Lest We Forget?


28 May 2019

“Remembrance takes place in multiple orbits,” explains Laura Clouting, curator of Lest We Forget?, an exhibition currently on at the Imperial War Museum North as part of the museum’s Making A New World season of events in both London and Manchester. “Personal remembrance takes place in the domestic space and its formats do not require the consensus of other people. Then there are more official ways of remembering that are coded in specific ways.”

This is the essence of the curatorial narrative that Clouting and her team at the Imperial War Museum North have constructed to explore the ways in which the First World War and its human cost have ingrained themselves in our popular consciousness. Artefacts, drawings, film footage, photographs, poems and even footballers’ jerseys are all displayed. The result is an overview of the typologies of memorialisation that have been assembled over time, from official forms – such as the poppy pin or the two-minute silence on 11 November (introduced in 1919 to mark the Armistice on the first Remembrance Day) – to more humble ones, including everyday objects that have been invested with special value, such as ceramic mugs, plaques and photo albums. Historian Patricia Jalland has argued that the First World War had the most “profound impact on the prolonged process of change in attitudes and practices relating to death, bereavement and mourning in Britain in the fifty years after 1914”. So what role does the manner in which the First World War was commemorated play in the ways we grieve and memorialise tragedies today?

The location of the graves of many of those who died has had a profound effect on the way the war dead have been memorialised. From the beginning of the conflict, the British government stated that the corpses of fallen soldiers were not going to be repatriated. As a result, the remains of many of the more than one million fatalities sustained by British Empire forces between 1914 and 1918 were buried away from the motherland, in the vicinity of the battlefields on which they died. For the historian Norman Bonney, writing in his paper ‘The Cenotaph: A Consensual and Contested Monument of Remembrance’, this decision was a logistical one, given that “the scale of the carnage would have required extensive labour that would have diverted resources from the continuing war effort”. Nevertheless, it was a decision that disappointed bereaved families and put pressure on the government to find a solution.

This tension, more than anything else, marked the beginning of a nationwide grieving process. Adding to the complexity was the religious diversity of Britain’s military forces, drawn from across the Commonwealth countries. The forms that state remembrance was to take, therefore, had to transcend religious beliefs. Since most soldiers were volunteers rather than professionals, there was also the issue of acknowledging their sacrifice. In pre-First World War conflicts, it had often been the case that only higher-ranking military personnel were commemorated.

Tony Walter, an honorary professor at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, studies the evolution of bereavement in the United Kingdom. He argues in an article on that “from 1914 to the early 1950s British culture had to privilege survival and restoration”. Out of necessity, people had to be single- minded and focused on survival rather than the psychological consequences of the two world wars. For Walter, 1960s counterculture proclaimed it unhealthy to repress emotions and the feminist movements of the 1970s made people more comfortable to express their grief in public.

In the aftermath of the First World War, however, grieving was confined to the private domestic space. It was here that objects symbolised emotions that individuals were not comfortable sharing publicly. “[Soldiers] and bereaved families largely repressed their emotions and coped in silence,” writes Jalland, and mechanisation and mass production meant that the commodification of remembrance was taken to a new level. This also allowed for affordable customisation: memorial clocks featuring plaques, medals and photographs were just some examples. The Next of Kin Memorial Plaque, for example, was designed in 1917 by Edward Carter Preston. Each plaque was inscribed with the name of a fallen soldier and the words “He died for freedom and honour”. It would have been posted to bereaved families in 1919 and 1920, with Preston’s design becoming known as the “Death Plaque”, “Widow’s Penny” or the “Dead Man’s Penny”. In some cases, the plaques were mounted on a frame or wooden base, enabling recipients to display them on the mantelpiece. Memorial photo albums and mugs featuring messages of peace were smaller and more affordable objects of remembrance. One example is the Victory and Peace mug produced by Royal Doulton in 1919 to mark the end of the hostilities. It shows Britannia sitting in a battlefield, with a lone British soldier standing to attention at a distance.

Other examples of private remembrance included memorial tattoos, documented in the Imperial War Museum North exhibition through black-and-white photography. One image shows a young woman with a sleeve of her work overalls rolled-up, revealing a tattoo featuring a cross and the name of her partner on her bare forearm. In her gaze, one detects both pride and tenderness, but there is also a sense of confidence in expressing her feelings in front of a camera. To use a technical term, one could say that she is an early “expressivist” – Walter’s name for baby boomers, who by the mid-1990s outnumbered wartime stoics. For Walter, that generational shift coincided with Princess Diana’s death in August 1997, which became a pivotal point in the way British society publicly expressed grief. The outpouring of tributes that flooded the gates of Kensington Palace was unprecedented. Flowers, messages, candles, ribbons and even toys were left by the gates as tokens of remembrance and solidarity. In this case, the palace gate became a physical focus for people’s bereavement; despite not being Diana’s actual resting place, it acted as a temporary memorial.

More recently, the 7/7 terrorist attack and Grenfell Tower fire have brought British society together to grieve publicly. As with the gates of Kensington Palace in 1997, the Grenfell Tower tribute wall became a temporary memorial that enabled people to express their grief and pay their respects to the people who died. The wall is located outside a church near the site of the fire, while the tower itself is now wrapped in scaffolding that displays a green heart and the message “Forever in Our Hearts”. Commenting on the task of deciding upon a fitting memorial for the Grenfell site, Adel Chaoui from the survivors’ group Grenfell United said that the committee involved in the process should remember the “lives lost, ensure what happened is never forgotten and be something this community can hold in their hearts for generations to come”.

In the aftermath of the First World War, private acts of remembrance were similarly complemented by an array of social activities. This was particularly evident in rural areas and small towns, where social cohesion was stronger and the loss of young lives directly affected not only single families, but the whole community, often having grave economic repercussions for small local businesses such as farms. “So much of remembrance is often associated with money,” explains Clouting. “Following the First World War, poverty was exacerbated, for example, by the loss of a husband. People came together to collectively contribute money towards a memorial.”

Many local communities gathered financial resources, often through public subscription, to construct memorials. In addition, recreation grounds, cinema halls and even schools were often dedicated to locals killed in battle. This was a pragmatic and utilitarian way of remembering the war dead, as it also provided for the living community – and in some cases, continues to do so.

Often the decision-making generated friction. This was the case with the west London district of Chiswick, where the local committee was divided over whether they should construct a memorial or consider helping the soldiers returning from the fighting. The historical material on display in Lest We Forget? reveals that the local community eventually settled for a small memorial and also agreed to build a modest number of homes for disabled veterans.

The question of how to remember people of different rank underpins some fascinating exhibits. In what became known as the 1918 Kenyon report, Sir Frederic Kenyon, then-director of the British Museum, advised the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission on how to undertake the task of commemorating the war dead. In the 22-page document (also on display) Kenyon suggested that “what was done for one should be done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, should have equal treatment in their graves.” The underlying narrative for the war cemeteries, in his view, was very clear: “Where the sacrifice had been common, the memorial should be common also.”

The egalitarian approach outlined by Kenyon, and implemented by the Commission, also applied to the graves of women who died in nursing roles or while serving in other branches of the military. In addition, Kenyon justified the need for individual headstones by saying that this option “will go far to meet the wishes of relatives, who above all things are interested in the single grave”. Kenyon anticipated that soldiers’ families would “be disappointed that they are not allowed to erect their own monument over their own dead; but they will be much more disappointed if no monument except a mere indication number marks that grave at all. The individual headstone, marking the individual grave, will serve as centre and focus of the emotions of the relatives who visit it.” With regards to the design of the cemeteries and memorials, Kenyon made it clear that “the architects employed should make their designs as simple and inexpensive as possible[...]. The country needs dignity and refined taste, not ostentation.”

The Imperial War Graves Commission was set up by Major General Sir Fabian Ware and granted a Royal Charter on 21 May 1917. Its official status and Ware’s role as director allowed it to reach out to eminent figures at the time, such as Kenyon. Ware also invited the architects Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker and Charles Aitken, then-director of the National Gallery, to visit France in the summer of 1917. The purpose of the trip was to gauge the state of the battlefields, which had turned into temporary graveyards. Ware appointed English poet and writer Rudyard Kipling as literary adviser to recommend inscriptions for monuments, memorials and graves, and commissioned the typographer Max Gill to design a Headstone Standard Alphabet. Gill, along with the architects selected by the commission, was already at his drawing board before the First World War was over. His task was to give physical form to the abstract and profound concept of remembrance. In the technical annotations to one of his drawings – shown in the exhibition – Gill suggests carving the lettering into stone at a 60-degree angle. In a brief note, Gill explains that this technique would allow the inscription to withstand weathering and erosion for longer. Gill’s technical annotations capture the complex relationship between remembrance, time and form with poignant lucidity.

Physical representations of remembrance like the war cemeteries were complemented by rituals such as the two-minute silence. Although most welcomed its introduction on 11 November 1919, the event also sparked some protest. “A disgusting idea of artificial nonsense and sentimentality,” noted the 16-year-old Evelyn Waugh in his diary. “No one thought of the dead last year. Why should they now?” As Clouting explains, “not everyone was for remembrance to take place on such a large scale. There were contentions at the end of the war, as some people wanted to get on with normal life and move on.” Despite the controversies, however, the two-minute silence has become the template for similar commemorations, as was the case with the recent one-minute silences for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and for marking the one-year anniversary of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing attack.

While walking around Lest We Forget? I overhear young parents reading Siegfried Sassoon’s poems to their children and families examining the War Horse puppet used in the eponymous National Theatre production. In another part of the exhibition, teenagers are gawping at Gassed, a painting by the war artist John Singer Sargent. It depicts a line of soldiers temporarily blinded by a mustard-gas attack. Lest We Forget? provides a rare opportunity to view this large-scale painting close up, and it is displayed alongside others by Anna Airy, John and Paul Nash, and Wyndham Lewis. These artworks were commissioned in 1918 by the British War Memorials Committee of the Ministry of Information in commemoration of the First World War dead. Collectively, they were to form a Hall of Remembrance that would be a reminder and warning of the tragedies of war. The building, which was designed by architect Charles Holden, was never constructed due to lack of funds and the paintings are now part of the IWM collections. Standing in front of these impressive canvases, one can contemplate the sheer scale of the wall surface the paintings would have occupied as an ensemble had the Hall of Remembrance been built.

Perhaps it is a good thing, in the end, that it wasn’t. This way, we retain the freedom to imagine this ultimate space of remembrance for ourselves. “Remembrance is not a prescribed thing,” Clouting reminds us. “This is the endpoint of the exhibition. We wanted to leave audiences with an openness towards ways of remembrance. Each expression is equally important, as it carries meanings, whether for a nation, a community or individual.”