“Their Name Liveth For Evermore”: Memorialisation of the First World War in York
(Image: York City Memorial)
Perhaps surprisingly, the historiography of memorialisation is still in its infancy. First World War memorials did not attract historians’ interest until the 1980s, when it became apparent that few veterans remained to give first-hand accounts.
There is an interesting historical debate to be had about the meanings we derive from memorials, and whether those meanings have changed over time. Recent studies on ‘collective memory’ by social scientists have inspired historical scholarship that asserts that the Establishment uses memorials as tools to encourage patriotism. Others maintain that above all else they support the process of mourning. It could also be argued that memorials forge an important connection between secular war and the Christian faith.
This article seeks to establish whether York’s First World War memorials fit any, if not all, of these three frameworks. A sample of seven will be examined: the North Eastern Railway Company Memorial, the City Memorial, the Kohima Memorial, the collection in the North Transept of York Minster, and memorial plaques in the churches of St Martin le Grand, St Saviour’s and St Michael le Belfry.
Memorials as Historical Sources
Before taking a case-study approach to this question, it is important to be self-reflective about how, as historians, we pick out meanings in memorials. As historical artefacts they are very open to interpretation, much like art and architecture. The relationship between two leading art history theories, Wirkungsgeschichte and Rezeptionsgeschichte, illustrates this problem and suggests how it could be approached.
Wirkungsgeschichte emphasises that the designer of a piece of art envisaged it conveying certain meanings. Thus, we should examine details in the design which may indicate exactly what messages the designer was attempting to put across. Identifying the intentions of a designer is difficult for historians because some elements of the design are obviously deliberate, but others convey more nuanced meanings. It is crucial that historians are self-aware of their own “codes of reception” when interpreting them.
Rezeptionsgeschichte, on the other hand, considers the position of the art’s observer. This approach advocates that we delineate the “codes of reception” of different audiences. What experiences and circumstances in a person’s life may have influenced their perception of the piece of art? Historians must be able to empathise without putting thoughts into the minds of historical actors based on their own “codes of reception”. Contextual details of people’s experiences, everyday lives, and self-identities help historians to gauge more objectively how memorials were and are perceived.
This article will apply both theories simultaneously, in order to highlight not only the multiplicity of meanings in memorials, but also that often the meaning perceived by the observer is not always the meaning intended by the designer.
Memorials and Patriotism
Often those historians who argue that memorials convey patriotism do so with a level of disdain; for instance, George Mosse and others talk of memorials distorting the public’s memory of the War to suit certain political agendas. Yet, arguably, a patriotic collective memory may have acted as a crucial post-war tonic to help those who had suffered to identify with others and therefore share their pain.
Deference to the authority of the Establishment is, according to some historians, an integral element of such patriotism. In York, the inscriptions, “for… King and country” on the memorial plaque at St Saviour’s Church and, “…for their country” on York’s Railway Company Memorial were chosen by the designer to deliberately convey an indebtedness to the monarch and state. Their vagueness allows each viewer to infer, depending on their “codes of reception”, whether “country” means Britain or England. Simultaneously the inscription constrains interpretation since both England and Britain defer to the same Establishment.
The so-called “language of sacrifice” embodied by Lloyd George is another important aspect of patriotism which can be found in memorials. It entails the rhetoric of giving one’s life for the betterment of one’s country. In York, this patriotic spirit is deliberately communicated by the carefully-worded phrases, “In grateful memory of…” inscribed on the memorial at St Michael le Belfry, and “…gave their lives for…” inscribed on the York Minster, St Michael le Belfry, St Martin le Grand and Railway Company memorials. In fact, the location chosen for the construction of the Railway Company memorial, close to the railway station and beside an established hotel, arguably reflects that its designer proudly and deliberately tried to broadcast to outside visitors the magnitude of the wartime sacrifice made by local people.
We can also identify certain elements of patriotism from the deliberate absence of particular things from the memorials’ designs. York’s First World War memorials are of a certain style which is neat, proud and honourable, omitting any reference to the trauma and chaos that characterised the Front. This style is in direct contrast to other examples of memorialisation around the world, such as the Nanjing Massacre memorial in China which comprises a series of mismatched statues depicting tormented civilians. These contrasting styles emerged because, to take this example, China’s national narrative portrays it as an unwilling victim of Nanjing, whereas Britain’s narrative celebrates its role on the winning side of the First World War.
Perhaps in 2017 we are more cynical observers of the patriotism in memorials, since revisionist and cultural historical ‘turns’ in the late twentieth century challenged conventional national narratives. In recent historical scholarship, and increasingly in popular culture too, the traditional view that British wartime politicians should be celebrated for their decision-making is questioned. However, this does not change the fact that York’s memorial designs continue to express patriotism, since they remain unchanged since their construction in the 1920s.
Memorials and Mourning
Historian Jay Winter has propositioned that instead of helping us to patriotically remember national heroism, the primary purpose of memorials was to aid the processes of mourning and forgetting. In terms of the meanings conveyed, this places much more weight on the observer rather than the designer, as the design of the memorial must be ambiguous enough for all individual circumstances of loss to be represented. Winter’s hypothesis is well-supported by the memorials in York; for instance, the City and Kohima memorials were deliberately situated in green areas away from spectators, presumably to offer mourners privacy. Likewise, the placement of memorials in churches facilitated mourning as a part of prayer and internal reflection.
Moreover, aspects of the designs of many of York’s memorials would not fit an explanation framed solely around patriotism. For example, the inscriptions of hundreds of names on the Railway Company Memorial, three parish church memorials and the Minster Memorials depict the vast number of people killed. This could lead some observers to doubt the justness of the War. It would also facilitate the mourning process of local people who may recognise the names of their loved ones etched in the stone. Since simple lists of names are not particularly stylised by designers, the meanings drawn from the memorial come almost solely from the “codes of reception” of observers.
In addition, there are elements of some York memorial designs which indicate deliberate attempts on the part of designers to facilitate mourning. The City Memorial and the three church memorials are incredibly austere in style, lacking in any ornate decoration. Arguably this is reflective of a hesitancy to appear as though the War is being celebrated or glorified. Moreover, it mirrors the idea of expressing meaning through emptiness pioneered in the design of the Cenotaph in London. Minimalist designs leave room for personal response because they do not tell us what to think. This personalisation is an important part of mourning.
Memorials and Christian Faith
Christian faith permeated everyday life in 1920s Britain, much more than it does today. This explains why elements of the faith are present in the designs of so many war memorials, even those which are not located inside churches. Conscription in the First World War raised many new questions for Christians, many of whom were forced to reconcile emotionally and morally their secular patriotism with their religious pacifism. Mourning, too, often tested their relationship with God, who had allowed such a devastating war to take place.
Religious symbolism was of course most explicitly incorporated into York’s memorial designs in cases where the memorial was placed inside a church or within its grounds. The Kohima memorial, Minster memorial, and three parish church memorials all feature crucifixes which represent the sacrifice of Christ. This is a fairly overt comparison between Christ and the soldiers who ‘sacrificed’ themselves in the war, and it implies that both were highly valued by God. Christians who were struggling with their moral consciousness may have taken comfort from these memorials, as they retrospectively justify participating in the war effort.
In the designs of York’s City Memorial and Railway Company memorial, Christian faith still had a place, albeit subtler. The phrase “their name liveth for evermore” was chosen from the Book of Ecclesiasticus by Imperial War Graves Commission member Rudyard Kipling and inscribed on memorials around the country, including these two in York. The Biblical text surrounding this quote describes how some honourable people become famous but God equally values those who others may not remember. In addition to this, on all memorials in the York sample except St Martin le Grand and the City Memorial the names of the fallen are ordered alphabetically rather than by rank. These two design choices indicate an equality of human value in the eyes of God which reflects the teachings of the Bible. Whether every observer of the memorials would have picked up on such nuances is difficult to measure, but anyone who did would certainly have found this religious aspect of memorialisation helpful both to their internal moral dilemmas and their process of mourning.
Although in 2017 church attendance is much lower and reliance on Christian faith for moral guidance is perhaps considered less important, especially among younger generations, remembrance of the First World War remains one of the few circumstances in which Christian faith continues to permeate our lives. For instance, public Remembrance Day ceremonies which take place at memorials still usually involve saying prayers.
This article has shown that York’s First World War memorials contain and express a multiplicity of meanings which do not fall into any one historical framework. Memorials are not solely tools used by the state to promote patriotic values, neither are they solely used to help mourning, and nor are they solely used in the context of Christian faith. Whilst some memorials fit one of these three categories more than others do, it is a vast oversimplification to place memorialisation as a whole into one single framework.
Although this article has focused on a small group of case-studies it has also raised questions which apply to wider studies of memorialisation. There exist several open doors for further research in this field. York Minster’s Five Sisters Window, constructed to celebrate the contributions of women to the war effort, represents a need to investigate the public’s perceptions of the memorialisation of women. Likewise, it is well known that Edwin Lutyens, the architect of both London’s Cenotaph and York’s Railway Company Memorial, deliberately did not include crucifixes in his designs in order to avoid alienating soldiers from the Empire who may not have been Christian. The public’s perceptions of the memorialisation of these groups is another theme which would benefit from further historical attention.
Written by Sophie Turbutt
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