Relics of the Great War in London

By Riley Kane

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The Cenotaph, London.

London today is a fascinating place. It is most definitely a global capital, when walking down the street one would be as likely to hear people speaking English as not. The city has all the trappings of one of the most advanced in the world, but it also carries a huge weight of history. Monuments spanning close to two thousand years of history are scattered throughout the city, all vying for attention. Having just concluded both a semester class and now a study abroad trip about the First World War, I was interested to see some of the monuments I had heard about in my classes.

The first place I went was the Imperial War Museum, which had just recently remodeled their WWI exhibit. It was incredible, the exhibit was filled with all sorts of original posters, uniforms, weapons, shells, and other interesting artifacts. It presented the war as a tragedy, but at the same time there was a certain positivity in the atmosphere of the exhibit as a whole. If one knew nothing about the Great War you would receive an excellent education by closely following the exhibit’s content. It discussed all sorts of minor details and events, including the war in the Balkans. The WWI section of the museum was also by far the most crowded–even on a Friday morning it was packed.

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Imperial War Museum, First World War Galleries

Interestingly, none of the Great War’s other monuments in London commanded such fascination. In my travels though the city I observed numerous other monuments, to which others seemed disinterested. The Cenotaph, which is very close to Parliament, is an empty tomb to commemorate the dead soldiers of WWI who were never found. It had poppy wreaths around it, so clearly was cared for, but despite the nearby streets thronging with tourists nobody stopped to observe the monument, and I was the only person who bothered to approach it directly. The statue of Edith Cavell, a British nurse executed by the Germans as a spy in October 1915 and the subject of a number of posters, films, and other memory sites during the war, saw little interest either either, and was in a rather sad state with pigeons perched upon it. Near the Tower of London I saw something that looked like a monument, I went to investigate it, and saw that an unassuming arch was a monument to British sailors during the First World War, it seemed to be pushed off in a corner and the blackening of the stone indicated it had not been cleaned for a while.

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Edith Cavell Memorial, London

It seems that while the Great War is important to the British some sites of memory are not particularly well-remembered or cared for.  I could not help but notice the stark difference when compared with the Napoleonic Wars. Admiral Nelson’s visage stands atop a column in Trafalgar Square, named for his victory against the combined French and Spanish fleet, Nelson is the focus of an exhibit in the National Maritime History Museum, and both Nelson and the Duke of Wellington’s tombs dominate the entrance to the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where many British military figures are entombed. A portion of London is even named for the battle of Waterloo. No monuments of such a scale remember WWI. The ways the wars are remembered helps to explain this difference. Many do not understand why WWI was fought so they just assume call it a tragedy or worse conclude it was driven by greed, but were the Napoleonic Wars so different? Arguably Britain entered WWI to prevent Germany form dominating Europe; they joined the coalition against France for the same reason. Colonies were at stake and fought in during both wars. Waterloo was even fought in Belgium, only slightly East of Flanders fields near Brussels. The Napoleonic Wars saw countless British deaths far from their homeland to attain a geopolitical goal. The wars are surprisingly similar considered form that respect, and yet the greats of the Napoleonic Wars are heroes – figures larger than life who command the imagination of their admirers and nation – Horatio Nelson; Arthur Wesley, Duke of Wellington. Those names resonate with gravitas. There are no such figures from the First World War.

Of course I have simplified my overview, but there is clearly a strong dissonance between how the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War are remembered, considering what transpired during both conflicts. The way we remember our history is incredibly subjective and constantly subject to change. Perhaps in another one hundred years the Great War will be remembered in Britain more as a heroic struggle against oppression, a commitment worth celebrating. But for now, at least, the first word war remains an uncomfortable memory for the people of London and many who come to see the city.

 

About Stephen Norris