The war memorial at the London King’s Cross Station stopped me in my tracks, literally. I had just come off a Virgin train from Newcastle and was looking to find a rest room when my eyes caught the horizontal brown panels standing few feet away to my right.
“To the immortal memory of the men of the Great Northern Railway who gave their lives in the great war,” the first few lines on the one read.
The pressure to pee left me that instant and I moved closer to read the rest of the wordings. The marble columns next to the panels only record the last names and initials of the dead soldiers, but they were not of the same height.
“The spacing and heights of the columns and their plinths echo John Singer Sageant’s 1919 painting Gassed,” another paragraph on the panel read, adding that the first set of marble columns were erected in 1920. “This memorial, standing at the end of the railway worked by the men named here, honours all who fought and fell in the two wars”.
More marbles and more names were added after the second World War (1939–1945), but only 11 of the original columns survive to date after they were relocated from their initial location.
Meanwhile, the memorial at the King’s Cross Station weren’t the first I would notice on this trip. About a week earlier, I had walked into Birmingham’s ‘Hall of Memory’ out of curiosity. I was headed to the city library a few metres further up the road when I saw the solid dome, which greyish outlook almost matched the colour of the morning sky. Its twin bronze doors were open; not quite sure if I would be turned back, I stepped inside.
Save for a middle-aged man seated in an inner room to the left and flipping documents, the hall was empty. His demeanor didn’t appear welcoming, so I didn’t bother to ask him any questions. I looked away and carried on trying to understand what the many small white crosses and red wreathes were for.
I had my first clue on one of the plaques mounted near the ceiling. “Of the 150,000 who answered the call to arms, 12, 320 fell; 35,000 came home disabled,” went the words inscribed on it.
Then shortly after, I stood in front of two open registers, shielded by a transparent box and mounted on a pedestal. In them are the names of soldiers of Birmingham origins who died in battle, “who made the supreme sacrifice in the world wars 1914–1918 and 1939–1945”; that’s when I realised where I was, and with that realisation came deeper appreciation of the respect paid to people who died nearly a century ago, many of them barely 20.
I am aware that Nigeria and Africa contributed soldiers to both wars, but I have yet to see a record of their names anywhere or a befitting memorial built in their honour.
When I left the Hall for the library, little did I know that my path throughout this journey across Britain will be dogged by a couple more war memorials. As I crisscrossed London and other cities, I saw monuments installed in public places in memory of the country’s outstanding men and women; but the ones that I gravitated towards the most were those dedicated to the war dead.
One afternoon, while at Trafalgar Square, I had seen the 169ft-high Granite-and-bronze Nelson’s Column, constructed in the 1840s in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died in the “Battle of Trafalgar” (1805). And few days before then, while on my way to Bristol, I had seen the Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park Garden as the coach I was in drove slowly though the evening rush hour traffic.
At the city library in Newcastle, a small section of Level 2 showcased books and publications associated with World War 1 specifically, the city’s own offering as part of a nationwide commemoration of the war’s centenary.
A fold-out guide describes 10 war memorials and ruins, including the Response Monument, Armstrong Memorial, the City Cenotaph and the West Road Cemetery. A box on the table promises that its content will “make you laugh, cry and see the world in a different light”.
I didn’t laugh. I didn’t cry — I cringed seeing laminated newspaper cuttings describing the hassle and hardship of everyday living as the first world war raged: stories of entire siblings lost in the war front, of miraculous escape from enemy territory, and of opportunist advertisers cashing in on peoples’ frailty and emotions. And, going by the publications, there was a constant call for more war volunteers!
A photo-book published many years after the end of the ‘Great War’ included scores of previously unpublished black-and-white photographs of the battlefied, weaponry and soldiers, dead and alive. The story of the waste of human lives couldn’t have been told better.
Even in those tense moments, a reassuring voice occasionally kept the peoples’ hopes alive, among them those of the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Councillor George Lynn, who wrote on New Year’s Day in 1916: “Keep smiling even if the streets are darkened, for it might be a lot worse…Keep cheerful, and be thankful for the tramway service you have.”
According to the War Memorials Trust, the United Kingdom has at least 100,000 war-related memorials.
“Many of these are treasured but sadly others are neglected and vandalised or left to suffer the effects of ageing and weathering,” it says on its website. “We want to ensure each and every memorial is preserved and the memory of the individuals recorded, whether they be from past or present conflict, civilian or service personnel, remembered.”