As a world power, Britain fought many wars—which it has commemorated in many ways. Among other memorials, this lecture takes you to Blenheim Place (commemorating the Duke of Marlborough’s defeat of a great French and Bavarian army in 1704) to Trafalgar Square in London (with its memorial to Horatio Nelson), to Hyde Park Corner (the best place to see war memorials in England), and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
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War Memorials of the 18th and 19th Centuries in Britain
Britain is full of war memorials. A recent estimate put the number of U.K. war memorials at more than 100,000.
Let’s begin this survey at Blenheim Palace in the pretty town of Woodstock, a few miles north of Oxford. The land and money for the palace were given by Parliament and Queen Anne to the era’s most successful general, the Duke of Marlborough. He was one of Winston Churchill’s ancestors, and Churchill wrote an immensely readable four-volume biography of him. Marlborough was the victor of the Battle of Blenheim in Germany, 1704. The palace and estate were named for this event, and among the embellishments was an immense victory column, with a statue of the Duke on top. The palace itself is superb, built in the Baroque style by Sir John Vanbrugh; from its immense frontage, there’s a long, beautiful walk along an unfenced open avenue to the victory column itself. On each face of the plinth is a description of one of Marlborough’s victories, and the mood is triumphant.
Move forward a century to Horatio Nelson, victor of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson is Britain’s naval hero par excellence, who cannot be rivaled even by Francis Drake. Trafalgar Square, right in the heart of London, is named in honor of his last victory and he stands atop Nelson’s Column, recently restored and now protected from the dense flocks of pigeons that used to compromise his dignity. Trafalgar Square is just the tip of the iceberg in memorials to Nelson, however. Nearly 200 streets in cities around Britain are named after the man or the battle, and there are dozens of other monuments.
The elaborate memorial in Liverpool shows a stylized Nelson naked as a classical hero, being crowned by the figure of victory but also being touched by the skeletal figure of death. It was unveiled on Trafalgar Day, October 21st, 1813. Around the cornice is engraved the flag message that Nelson hoisted as his fleet sailed into action: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” My favorite of all the Nelson memorials, however, is the so-called “Nile Clumps” on Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge. The Marquess of Queensberry, who was a friend of Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, planted clusters of beech trees on his estate in Amesbury, with each one representing one of Nelson’s ships at the Battle of the Nile, in 1798. Nineteen of the clumps remain, out of an original 23.
Remembering the Fallen – Britain’s War History
A shift in representation began with the monument to the Crimean War of the 1850s, set up in London in 1861. Making no mention of the commanders––one of whom squandered some of his bravest soldiers in the futile Charge of the Light Brigade––it shows instead three figures from the guards regiments, standing solemnly with hands clasped over their rifles, and wearing their distinctive bearskin hats. The mood is solemn, suggesting the burden of duty rather than the thrill of victory. Above them, on the stone plinth, stands the figure of “Honour,” a classically robed female figure bearing olive wreaths in both hands.
The setting is superb, in Waterloo Place, which is itself named after the Duke of Wellington’s greatest victory. This is the point where Regent Street meets the Mall, and all the surrounding buildings are white, monumental, and impressive. A further sign of the changing times is that, in 1914, the whole memorial was set back slightly so that in front of it could be placed statues of Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert. Herbert was the Secretary at War, the politician who backed Nightingale’s mission to bring order to the chaotic military hospital at Scutari in Turkey, in the face of intense opposition from the military authorities. Nightingale had just recently died, in 1910, and this was one of many statues and memorial windows established in her honor. Military nursing, henceforth, became one of the recognized war activities deserving of commemoration.
The Great War – England’s War History
The single best place to see war memorials in England is Hyde Park Corner, now a massive traffic island where some of the city’s busiest streets meet, but still big enough to generate a mood of solemnity and reflection. It is dominated by the Wellington Arch, and stands right across the road from the Duke of Wellington’s old London residence, Apsley House. The arch was built in the 1820s to celebrate the Duke’s victories over Napoleon, culminating at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Just before World War I began, it was crowned with the “Quadriga,” a four-horse chariot driven by a little boy, overlooked by an angel, and pulled by four plunging horses.
After World War I, it was joined by other memorials, of which the two most celebrated are one to the Royal Artillery and a second to the Machine Gun Corps. The artillery memorial bears a realistic copy in stone of one of the era’s great howitzer guns. Around its base are statues of four men, who look strong but also wet and cold. You can feel the deep chill of the Western Front just by looking at them. Most dramatic, however, and most controversial at the time of its unveiling in 1925, is the fact that one of them is dead, covered by his cape.
While you’re at Hyde Park Corner, you must also see the Australian War Memorial, which was dedicated in 2003. At first glance, it looks like a jumbled array of stones, but it takes on the character of a waterfall in London’s frequent rainstorms. Engraved on its face are not the names of the Australians who died, but the names of the places they came from. Close by, stands the New Zealand War Memorial, consisting of a series of steel girders planted obliquely in the ground, but whose exposed ends take the form of crosses. It’s a starkly minimalist contribution to Hyde Park Corner, easily overlooked among much bigger and grander monuments.
The Second “War to End All Wars” in England
The Battle of Britain is also the subject of an inventive monument by Paul Day along the River Thames embankment in Westminster. Unveiled in 2005, by Prince Charles and Camilla, it was finished in time for Battle of Britain Day (September 15th) and marked the 65th anniversary of the battle. Nearly 100 feet long and split diagonally, it includes high relief pictures of the airmen, the ground crew, the civilians, the firefighters, and representatives of the thousands who spent night after night in air raid shelters, dreading gas attacks. St. Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by burning buildings but itself untouched, is part of the carving, and recalls a famous photograph taken at the time. The names of everyone who participated in the battle are engraved on one side, and under the central panel is Churchill’s resonant declaration: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few.”
A mile away, where Green Park meets Piccadilly, a monument to the men of Bomber Command was unveiled in 2012. It features statues of the crew of a bomber as they return from a night raid over Germany, inside the canopy of a Greek temple. Being part of a bomber crew was one of the most lethal forms of service for British men, thousands of whom were shot down and lost during World War II.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About The History of War
Queen Anne Stuart of England
The Battle of Blenheim
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough
Baroque Art and Architecture
The Battle of Trafalgar
Marquess of Queensbury
The Battle of the Nile
The Crimean War
The Charge of the Light Brigade (article)
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (poem)
Duke of Wellington
The Battle of Britain