Monday Monuments and Memorials started as a way to ensure regular posts on this blog. My reading habits can make the timing of book reviews haphazard. But I can count on a weekly photo.
It has become a popular feature on Great War 100 Reads … for you and for me. I take an expansive view of what belongs – statues, cenotaphs, plaques, grave markers, sculptures, ephemera and many other remembrances of the war. I seek them out in my travels. Sometimes they present themselves to me out of the blue.
I’ve picked up some books about war memorials to learn more, and will review them over two posts.
To Mark Our Place: A History of Canadian War Memorials documents many of the monuments built to honour Canadian soldiers. Robert Shipley’s 1987 book does not claim to be exhaustive, but he probably lists the majority of Canadian monuments in the country and abroad. While it covers the range of conflicts, the focus is on WW1 monuments. It was, after all, the first war with so many Canadian casualties.
Before Shipley’s book, there had been no close study of Canadian war memorials. Critics dismissed them for lacking sophistication and artistic merit. But Shipley argues that “While they speak of the dead, they speak to the living about things that are important in life. And while they were built after wars, mostly wars fought far away, they are products of this country and they are celebrations of peace.” (p 20)
Shipley recounts how communities came together after WW1 to plan, raise money for and build the memorials. With the need to reach consent amongst the committees and the wide subscribing public, it is no wonder that the monuments are not on the cutting edge of art. They follow ancient forms and European models. But they also incorporate Canadian symbols – most notably maple leaves (for Canada) and caribou (for Newfoundland). Great importance was given to inscribing the names of battles in which the members of the community had fought.
The monuments pay tribute to sacrifice, suffering, honour and grief. They celebrate peace and rarely mention victory.
Women’s groups like the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE), Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and Women’s Institute (WI) were often at the forefront in monument committees. Shipley notes “The prominence of women in memorial movements after the First World War was part of the growth of women’s involvement in all aspects of our society.” (p 57)
Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw point out in their conclusion to A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service that the war memorials contribute to a narrow view of how the war is remembered: “Despite their very tangible presence in the war, in its public commemoration women remain largely ephemeral, passive and silent – ideals, or idealized mourners, rather than flesh-and-blood workers for the nation at war. The nearly universal absence of women and girls from these war memorials, save as allegorical figures, both represents and has contributed to the popular memory of the war as a male endeavour.” (p 320)
Of the books I’ve read, To Mark Our Place is the most rigorous in its analysis of war memorials. His listing of the monuments is a helpful starting place to find the communities where they reside. But my explorations must be more resourceful to find tributes beyond those to fallen soldiers.