World War I memorials

The classically inspired Menin Gate in Ypres

World War I memorials commemorate the events and the casualties of World War I. These war memorials include civic memorials, larger national monuments, war cemeteries, private memorials and a range of utilitarian designs such as halls and parks, dedicated to remembering those involved in the conflict. Huge numbers of memorials were built in the 1920s and 1930s, with around 176,000 erected in France alone. This was a new social phenomenon and marked a major cultural shift in how nations commemorated conflicts. Interest in World War I and its memorials faded after World War II, and did not increase again until the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the renovation of many existing memorials and the opening of new sites. Visitor numbers at many memorials increased significantly, while major national and civic memorials continue to be used for annual ceremonies remembering the war.

Architecturally, most war memorials were relatively conservative in design, aiming to use established styles to produce a tragic but comforting, noble and enduring commemoration of the war dead. Classical themes were particularly common, taking the prevailing styles of the late 19th century and typically simplifying them to produce cleaner, more abstract memorials. Allegorical and symbolic features, frequently drawing on Christian imagery, were used to communicate themes of self-sacrifice, victory and death. Some memorials adopted a medievalist theme instead, looking backwards to a more secure past, while others used emerging realist and Art Deco architectural styles to communicate the themes of the war.

The commissioning of memorials occurred through a wide range of national and local institutions, reflecting local political traditions; funding was similarly disparate, with most countries relying heavily on local charitable contributions to cover the costs of construction. War cemeteries and memorials to particularly significant battles, however, were typically centrally controlled and funded by the state. The war encouraged the creation of new forms of memorial. Lists of memorial names, reflecting the huge scale of the losses, were a common feature, while Tombs of the Unknown Soldier containing a selected, unidentified body, and empty cenotaph monuments commemorated the numerous unidentifiable corpses and those servicemen whose bodies were never found. Ceremonies were often held at the memorials, including those on Armistice Day, Anzac Day and the Fêtes de la Victoire, while pilgrimages to the sites of the conflict and the memorials there were common in the inter-war years.

Much of the symbolism included in memorials was political in tone, and politics played an important part in their construction. Many memorials were embroiled in local ethnic and religious tensions, with memorials either reflecting the contribution of particular groups to the conflict or being rejected entirely by others. In several countries it proved difficult to produce memorials that appealed to and included the religious and political views of all of a community. The Fascist governments that came to power in Italy and Germany during the inter-war period made the construction of memorials a key part of their political programme, resulting in a number of larger memorial projects with strong national overtones being constructed in the 1930s. While few memorials embraced a pacifist perspective, some anti-war campaigners used the memorials for rallies and meetings. Many of the political tensions of the inter-war period had diminished by the end of the 20th century, allowing some countries to commemorate the events of the war through memorials for the first time since the end of the war. In the centennial of World War I, the memory of the war has become a major theme for scholars and museums.


One of many German war memorials in Berlin to the dead of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, by Johannes Boese

On the eve of World War I there were no traditions of nationally commemorating mass casualties in war. France and Germany had been relatively recently involved in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. Germany had built a number of national war memorials commemorating their victory, usually focusing on celebrating their military leaders. [1] In France, memorials to their losses were relatively common, but far from being a national response, and many towns and villages did not erect memorials at all. [2] A new organisation, the Souvenir Français, was established in the 1880s to protect French war memorials and encourage young French people to engage in military activities; the organisation grew to have many contacts in local government by 1914. [3]

Britain and Australia had both sent forces to participate in the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902, which spurred an increased focus on war memorials. The Boer War had involved 200,000 British volunteers alone, and attracted considerable press coverage. [4] Numerous war memorials were erected on their return, either by local community leaders or by the local Lord Lieutenant, acting on behalf of the county regiments; these were often situated in quiet locations to allow for peaceful reflection by visitors. [5] Australia had honoured its volunteers by placing individual plaques inside buildings, creating outdoor memorial tablets and erecting obelisks in public places. [6] Although the Boer War encouraged a shift away from memorials portraying heroic commanding officers, as had been popular earlier in the 19th century, towards depicting ordinary soldiers, annual ceremonies surrounding the memorials were not common and no official memorial day emerged. [7] Boer War memorials in both countries were widely felt to lack a suitable quality of design and execution, echoing contemporary concerns in the US about the statues erected to commemorate the American Civil War. [8]

The new European states that had formed in the second half of the 19th century typically had traditions of war memorials, but nothing on the scale that would later emerge from World War I. Italy built various war memorials after unification in the 1860s, but there was little agreement about who should be responsible for these within the new Italian state. [9] Romania erected a number of heroically styled memorials after the Romanian War of Independence in 1877 and 1878, usually celebrating famous leaders associated with Romanian independence, but also including the occasional modest local monuments [10] Bulgaria and Serbia constructed many war memorials after the end of the First Balkan War in 1913. [11] The public played little role in these eastern European memorials, however, which were typically constructed by the central state authorities. [11]