Names on a Memorial: Honor for the Individual

Britain started planning memorials before World War I ended.  The Thiepval memorial’s designer, Edwin Lutyens visited the Somme during the battle, which lasted for several months after the massacre on the first day.  His visit was sponsored by the newly established Imperial War Graves Commission under the direction of Fabian Ware.  It was Ware who insisted that casualties be named individually, either in a separate grave or on memorials for the missing.

Prior to World War I, soldiers were not usually memorialized individually.  There are several theories about why this changed.  One is the improved status of soldiers.  The men at the Somme were volunteers.  They were not mercenaries nor had they been bashed over the head in a tavern and dragged into the army.  The war and their motives for fighting in it were considered honorable (Mosse, 1990).

Entire British towns drummed up regiments only to see a generation lost on the battlefield.  These towns all built memorials.  There are even memorials to men who lived on single streets (Boorman, 1988).  This level of individualized honor may have helped the British absorb the loss and share the sorrow (Dyer, 1994).

In Monument Builders, Edwin Heathcote articulates one more reason – guilt.  He calls the war a pointless endeavor.  This applies especially to the Battle of the Somme.  Young inexperienced soldiers followed their leaders into a massacre.  The British ultimately won the war, but perhaps more troops would have returned home to their families if the Battle of the Somme had not been so poorly executed.

When it was all over, the British weren’t quite ready to blame the generals.  They even erected monuments to General Haig.  It’s hard to tell a nation that their fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers died for inept leadership.  We all want to believe sacrifice is warranted.  So they put the names of the dead and missing on cemeteries and memorials in foreign battlefields and they put the names of local heroes on monuments throughout the towns of Britain.

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Feb 2007

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