for example, the great Thiepval memorial on the Somme with 70,000 names, and the Menin Gate at Ypres with 54,000 names. These are, certainly, fine and appropriate monuments, but they are far from home and difficult for relatives to visit. Desiring some specific place to commemorate, and mourn, their dead, relatives warmly supported the idea of a local war memorial, which could represent the loved one’s actual gravestone. In this way, war memorials become substitute, or surrogate, headstones, where the dead were symbolically placed at the centre of their own community.

Studying a war memorial

Here are some of things which can be done to explore the history and significance of a local war memorial.

Professor Keith Jeffery, 1952–2016: An Obituary

The Ulster Historical Foundation was greatly saddened at the untimely passing of Professor Keith Jeffery, a stalwart friend and supporter of the Foundation over many years. From 1999 to 2005 he served as a Trustee of the Foundation and was also active on our Publications Committee.

The extensive tributes to Keith in the quality press reflected the affection and high regard in which he was held, not just in the realm of academe but in wider society. They were also quite simply testament to the fact that Keith was one of the most eminent historians of his generation in the British Isles. The quality of his many publications including A Military History of Ireland (co-edited with Tom Bartlett) and his final volume, 1916: A Global History cannot be gainsaid. It is no coincidence that out of all the professional historians in the United Kingdom, Keith was chosen to pen the official history of MI6. His subsequent account, published in 2010, was magisterial.

On a personal note, I got to know Keith in my capacity as Manager of the Bookshop at Queen’s (University) where Keith was a welcome and regular visitor. In November 2000, the Bookshop was delighted to host the launch of his Ireland and the Great War and we were also involved in the launch of his critically acclaimed, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-49. As might be expected, these were memorable occasions with all those in attendance listening to Keith’s address, invariably peppered with wry humour and interesting anecdotes, in rapt attention.

More recently, at a fundraising event on behalf of the Foundation in the House of Lords in 2014, Keith gave generously of his time to speak on a subject dear to his heart and very much in keeping with the ethos of the Foundation: the importance of our shared and interconnected history. Indeed this was very evident in his Ireland and the Great War where he wrote, ‘Fatally obsessed with difference, in Ireland we too often fail to perceive the similarities of our predicament, upon which we must build if any lasting ‘peace’ is to be established on our island.

By identifying and exploring those similarities in the context of the Great War and its legacy, I hope in some small way to contribute to the process by which we can come to live peaceably with our neighbours, both in Ireland and throughout the wider archipelago’. Perhaps Keith’s greatest epitaph is the fact that the commonality of experience of the First World War is now largely accepted as forming a significant part of the narrative of both communities in Northern Ireland. In this, Keith certainly played no small part making a substantial contribution to civil society.

Keith touched and enriched the lives of many people, from the thousands of students who benefitted from his teaching to his academic colleagues and many friends. His charm and infectious sense of humour lifted the spirit. Keith will be missed greatly.

Tim Smyth