Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

The traces of war

Professor Mike Roper discusses the purpose of war memorials and the differences of the grieving experience for families in the UK and Australia.
LAURA JAMES: Much work has been written on why Australia itself has so many war memorials, avenues of honour, honour boards, and each of these memorials carry a burden of names. Do you think that this is something that is particular to Australia because we are so far away, or do you know of any other examples in your work?
MIKE ROPER: I would say that, in Britain, it’s equally important that you have names. I live in a village called Wivenhoe, and it’s local church has a cross at the front of it, which is the first thing you see as you enter the church yard. And it has the names from two world wars other the conflicts on it. So I don’t think that the practises don’t look different, but, emotionally, the distance makes a difference.
LAURA JAMES: I know that I’m thinking particularly of Avenues of Honour and, of course, of all the war memorials that are around Australia. And, for a lot of people, these memorials and, in Avenues of Honour, each tree acted as a substitute grave. I know that Bart Ziino in his wonderful book “A Distant Grief” has written extensively about this practise. Do you think the same was for people in Britain, or in other countries?
MIKE ROPER: I think that Britain is also surrounded by memorials. And sometimes you’ll turn up at a village hall, and you realise that that is a memorial to First World War dead, or you’ll visit a hospital, and you’ll realise that that hospital wing is a memorial to First World War Dead. Colchester has an avenue of remembrance planted along the main entrance into the town. Now I don’t know whether each individual tree designates a dead soldier, but they were avenues of remembrance. So I’m sure that the practises are hugely different, but I think that the way people would attach to them, when you can’t visit the site, when there’s no possibility, it is different.
And looking at some of the –because my work is on Britain– at the memorial stones people put up, I was quite interested in a couple of examples I was looking at where the parents have put the address of the house on the gravestone. And I was thinking that perhaps that might not happen for an Australian soldier because it’s too far away. You might say the name of the town. But would you put 36 Fairfax avenue, Liverpool? I don’t know that you would. So I think there’s something about the proximity of Britain to some of the Western Front cemetries that domesticates things, rather. And so perhaps there are some differences there.
And it would be interesting to do a more systematic kind of study of those differences. But I think, for me, it wouldn’t be necessarily the forms that give you the clue. It will be the kind of attachments people made to those forms. And that’s something that’s much harder to get a handle on than the forms themselves can indicate.
LAURA JAMES: That’s interesting.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: You’ve mentioned a few forms there, though. And we saw Henry Higgins erecting a cross on the battlefield. And then he comes home and creates this beautiful Celtic cross in a Dromana cemetery. And Jay Winter has actually mentioned that the memorials erected in the 1920s helped people deal with their grief and move on from the mourning that they were experiencing. Do you think that that was the case? Do you think the memorials served that purpose?
MIKE ROPER: I think that Jay is broadly right. But the thing about grief, and the way in which they express their grief, is it’s a very individual thing. And I think it’s right that what happens is that in the 1920s, across many different nations, there begin to be collective forms of remembrance that develop, which tap into individual grief. And I’m thinking here of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which, from the moment that it’s open, there is a sense that this is a site that women will visit.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Absolutely Our whole idea the 100 stories is, the war didn’t end in 1918. It went decades and decades on.
MIKE ROPER: It did. But I found it very interesting, when I was looking at the booklet where the Australians rest. And it has a sticker in it which ex libris Geoffrey Framer on the inside. So clearly, it was owned by Geoffrey Farmer. But it also says, on the first page, $20. Now that suggests to me that that was in somebody’s possession and perhaps might have had a lot of meaning to them. But, at some point, maybe that person died, and they were clearing out the bookshelves, and somebody thought, what’s this? I don’t know. Let’s sell it. Let’s just give it away. So its value, at some point, become $20, which isn’t very much.
Maybe that’s the point at which personal memory gives way to historical memory. And then we’ve got a market value of not very much for what we think now is a very interesting artefact. But maybe it doesn’t have the personal significance anymore that it did to somebody. So that war endures. But on another level, its traces fade.

Watch Professor Mike Roper discuss the purpose of war memorials, collective and individual bereavement and the differences of the grieving experience for families in the UK and Australia.

This article is from the free online

World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now