'Gave His Life for the Empire': Memory, Memorials, and Identity in the British Empire after the First World War
Doctor of Philosophy
Vance, Jonathan F.
This dissertation examines the construction of personal memorials after the First World War across the British Empire nations of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, to understand how individuals sought to make their own memorial to remember their loved one killed in the conflict. In comparison to other studies on the construction of national or other community memorials, this dissertation explores how individuals accepted or rejected dominant discourses in creating their own memorials that spoke to how they remembered the war. It is based on a large database of more than 2,000 private memorials to individuals that were erected in the nations being examined. National registries of war memorials created by museums, archives, and government agencies were mined to create the database.
The construction of personal memorials also revealed cultural influences that impacted the design of the memorials. The Empire governments’ decision to create and support the Imperial War Graves Commission that refused to repatriate the bodies and regulated the design of cemeteries and headstones, encouraged individuals to find their own ways of commemorating the war dead to meet their needs. The role of mourning and religion in commemoration reveals that these personal memorials were designed to function as sites for mourning at home and therefore fulfilled the necessary need of a grave site that was inaccessible.
In examining the design, language, and messages of personal memorials, we are able to see that rather than reject the messages of the state about the war, individuals used them to make sense of death of family and friends as a way to give their deaths some meaning. Using the Victorian mourning concept of the ‘good death,’ personal memorials strove to project the image that the soldiers died a good death in religious and secular terms in the use of religious symbols, literary quotations, and nationalist language. Drawing from the Anglican Church, British poets, and imperialist ideology, personal memorials reflected the dominance of British worldviews on commemoration and remembrance of the First World War.
Summary for Lay Audience
After the First World War, individuals sought to remember and mourn the dead by building memorials. People organized into groups on the local, and national level to build large civic and public monuments such as national war memorials and monuments in town squares. These memorials reflected how society wanted to remember the conflict as a group as they listed the names of soldiers killed in the war. This dissertation, rather than focus on the memorials made by communities, focuses on the memorials created by individuals to remember one person killed in the war rather than the collective.
In examining these personal memorials, this dissertation seeks to understand the ways individuals remembered and mourned the war dead. The dissertation does so by examining who the memorials were built for, the types of memorials constructed, and the design choices on the memorials by studying the language and the symbols used. The dissertation demonstrates the ways personal memorials were used as a way for mourners to display their grief, sorrow, and pride in locations close to home. The decision by governments to not allow the return of bodies from the battlefields forced mourners to create a space to grieve that normally would have been fulfilled at the graves.
This dissertation takes a comparative approach to understanding how personal memorials were used by examining memorials built in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Comparing these nations shows how widespread different ideas about mourning and the First World War were. As former members of the British Empire, each of the nations shared ideas about what the war was fought for, and social norms for mourning. A database of over 2,000 personal memorials from these nations was created to be able to explore the nature of personal memorials. National registries of war memorials by museums, archives, and government agencies were mined to create the database of personal memorials.
McClure, Bryan, "'Gave His Life for the Empire': Memory, Memorials, and Identity in the British Empire after the First World War" (2023). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9183.
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