Project Canterbury

War Memorials

By Francis C. Eeles

London: The Warham Guild, 1916.

THE question of memorials to those who have fallen in the war is rapidly becoming one of increasing urgency in every town, village, and district throughout the kingdom. In most villages people at once associate the idea of a memorial with something in the parish church. Perhaps the most necessary warning that can be given is that this is by no means always the only or even the best plan to be adopted.

The first thing for any village community to consider is what is most wanted. For example, if the people have no water, it would be very wrong to pass over an obvious need just for the sake of something purely decorative. A good water supply and a well-designed fountain may be one of the most beautiful, useful, and lasting of memorials. On such matters as these the Civic Arts Association had better be consulted.

An urgent question in many rural districts in England is the deplorable destruction that is going on among the ancient cottages and smaller houses, which are some of our most precious relics of the past, and are priceless specimens of the architecture of their period, generally redolent of the locality in which they are built. The [2/3] strongly local characteristics of English architecture which the student can trace in our churches are even more marked in  domestic work. We have the ornamental plaster work of the nearer parts of East Anglia, the steep, tiled roofs of Kent and Sussex, the tiled fronts further west, the mullioned windows  of the good stone districts, the black and white of the north-west midlands, and all kinds of variety of timber construction. Ruinous, mutilated, disfigured, inconvenient, insanitary these buildings are in many cases; but they need not be so, and many are not. Yet they are often pulled down by people who would be scandalized if an old piece of ecclesiastical architecture were being interfered with. In many and many a case one or more of these old houses might well be put in order and adapted for some public use—a reading-room, library, or club-house—as a war memorial.

Yet again the open spaces must not be forgotten. In many cases common land might be secured and restored, or woods, waterside land, view points on  hills and the like, might be obtained for the public good. In all cases of this kind recourse  should be had to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, a body which enjoys the protection of an Act of Parliament, and is in a position to obtain and give the best advice upon all such questions as inevitably arise in connection  with the public control of open spaces.

Should it be decided after all to carry out a war memorial in connection with the parish church, the first consideration is to see that no harm be done. So [3/4] many people think that any kind of memorial must of necessity be an improvement, that it is an urgent matter to warn them of the pitfalls that exist. There are plenty of cases where the building of a churchyard cross or a market cross would be infinitely preferable to putting anything in the church. Yet even here there is danger. Several of our ancient churchyard crosses have been most injudiciously restored, and have been irreparably damaged in the process. Sometimes it would be better to erect a new cross on another site than to attempt to restore an old one. And a word ought perhaps to be said here against the tendency, which has already shown itself in some quarters, to set up crucifixes of the comparatively modern and realistic Latin type, of which the East knows practically nothing, and against which all the feeling of early Christianity would have rebelled. The war has brought too much death and suffering. with it for us to allow a weak sentimentalism to enforce that particular aspect of the Atonement almost to the exclusion of the hope of glory and the triumph of Christ as King. And further, just as the rood in our old English churches always included SS. Mary and John, so ought most of the crucifixes we set up now. The Atonement is unthinkable without the human race for which Christ died; and SS. Mary and John are there as representing humanity. Many of our old churchyard crosses had composite heads which contained figures of the Blessed Virgin and other saints as well as the crucifixion.

We now turn to the church itself. It is much to be [4/5] desired that all alterations and additions to churches, especially ancient churches, were brought before a committee of people who understand the numerous and highly technical questions involved. It is not enough to require mere confirmation of legality at the hands of the diocesan chancellor. The chancellor is a lawyer, and it is too much to expect of him that he should also be a capable archaeologist with  some knowledge of architecture, of woodwork, and of metal-work, not to speak of the liturgical requirements of a church, and local characteristics in ancient building. Yet again, it is not sufficient to settle legality, and then bring in an architect. Some of the most irreparable vandalism in the country has been done by architects who had great names in their day. Not every architect is a good archaeologist, not every architect understands the requirements of the Liturgy. Only a few years ago an important church on an almost unique site and amid beautiful surroundings was designed by a brilliant domestic architect who is not even a Christian, with the result that otherwise harmless Christian people by the dozen have been expressing wishes about its possible destruction through fortune of war,—wishes that are both sacrilegious and treasonable!

In one diocese—Oxford—the bishop is seeking to overcome these difficulties by the appointment of  an expert advisory committee to deal with questions of this kind. And a committee of the Lower House of York Convocation has made recommendations on similar lines. The crux of the whole question is really [5/6] that of an adequate survey of church buildings. The ideal seems to be that a list should be in existence for every church, explaining in detail the things that are (1) virtually necessary for the stability and preservation of the structure, (2) desirable additions or alterations, and (3) harmless or allowable additions.

Under (1) may be classed the necessary renewal or strengthening of portions of the structure. Under (2) the substitution of suitable for incongruous necessary ornaments, such as the replacing of a bad altar and reredos by a good one, the erection of a good screen, the addition of a cover to the font, the replacing of plaster that has been wrongly stripped off walls or roof, the removal of thoroughly bad stained glass, and so on. Under (3) would be included all that is purely decorative, and additional to the normal requirements of the church. Such things are—increasing a ring of bells, enlarging an organ, substituting a very rich ornament for a plainer but otherwise satisfactory one, adding wall paintings or stained glass, colouring a roof, and, above all, erecting what most people understand by the word “monument.” It is in such things as these that the greatest danger lies, and in any given church all that is included under (1) and (2) ought to be exhausted before a donor is allowed to consider additions included under (3).

It is not the purpose of the present tract to do more than to suggest general principles and to utter warnings. All over the country, and among all kinds of donors of memorials, the first thing to do is to spread appreciation of the priceless treasures of national art that still remain [6/7] to us in our countless old churches and houses. The first essential that those who have seen the wanton destruction of continental churches by the Germans would require of us, is surely to protect our own national treasures by every means in our power. Those who have given their lives for the preservation of other than German civilization in Europe would surely be among the last to wish that memorials to themselves should, through mere thoughtlessness, be the cause of injury to some of the most valued relics of British craftsmanship. Yet this is what is only too likely to happen if we do not take timely warning from the mistakes made during the nineteenth century. Once and for all the Victorian well-meant maltreatment of churches must stop. The Church herself must see to it that the best modern scholarship and craftsmanship are used to the full. And advantage must be taken of the desire for war memorials, to preserve all that is left to be preserved and to undo mistakes that can be undone, before there is much attempt to embark upon any great schemes of modern ecclesiastical art. No really true or valuable art development can immediately be produced all over the land on the conclusion of peace; but a very great deal of preservative and protective work could be done without delay. It will take years to produce very much new work that will be worth keeping.

Meanwhile the first thing that is needed in nearly all our churches is gradually to remove the disfigurements of the last sixty or seventy years, to replace bad altars and other works, to whiten the walls, to provide clean [7/8] and bright colour in good textiles, and to supply a decent minimum of necessary ornaments, such as are suggested in Dr. Hermitage Day’s Monuments and Memorials.

Information on these points will so far as practicable be gladly furnished by the Guild, on application to the Secretary.

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