The twentieth century, the century of total war, of industrial warfare and of conscript armies, has left behind survivors and later generations who engage time and again in memorialisation and acts of remembrance as commemoration. In combatant countries there is a proliferation of memorials; memorial gates, memorial halls, memorial hospitals, memorial clocks. And of course the ubiquitous monumental masonry as obelisks and statues, plinths and columns scattered across the landscape. In Australia alone around 4,000 memorials exist; there are over 36,000 in the towns and villages of France and a further 40,000 scattered the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.
Frequently people pass by memorial objects, places and monuments with little idea of their meaning. This paper offers some insights into the meaning of memorials as they have evolved, throughout the 20th century. Three broad stages of memorialisation are discussed: monumental, utilitarian and counter-monumental. Each stage is examined within the context of changing societal attitudes towards the commemoration of warfare and of the victims.
Mayo’s definition of war memorials and its relationship with commemoration is a useful starting point. “Whether a statue, a place, a building, or a combination of these and other elements, a war memorial is a social and physical arrangement of space and artifacts to keep alive the memories of persons who participated in a war sponsored by their country. A memorial is an artifact that imposes meaning and order beyond the temporal and chaotic experiences of life.”
Mayo’s definition points to the war memorial as both an object and as the act of remembering. The war memorial is serving a public function of focusing the attention of the public on specific events of the past in order to foster a collective orientation toward those events and to keep their memory alive in some consistent way in the present day.
King outlines two purposes of commemoration...