Irish Roots


January 20th 2014

War memorials are not timeless

John Grenham

We tend to think of war memorials, mausoleums and gardens of remembrance as somehow timeless. In fact, they are almost all the product of one specific conflict, World War 1. In the Napoleonic wars of a hundred years before, the dead were shovelled unceremoniously into mass pits, sprinkled with quicklime, buried and forgotten. But from 1914, the very start of the Great War, military cemeteries were being planned and war dead gathered for reburial in them. In Britain, the Graves Registration Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (cwgc.org), began the task of creating burial grounds and recording in detail those buried in them: by 1918 they had identified 587,000 graves and a further 559,000 casualties who had no known grave.

The real outpouring of commemoration only began in the 1920s, however, when the sheer enormity of the slaughter seeped into popular understanding. In the UK and Ireland, around 54,000 individual memorials were built, some as simple as a plaque, some as elaborate as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In Dublin alone, there are today still nearly 650 individual memorials, ranging from the simplicity of the Milltown Golf Club "Roll of Honour" to the eight hectares of the Luytens-designed Memorial Gardens in Inchicore (see irishwarmemorials.ie). For genealogy, the most significant part of this wave of commemoration was the publication in 1923 of the eight volumes of Ireland's Memorial Records, listing 49,000 of the Irish dead in the War. These are the lists recently published online with so much fanfare on the Belgian site inflandersfields.be.

Welcome (and beautiful) as these lists are, any researcher of the Irish in the Great War knows that they are very incomplete. The work of exhuming all the names goes on, often under the care of local historians. Noel French's The Meath War Dead (The History Press, 2011) shows just how much remains to be done.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishroots(at)irishtimes.com.

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