What you need to know about UK War Memorials

With an estimated 100,000 war memorials in the UK, you’ve probably come across at least one before. But did you realise just how important it was? Find out more about these monuments to our heroes that proudly stand amongst us.

WWI memorial in St James Park, London

WWI memorial in St James Park, London.

What exactly is a war memorial?

Simply put, a war memorial is any physical object that has been erected to commemorate a war or conflict and, more specifically, the people involved in it. They vary hugely in size and scope, from small monuments, statues and sculptures right through to entire buildings, squares and gardens.

In fact, any object can become a war memorial and be created by anyone at any time - as long the intention is for it to be in remembrance of a war or conflict, then it can be considered as a war memorial.

Who a war memorial is dedicated to also varies. Memorials often bear a plaque that lists names of those that died in a certain battle, but a memorial can be dedicated to a single person or large numbers of people and not always just those who died on the battlefield. If anyone has been directly affected by a war, they might be included in the dedication.

When did war memorials first come into being?

The earliest recorded war memorial in the UK dates as far back as the seventh century and many structures have been erected since then to honour British conflicts, but the first memorials that commemorated ordinary soldiers by name, rather than just officers, date from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Prior to the nineteenth century, war memorials were more often seen as celebrations of illustrious leaders and triumphant victories rather than an opportunity to reflect on the great cost of conflict.

By the Boer War (1899-1902), recognition of the vital contribution made by rank-and-file servicemen and volunteers was growing in the public eye and the aftermath of that war saw committees formed to establish memorials and record the names of fallen comrades. However, it wasn't until WWI (1914-18), that the UK experienced war memorials on a scale never seen before or since - about two-thirds of the war memorials that exist today date back to WWI.

Why is WWI so significant for war memorials in the UK?

The sheer size of WWI was the major factor in the creation of so many war memorials in the UK. With over 700,000 British dead, many of whom were volunteers, almost every community throughout the country was affected. And, to add to the grief, those who died overseas could not be brought home - the enormous numbers made it logistically impossible. Graves were most often nearby by battlefields, hundreds of miles away from those who desperately yearned to mourn. There was a need, like never before, for families, friends and communities to come together to create commemorations to those who were lost in the war.

Have there been any war memorials erected since WWI?

There have been many memorials founded in the years since WWI. As recently as March 2017, the Queen unveiled a stone sculpture in Victoria Embankment Gardens, London to honour the many thousands of UK military personal and civilians who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf. However, in many conflicts since WWI - especially WWII, which followed 20 years later - many communities have chosen to add the names of casualties to existing memorials.

Where can I go to find out more about War Memorials in the UK? How can I help pay tribute?

What is remarkable about war memorials is that they are all around us. From a simple statue on a high street to the stunning National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, these structures give us a chance to connect to history and reflect on those unimaginable sacrifices made in the past for the hope of a better future. It's well worth seeking out your local memorials - or revisiting ones you may already know of - and taking an opportunity to pay respect to those who gave so much.

The War Memorials Trust works for the protection and conservation of war memorials in the UK and their website provides a range of resources to help you discover more about war memorials and their preservation.

The War Memorials Register was founded in 1989 to build a comprehensive record of every war memorial in the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Based at the Imperial War Museums in London, the database has so far recorded over 68,000 war memorials.

You can also find information and resources at UK War Memorials and War Memorials Online.