I know I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last to comment on the nature of public commemoration during this year, 2014, that marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. A public, ritualised remembrance for the dead has long been available to the powerful elite, but the terrible carnage of World War One brought widespread change to how the death’s of ordinary folk dying for their country was remembered. The sheer numbers of the fallen from virtually every town and village of the United Kingdom instilled a need in the general populace to act together within their communities and communally mark their losses. This was done through the village memorial, a stone cross bearing the names of the fallen.
Although the stone cross memorial is the most frequent site of commemoration stained glass windows were also commissioned and installed in churches and public buildings. Similar lists of names of the fallen can be seen written on stained glass panels. Commemorative stained glass filling the windows of churches across Great Britain has been traditional for hundreds of years. Most were sponsored by prominent families or religious bodies and depicted Christian imagery. Often a discrete biblical quotation accompanied by the patrons name reminded the congregation to offer up prayers’ for the departed soul.
At the end of World War 1 with the large loss of life many institutions also chose to collectively mark the loss of their colleagues and friends. Not only were the dead from specific regiments commemorated, but companies, wealthy organisations and even schools commissioned large stained glass windows listing all their fallen.
The Baltic Exchange in the City of London commissioned a set of memorial windows for its semi-circular apse when it was based at 30 St Mary Axe. These windows by the stained glass artist John Dudley Forsyth were severely damaged by an IRA bomb which exploded on the 10 April 1992. Since then they have been restored and are now installed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. As this set of windows is now at standing height if you look carefully you can spot depictions of various WW1 war machines.
In Southwark Cathedral, London, two three light windows by Hardman & Co were installed in memory of those who had died during the conflict. One window commemorates the 386 employees of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the other window the staff from the Oxo company who also lost their lives.
Of course regiments commissioned memorial windows and the King’s Own Regiment has a large, three-light window in the north nave aisle of Norwich Cathedral. It shows a central image of St George, but it has paintings of soldiers in the trenches in the panels either side. One is shown cleaning a rifle and the other shows a stretcher-bearer waiting for casualties.
It hasn’t been just fighters and machinery that have been depicted in these First World War memorial windows. In the small village of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire, their local church, St Mary the Virgin, has a light that shows women working in an armaments factory.
But despite all these long lists and large community windows every now and then a simple, small single light dedicated to two brothers can be found in a tiny village church – reminding us that each name on a long list had been an individual life extinguished by war.