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World War I Tuesday, 3 November, 1998, 10:55 GMT
War memorials: Lest we forget
war memorial
There could be as many as 60,000 war memorials in the UK
In nearly every city, town or village in the UK there is a monument to the war-dead. No one really knows how many there are, but current estimates place the number at more than 60,000.

Hundreds of volunteers and a few dedicated staff at Britain's Imperial War Museum are working on a 10- year project to catalogue them all for posterity.

Lost landmarks

Blockley memorial
Often pictures of war memorials were made into postcards
Many war memorials have become decaying local landmarks that hardly draw a second glance. In 1988 the museum's director-general, Alan Borg, became concerned that the monuments could one day be lost forever and no record of them would exist.

He started the National Inventory of War Memorials, which is expected to be completed by 2001.

Nick Hewitt, who has been running the project for the past couple of years, says that so far around 27,000 memorials have been recorded. When the whole project is finished it is hoped the results will be available on the Internet.

"A lot of people don't realise it and ask why the government or people aren't doing something - but the memorials were totally the brainchildren of local communities, they did things their own way.

"The name lists were compiled locally - there was no computer printout on who had died from your local areaż it was all very ad hoc," he said.

A legion of volunteers

civil war
A memorial to a civil war battle in 1643
The information is sent in entirely by hundreds of volunteers, who go out with cameras and notebooks recording every name and sculpted detail.

"They are massively enthusiastic and they put in amazing hours," said Mr Hewitt.

Some war memorials can be slightly unusual; a small island in Barrow-in-Furness was presented to the town as a war memorial at the end of World War I (1914-18). Some of the earliest memorials commemorate battles which took place during the civil war in the 17th Century.

In keeping with British eccentricity there is also a fair sprinkling of bus shelters dedicated to the war-dead, as well as playing fields an operating theatres.

A civilian army

Manchester Boer War Memorial
Manchester Boer War memorial entitled The Last Shot
Just over 1,000 war memorials were set up after the Boer War but the vast majority of memorials were erected during and after World War I.

The enormous grass roots movement to commemorate the dead took place not only because of the vast number killed in the Great War - but also because most of the dead were civilians and not professional soldiers.

"This was the first time that soldiers were recognised as human beings. In the 19th century soldiers were seen as the sweepings of the gutters - but the big social change was that this was a civilian army, " said Mr Hewitt.

"They were seen as members of the community first and soldiers second - that was the key thing about World War I."

Reminders of the past

Barry memorial
A recently erected memorial to the Merchant Navy in Barry, South Wales
But war memorials are not just a thing of the past; memorials to World War II (1939-45) are still being set up more than 50 years after the event.

"After the World War II there was a big social movement against monuments - people didn't want stone. But now the same generation that made that choice is now making a decision to put up monuments," said Mr Hewitt.

"I think that generation is now thinking that soon everything is going to change - the world in 50 years will be totally unlike the world they lived in and they want to physically remind people that it wasn't always like that."

If you would like to find out more about the National Inventory of War Memorials email nhewitt@iwm.org.uk.

Links to more World War I stories are at the foot of the page.


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