A means to remember

This ANZAC Day, tens of thousands of Australians will come together to visit a local war memorial. Be they simple plaques or thoughtfully designed architectural structures, these sites serve as focal points for the community in a way few other structures can hope to.

But did you know that over the years the purpose of war memorials has shifted – and is still shifting – to encompass more than you might expect?

Some of the earliest war memorials date back to the time of the Romans, who were in many ways defined by war. For them, commemorative sites were not to remember the fallen; they were to celebrate success. Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, was built in 113AD not as a focus for sober reflection on the casualties of the Dacian Wars but to trumpet the way the eponymous emperor had smashed the barbarians. Celebrating victory rather than counting its cost was the standard for centuries; if any people were memorialised, it tended to be heads of state or individual military leaders – take Nelson’s Column in London, which recalls the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 with an icon of the titular admiral who perished in it. When it came to commemorating the average soldier (or sailor), the harsh truth was that they didn’t rate a mention.

The raison d’etre of the memorial didn’t really change until the late 19th century, when advances in science contributed to a less religious frame of mind. With doubts creeping in that perhaps, after death, there may not be an afterlife, dying in battle didn’t seem quite so glorious any more. The emphasis, therefore, shifted to other reasons to fight, namely duty to your country and nobility of sacrifice, and for those to hold true in the minds of soldiers, that sacrifice had to be acknowledged. Many war memorials were – and are still – designed to instil a certain civic pride that members of the community fought and died in the service of defeating a great evil or threat, although usually in such a way that war isn’t glorified. Quite the opposite. Professor Ken Inglis, whose award-winning study Sacred Places is one of the definitive works on the nature of the war memorial, found that many commemorative sites employ a “rhetoric of chivalry…to make horror and anguish endurable, to give comfort by softening what was otherwise too horrible for words.”

As war changed and society changed with it, it became a priority to bury war dead (instead of simply filling mass graves on the battlefield); the American Civil War (1861-65) was one of the first where attempts were made to record the names of the dead and, where possible, give them decent burials. It was the First World War, however, when the casualties numbered thousands of volunteer soldiers alongside the professional army, that saw greater public demand for the remains of loved ones to be treated with the proper respect. After Armistice, the Imperial War Graves Commission was tasked with handling this, leading to the establishment of the first European war cemeteries in France. Designed by the likes of Sir Edwin Lutyens, they were the next largest evolution of the war memorial.

With these memorials acting as the final resting places of the fallen – and many more large architectural structures standing as gravesites for those whose bodies were never recovered – families now had definite locations at which to mourn their loss. “An important part of grief in the early 20th century – and in the 100 years before – is to visit the grave,” says Dr Meleah Hampton, a historian at the Australian War Memorial. “You maintain a grave, you visit it regularly, and you put flowers on it, but all of these men are dying overseas, and parents can never see their graves.”

For the many family members who could not travel to the sites in Europe where these cemeteries were founded, the answer was to establish their own places of mourning closer to home. In Australia in particular, many hundreds of these substitute gravesites were established in the form of memorials. By now it was also important that these featured the names of all the dead, not just officers or military leaders, with more than 90 per cent of local memorials listing individual soldiers.

But again, time has brought an additional function of the memorial, the one we’re perhaps the most familiar with today. With the birth of new generations, a visit to a commemorative site has become less about mourning a specific individual at a surrogate graveside, and more about the bigger picture.

Speaking in 2010, Professor Inglis made particular note of this shift in significance. “A new generation probably views them a different way, sometimes as a statement for people of the futility of war. That’s not how they were erected in the first place. When new ones are built these days, they tend to be devoted retrospectively to people who served in all wars.” Indeed, with this in mind, many new, larger memorials offer historical displays and educational material to enable understanding and empathy in visitors who have been fortunate enough not to live in a time of war.

But their significance and function continues to change and expand, with memorials becoming symbols not just of loss but of new beginnings; of reconciliation between former adversaries. In 1984, for example, French President Francois Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl held hands and listened to the national anthems of both nations at the Douaumont memorial commemorating the lives lost in Verdun. The idea of a memorial as a place not just of grieving but of healing carries increasing weight with studies indicating that, in some cases, attending them may deliver positive mental benefits to sufferers of PTSD; that they are “transitional environments” where sufferers can feel safe and secure enough to express feelings they may not be able to elsewhere.

So while the function of the war memorial may seem obvious, it’s worth remembering that these anchors of the community serve many purposes. That while they are constants in the context of our environment, they evolve and adapt to meet the needs of the living while continuing to recall those we have lost.


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