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Lest we forget

The War Memorial is coming up for its centenary. The school War Memorial, that is. The 'real' one, by which I mean the Cenotaph in Whitehall, has just had it.

The War Memorial is coming up for its centenary.  The school War Memorial, that is.  The ‘real’ one, by which I mean the Cenotaph in Whitehall, has just had it.

            The Government jumped quickly on to the idea of a war memorial before the end of  November,1918, the very month of the Armistice, but didn`t turn it into law till September, 1919 – nearly a year.  Odd.  No doubt Sir Humphrey`s ancestors and their fellow-civil servants didn`t think ‘the time’ was ‘ripe’, or the ‘juncture’ was yet ‘appropriate’.

            I darkly suspect too that it was the influence of the Sir Humphreys of the time which produced the memorial`s name - ‘Cenotaph’.  All those double firsts in Classics at Oxbridge.  Of course it was Greek.  ‘Kenos’ means ‘empty’ and ‘taphos’ means ‘tomb’.  I bet you didn`t know that.

            So we have the irony of a gravestone with nobody underneath it.  Just a memorial. Nothing new about that. I believe the Greeks (Greek again, you see) put up a memorial to the dead at the site of their epic victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC.  So it goes back a bit.

            At the same time as the Cenotaph entered national life, so did the concept, and the tomb, of the Unknown Warrior. Now that was fairly new.  The earliest known instance was in 1849, after a war in Schleswig of all places.  Yes, Schleswig.  Look it up.  And I bet you didn`t know that either.

            Neither did I, till I exhumed it from that inexhaustible mine of useless information  (God`s gift to the History teacher), the internet.

            It is scarcely surprising then that schools like West Buckland followed suit.  Not to the extent, I am pleased to say, of procuring an unknown soldier to bury nearby, but an impressive stone memorial. 

            God knows, there were enough old boys to remember, sadly.  All over the country.  In the case of West Buckland, getting on for sixty.  Doesn`t look much, till I tell you that the average numbers on roll in the early nineteen-teens was less than 120.  That`s when the pang hits you.

            It is perhaps a relief that the Governors did not go the whole hog and call the cross a ‘Cenotaph’.  Perhaps they felt it would be presumptuous or irreverent to name it after that national icon in Whitehall.  After all, it would perhaps sound a little over the top to have such a structure with such a name in an obscure academy barely 120 strong, next door to sheep pastures in the remote fastnesses of the West Country. Or maybe an economist suggested that having cenotaphs all over the place would somehow debase the value of them. Or maybe again they had received a frosty memorandum from Sir Humphrey to the effect that it was forbidden.

            Remember that schools were not the only places where such memorials were put up.  Think of all those village greens and country churchyards from Caithness to Cornwall.  And think of all the extra masons hired by manufacturers of funerary furniture to cope with the demand.  One is struck by the sombre thought that such a time must have been a sort of Golden Age for grave equipment stylists.

            Sombre can become depressing too when one remembers that the world at that time was also just coming out of a monstrous ‘flu’ epidemic which killed more people than the Black Death.

            Bad times. Which nobody escaped. Like now. But they were defenceless without the modern technology and medicine that we possess today.   Sobering indeed.


Berwick Coates

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