University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Heritage and Memory: Warlingham War Memorial

Benjamin Locke, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on Warlingham War Memorial for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Benjamin considers the messages provided by the memorial’s imagery and how they reflect the social expectations of the time of its unveiling. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

‘Heritage is the valorisation and preservation by individuals and groups of traces of the past that are thought to embody their cultural identity’. [1] The values and practices of heritage preservation are determined by major political and economic trade-offs, both of which determine what sites and properties are to be preserved. [2] In this blog, I will assess the role collective memory played in the foundation of the Warlingham War Memorial, and if the 1920s values on which it was built can come into question. This is important in understanding the cultural significance of the memorial. Maurice Walbwachs’ quote ‘We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group’summarises how assessing collective memory can help interpret and understand its cultural significance and influence. [3] In this blog I will also determine whether the memorial is successful in its original role as a site of remembrance for those who tragically lost their lives in the Great War, and its greater cultural meaning and representation for contemporary British society.

Warblingham War Memorial, Tandridge, Surrey
Image: iwm.org.co.uk

Warlingham War Memorial was designed by John Edward Taylerson and was originally unveiled on the 4th December 1921 to commemorate the First World War. A plaque was later placed in 1946 in honour of those who fought and died in the Second World War. It consists of a tall column, with a high-standing soldier sheltering a helpless woman and the baby in her arms. The role that collective memory has on remembrance and how this comes into play is questionable. Halbwachs argues that we must ‘put ourselves in the position of others’ and ‘tread the same path’ to really understand remembrance. [4] Does the memorial really represent how contemporary British people viewed the war? It seems to portray the war as a male sacrifice for well-being of women and children. Angela Woollacott argues that women’s participation in the war effort was lamented by guilt, anger and adoration that their brothers/fiancées were evoked in their role as warriors, which ‘subsumed their own novel freedoms’. [5] She uses the memoir of Peggy Hamilton, a middle-class woman, who wrote that women suffered an ‘inferiority complex’ which put a barrier of ‘indescribable experience’ between men and women. [6] The Warlingham Memorial reflects this, with its lack of acknowledgement of the great sacrifices’ women made to the war effort in favour of the valorisation of the male soldier. The hopeless woman on the memorial is in no way a representation on the role of women, or how collective memory today views the role of women in the war. However, class differences are what really distinguishes people from their roles in war. A middle-class woman’s experience would arguably be completely different to the experiences lived by working women.

The roles of war memorials are to do the dead justice and to make sure that we follow their example and ensure that they did not die in vain. Alex King perfectly summarises this duty, saying that it is ‘necessary to understand what the dead had died for and to follow the example they had set. The dead had died for others, and by emulating them they were, indeed, worthy of the sacrifices the dead had made on their behalf’. [7] The memorial does a successful job in showing that soldiers died to protect their families. The message the memorial emits is powerful and successfully aids our memory in the sacrifices made, even if the message that can be seen to invalidate the role of women. Despite its success in acting as a memorial for the fallen, is it dangerous for us to entirely take in the messages, which according to some revisionist historians are inaccurate portrayals composed of myths? King argues that commemoration had always offered a political platform, which had become available to mass organisations like the British Legion and the League of Nations. [8] The latter of these organisations would have wanted to preserve the status quo and deflect any criticism of the war, which was directed to the ruling classes, by instead portraying the war as a noble cause of death for the good of Europe and everyone at home. Ross Wilson supports this argument, believing that interrogation must be done when thinking about the message that memorials portray. However, he argues that myths in popular memory of the war are widely known by the public, and that the audiences do not passively consume everything they see. [9] Indeed, Wilson uses the popular television series Blackadder Goes Forth to show that there is an understanding of what the Great War was like, as it contains suffering soldiers, incompetent officers, atrocious conditions and pointless military advances. [10]

In conclusion, the war memorial successfully acts as a symbol of remembrance for those that fell in the First World War. It creates an image of noble sacrifice, and despite any opinions on the causes, justifications and pointlessness of the war, it is clear that many of these soldiers fought and died for their country, and will ensure that the people of Warlingham will never forget the sacrifices of combatants in both the First and Second World Wars. However, the connection between politics and remembrance has meant that the role of women during the war has been diminished, with the memorial’s portrayal of the woman as being helpless, weak and being shielded by nothing but the men fighting on the front line. By today’s standards, this is not a completely successful memorial in showing the great sacrifices that the whole of British society had made to the war effort. It is important for us to not judge societal norms through the lenses of today, and we must remember that gender roles and norms were completely different to what they are now. Nicholas J. Saunders’ remarks – ‘While memorials are supposed to serve as tangible weighty structures denoting consensus, they can divide a community as much is it could unite’ – perfectly details how the politics in memory can be polarising. [11] The memorial is overall, very moving and sad, but it makes me wonder that if it were to be situated in central London rather than a village in Tandridge, would it prove too controversial and raise debate?


[1] Yudhishthir Raj Isar, Dacia Viejo-Rose and Helmut Anheier, Heritage, Memory and Identity (London: Sage Publications, 2011), 3.

[2] Isar, Viejo-Rose and Anheier, Heritage, Memory and Identity, 4.

[3] Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (London: University Chicago Press, 1992), 53.

[4] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 53.

[5] Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, Gendering War Talk (Winchester: Princeton University Press, 1993) Chapter 6: Angela Woollacott, 128.

[6] Cooke and Woollacott, Gendering War Talk, 128.

[7] Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (Oxford: Berg, 1998), 155.

[8] King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain, 165.

[9] Bart Ziino, Remembering the First World War (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2015) Chapter 3: Ross Wilson, 135.

[10] Ziino, Remembering the First World War, 140.

[11] Nicholas J. Saunders, Matters of Conflict: Material Culture, Memory and the First World War (London: Routledge, 2004), 134.

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