The War Memorial a Commemoration of Sacrifice

by M-Gillies
Exterior of The Hall of Memory in Birmingham, England

The Hall of Memory in Birmingham, England was built in 1922 to honor the 12,320 citizens of Birmingham who died during WWI.

War memorials, for the better part of human history were once used as commemorations to the great victories and to the leaders of these victories – the Arc de Triomphe in Paris listed all French victories of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, while Nelson’s Column in London commemorated Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had died while leading the British to a naval victory of the Battle of Trafalgar. Remembering the dead – the soldiers who sacrificed their lives fell as a secondary concern. But as time went on, war memorials steered further away from the glorification of war and more to the honor of those who had died.

By the end of the nineteenth century, it became more common for regiments in the British Army to erect monuments to their comrades who had died in small Imperial Wars, while the early twentieth century began seeing towns and cities in the United Kingdom raise funds to memorialize the men from their communities. But it was the First World War – the Great War… The War to End All Wars that commemorating the dead became more important than boasting about victories.

With the massive devastation and loss of life of the First World War, it became a necessity to pay tribute and recognize those valiant soldiers who gave their lives to protecting their countries. It was due to the heavy military casualties and the impact of the war on civilians; it was the number of missing bodies and how repatriation of the dead was not permitted that monuments have become part of the fabric of our lives – they’ve aroused deep emotions and speak volumes about the beliefs and values of the towns’ citizens.

The scale of casualties in the First World War was at the time unprecedented. During the early weeks of fighting on the Western Front, the number of military dead had already reached into the tens of thousands. The French Army alone suffered 80,000 losses during the First Battle of the Marne and thousands of others would soon follow.

Many would be buried on the battlefields, in individual or communal graves by their comrades. A sole cross or marker would be the only identification a body had fallen during battle. But with heavy, prolonged rain turning the landscape into a sea of mud, many soldiers, particularly during the Battle of Passchendaele in Ypres, would be left to drown and disappear in the waterlogged shell craters. Graves and burial grounds situated in the area of battlefront soon became damaged by subsequent fighting across the same location, resulting in the loss of the original marked graves. This was before an official war graves registration service was established, which contributed to the high number of missing casualties on all sides and for the many thousands of graves for which the identity is described as Unknown. 

When the war ended, nations involved chose to commemorate their missing in various ways. It was only natural that families who had lost loved ones would want to make pilgrimages to the grave sites and soon came the construction of War Memorials for the Unknowns, ranging from plaques to paintings to the most recognizable of all – the cenotaph.

Across western countries the number of war memorials is staggering in its number with over 100,000 memorials across Canada, United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Each year these countries reflect upon the sacrifices of soldiers who have died in battle through Remembrance Day (Armistice Day), however, other countries hold their own commemorative day such as Volkstrauertag (People’s Mourning Day) in Germany, Remembrance Sunday in Hong Kong, the National Day of Commemoration in Ireland, the Ramleh ceremony in Israel, Giorno dell’Unita Nazionale Gionrnata delle Forze Armate (the Day of National Unity Day of the Armed Forces) in Italy, the Remembrance of the Dead in the Netherlands, Polish Independence Day in Poland and Veterans and Memorial Day in the United States.

To date, these War Memorials have grown to become a place of remembrance. They vary in shape and size – they may be official or privately funded. Some have fallen into disrepair, while others may look as if they were just erected. In most every town across the world, these war memorials serve as a tribute to the soldiers who fought in the wars, defending their countries, but since the turn of the century, these monuments have served as a commemorations rather than glorifications of war.

Some famous war memorials include:


Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Ontario
Victory Square in Vancouver, British Columbia


Iron Mike
Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia


The Monument to the People’s Heroes in Beijing
The Cenotaph in Hong Kong


The India Gate in New Delhi


Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres
The St. Julien Memorial in Saint-Julien


The Verdun Memorial in Meuse
The Douaumont Ossuary in Douaumont


The Hall of Memory in Birmingham
The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London


The ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney
The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne


The National War Memorial in Wellington



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