2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and forms the focus of the heritage sector’s output this year; expect exhibitions, digital letters from the trenches and educational programmes galore.
A renewed focus also brings to the fore a number of questions about the numerous monuments dedicated to the people, places and events linked to a particular moment in time. By these I refer to the stone cenotaphs, obelisks, crosses and plaques characteristic of any British town.
Why such monuments were erected is dissertation fodder, but it hardly seems surprising that a nation and continent changing conflict found a publicly accessible and unifying manifestation of a shared experience, and that those lost in the process found a place of immortalisation; ‘their name liveth forevermore’.
Who erected the memorials? As a reflection of the war that touched everyone, the majority were funded through public subscription, with temporary committees established to steer the construction.
Who has ownership of war memorials? Who indeed. Some have undergone a formal transfer process of ownership but evidence can be difficult to trace. This is something that I have been struggling with whilst I carry out visual appraisals of the monuments in my local area, making a record of their condition. Clear ownership seems to equate to accepted responsibility and well maintained monuments. Even as little as removing decaying litter, Remembrance Day debris and leaves prevents the erosion of fabric, and the simple removal of moss growth allays more serious damage to the stone.
Many memorials do not have clear ownership, and whilst the Local Authorities’ Powers Act 1923 enables the local authority to intervene with maintenance and repair it does not oblige them to, meaning that monuments are at the mercy of council budgets. You see the problem.
This muddy problem is not one that I am prepared to wrangle with and solve at present. Instead I wonder, who should take ownership of responsibility? And do war memorials hold enough relevance to warrant the considerable sums of money needed to ensure monitoring and repairs?
Concerning the latter, strong attachments to both World Wars are keenly felt, with many of the UK population only a generation or two away from the events. Family stories naturally pass down, which are nurtured and contextualized by the education system.
The consequences of the World Wars shaped our modern code of ethics and politics, and fire debates (the Geneva Convention, anyone?). Put simply, we are still learning from these landmark conflicts, be it informing a sense of individual identity or of our international identity as a nation.
War is felt in the conscience of the population. This was illustrated by the uproar generated by an incident in 2009 in which a student drunkenly relieved himself on the city centre war memorial. In fact, I was put to task surveying the memorials in anticipation of heightened public interest around the centenary.
The monuments embody a powerfully emotive topic, particularly as British servicemen have lost their lives in subsequent and ongoing campaigns. How fitting for our stiff upper lip to be undone and set on high in stone; carved wreaths and hopes that ‘may they rest in peace’.
And how odd to imagine an English town without the ubiquitous soldier with rifle reversed, so successfully have they merged into our townscapes. For this reason I find it hard to believe that an attitude of deliberate neglect and decline will be applied to some memorials for the sake of optimum care for a few – no man gets left behind.
Here I return to the question of where responsibility should lie. Like so many other locally and nationally cherished historic assets, the buck falls with local authorities and the likes of the HLF and English Heritage. But public funding is stretched to the limit, and this reality has not been kind to the heritage sector. Is the answer then, as heritage discourse is increasingly noting, to discover ways to encourage the general public into action?
As ever, I have posed a question only to bring up more, something that I will attempt to curve, slightly (a lecturer told me today that writing is a creative process and I’m inclined to agree – ‘Write. Write anything’ she said.) It’s good to thinking about such a problem though. Who knows, one day my questioning might result in a solution that’s acted upon.