‘…we must attend to the faces and feelings of those who were bereft, and who made the pilgrimages to these sites of memory, large and small, in order to begin to understand how men and women tried to cope with one of the signal catastrophes of our century’
(Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Morning (Cambridge, 1995)
The war placed unparalleled demands on the country’s manpower and all communities quickly became accustomed to the sight of their men going off to war. Rolls of honour, listing those serving in the armed forces, were proudly posted up in churches and public places as a demonstration of local patriotism and sacrifice. As the losses began to mount, local war shrines such as those in Russell Road and Cottimore Lane, Walton on Thames, pictured in the parish magazine (SHC ref 8347/2, October 1916 and March 1917 issues), were erected to serve as a focus for contemplation and prayer.
After the war, as towns and villages came to terms with the cost, a collective determination that the deaths of so many should not be forgotten saw war memorials erected in almost every community in the country. Local war memorials answered people’s need for a special place to remember the fallen and honour their sacrifice, especially in light of the decision, first made in March 1915 and reaffirmed after the war, that the actual bodies of casualties (regardless or rank and social background) should not be repatriated but remain close to the place where they had died.
In every town and village and in schools and workplaces too, debates took place as to what form their memorial should take and fundraising campaigns were undertaken. Some places, from a determination that out of the suffering and loss should come a better world, decided their memorial should take a more practical form – a community hall, a cottage hospital or a recreation ground. Others were inspired by the great national monuments, the Cenotaph in Whitehall, designed by Edwin Lutyins, or Reginald Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice which was erected in many of the Imperial War Graves Commission cemeteries. Sometimes plans had to be scaled back as public enthusiasm in a period of post war exhaustion and retrenchment could not be guaranteed. In Guildford it was initially proposed that a monument on Pewley Down should be erected but the cost was deemed prohibitive. In Horley, plans for a recreation ground had to be abandoned and fundraising for the memorial cross that had been substituted proved a struggle (SHC ref 6296/1/1/45). When the war memorial committee asked the monumental sculptor for a reduced price they received a very frosty reply.
As the author of Guildford in the Great War wrote: ‘the response to appeals for similar memorials in neighbouring places was found to be far below expectation. The truth was that the nation was war weary, and with the passing of the danger and the reaction consequent thereupon, it was difficult to arouse interest in projects of this kind. Then, too, the period of high earnings in war factories had gone, and large numbers were wondering what the future might have in store for them’.
Communities also had to decide who should be commemorated on a memorial and attempt to draw up accurate lists of the names that should appear together with details of their units and date of death. Such information was difficult to collect but was, of course, vital for the sculptor charged with creating the memorial. In Ripley the war memorial committee discovered, too late, that the wrong man was commemorated on the new memorial: A Watson was still serving abroad; R Watson was the man who had been killed (SHC ref RIP/11/1).
The Times, in an article of 23 September 1926, reviewed the situation in Surrey: only one parish, Dunsfold, had yet to erect a memorial but plans were in hand for a cross. Otherwise, ‘The most favoured form of community memorial is a cross or crucifix. In 62 towns and parishes in the county the memorials are of this form: many of them have the design of a Celtic cross carved in granite. At Oxted and Limpsfield the memorial has taken the practical form of a cottage hospital. Five parishes-Shottermill, Worplesdon, Brockham Green, Chiddingfold, and Abinger-have built village halls as their memorials. In three villages-Churt, Send, and Chobham-recreation grounds have been provided. The schemes adopted at Chertsey, Farncombe, Camberley and Caterham Valley embody memorial chapels or shirnes. At Gatton and Sidlow Bridge lichgates have been erected, and at Compton the village has adopted the not inappropriate design of a lamp, from a sketch prepared by the widow of G F Watts. Cranleigh and Weybridge have raised cenotaphs. Woking has a sculptural design representing the triumph of Victory and Peace, and in the county town of Guildford the memorial is a triumphal colonnade of Greek design. A sanctuary in terra-cotta has been erected at Leatherhead, and a number of villages have mural bronze tablets as their designs. At Wimbledon a war memorial garden of 42 acres has been opened.’
Over the same period, families and individuals installed tablets, stained glass windows and other forms of memorial to their own fallen, whose actual graves remained overseas. As the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission proceeded and the cemeteries in the fighting zones were set up, the temporary wooden crosses which had marked individual graves before they were replaced by the Commission’s standardised headstone were sometimes repatriated and some can still be found in churches in Surrey.
Click here for a brief guide to some of the sources relating to the erection of memorials across Surrey.