Commemorating the First World War

Catherine Switzer takes a closer look at Northern Ireland's war memorials

They are so common that they are almost invisible. Present in public squares and parks, inside churches and schools, workplaces and sports clubs, we see NI's war memorials so often that in some ways we fail to see them.

Stopping to look at the memorials can be a sobering experience, since they record, name after name after name, those who did not return from the battlefield. Each of these men had their own story - the boy who joined up underage, the father, the brother, the only son. In the same way, too, each memorial has its own story.

The British Government unwittingly provided a starting point for these stories when, in 1915, it decided that the bodies of servicemen killed in the war would not be returned to their families for burial. This was extremely controversial - it handed control of the bodies, their burial and any subsequent headstone, over to the authorities. For families at home, the bodies of their loved ones lay on distant battlefields whose names were difficult to spell and pronounce. The Government's decision denied families the traditional comfort of a funeral and a grave to visit.

When the war finished in November 1918, the government-sponsored Imperial War Graves Commission began its task of commemorating each dead serviceman. They undertook the design and construction of cemeteries and other memorials which stand on the former battlefields. Meanwhile at home, communities were forced to come to terms with the fact that the war dead would never return. The war had created a terrible absence at the heart of communities, and it was this absence which gave rise to the desire for war memorials.

Although the British Government funded the commemoration on the former battlefields, it was not involved in the creation of any war memorials in Northern Ireland. Instead the initiative was taken at a local level. Usually the process began at a public meeting, where a committee was often appointed to take charge of the project. Money had to be raised so a system of donations was set up and fund-raising events organised. The committee also chose a design for the memorial and selected a sculptor or architect to make the design a reality. They drew up the list of names to be engraved on it. Once the memorial was complete, it was usually dedicated at a special public ceremony, often attended by a large number of people.

Each of NI's war memorials is therefore the result of a very localised process. A sculptor may have been brought in to actually create the memorial but the money to pay them, along with the other outgoings, were raised locally. In some cases communities raised quite substantial sums of money for their war memorials: Coleraine raised £1,800, Enniskillen £1,400 and Comber £1,200. In Derry the total was more than £5,000, a tremendous amount of money at the time.

These individual processes created numerous different memorials across Northern Ireland. A total of 62 memorials were erected on behalf of particular towns and villages. At this public level, statues were the most common choice; showing either a soldier figure - as, for example, in Enniskillen, Holywood and Bushmills - or a female figure intended to symbolise peace or victory as is the case in Bangor, Lisburn and Portrush.

Obelisks were another frequently chosen option, perhaps because they were relatively simple to create and also provided ample space for the lists of names usually cut into them. Examples can be seen in Ballymena, Kilrea, Groomsport and overlooking Belfast Lough at Knockagh. Cookstown and Belfast both chose replicas of the London Cenotaph. Celtic crosses stand in Cregagh and Hillsborough. Plaques were another popular choice, and can be seen at Moneymore and Castlewellan, while examples also exist of memorial parks - Crumlin, Ballymena - and clock towers - Garvagh and Waringstown.

Going below the level of the public we find many hundreds more memorials. Church congregations installed all manner of objects to commemorate their dead: plaques, stained glass windows, obelisks, bells, lecterns, and organs can all be found in some numbers. Many schools erected memorials, as did sports clubs, workplaces and many other organisations. Many of these organisational memorials were fairly straightforward plaques, but others were more unusual: Instonians Rugby Club added purple - the colour of mourning - to their club colours in memory of the war dead.

The early 1920s was the peak time for completing these memorial schemes. Ballymena can, it seems, claim the distinction of the first public memorial in the north of Ireland, as its Memorial Park was used for public commemoration in July 1918. Stranocum, in rural Co Antrim, had its monument in place in April 1920 and appears to be the first post-war memorial. The peak year for public memorial unveilings was 1922, but after 1924 the number of new memorials being unveiled fell away and only four memorials were unveiled in the 1930s.

As each memorial was unveiled it became the centre of the commemorations held on Armistice Day, November 11. People whose loved ones lay in graves hundreds of miles away - if they had a known grave at all - now had a local place to visit, where they could leave flowers and remember their dead.

Few of the First World War generation remain and the number of living veterans is even less. But the memorials that they saw being created stand at the centre of war commemoration. In the years since the First World War, commemoration in Northern Ireland has at times been quite politicised, but the memorials themselves make no distinctions between those they commemorate. The grief that gave rise to the war memorial movement was not limited to any one political or religious community. Northern Ireland's war memorials remember local men who died in a global war.