'The real enemy of war memorials is neglect'
11 November 2011
Britain's war memorials are under threat, and far greater than the danger of being vandalised or stolen is the danger of them falling into neglect and disrepair, as War Memorials Trust Director Frances Moreton tells DefenceManagement.com
War memorials across Britain are in use and venerated throughout the year, particularly around Armistice Day, but they have had a difficult 12 months in the news. During unrest in December 2010, a young protester was photographed swinging from a flag on the Cenotaph, and there have been multiple reports of people being charged with urinating on or otherwise desecrating memorials. Rising scrap metal prices have even led to an increase in the theft of the memorial plaques and statues themselves.
Concerns about the mistreatment of Britain's war memorials often make the headlines, and behind the stories are valid concerns about the country's respect and acknowledgement of the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of British servicemen, women and civilians during times of war. However, Frances Moreton, director of the War Memorials Trust, says the vandalism, disrespect and desecration of these memorials that is reported is not a result of a fall in awareness of war memorials' significance. If anything, she says, awareness of the memorials has grown in recent years.
"I think that's due to the returning relevance of the current conflicts, and names from the current conflicts being added on to memorials that are already there, and also the huge interest in family history research," she says.
The suggestion that the theft and vandalism of memorials is their biggest enemy are also slightly alarmist when set against the big picture, Moreton says.
"As a percentage of our overall work the theft and the vandalism is relatively small," she says. "We as a trust were dealing with one theft a week at the beginning of the year, two or three a week in the last six weeks, but we're dealing with 300 cases [memorials at risk or damaged] a month. Theft and vandalism are the issues that get people very emotive and the media respond to, but what's the biggest issue for war memorials and what doesn't get much attention is the fact that they need regular maintenance and they need to be monitored and looked after. A large percentage of our casework is related to issues of repair or damage due to weathering or ageing."
An estimated 100,000 war memorials, of all shapes and sizes, have been built over the years, perhaps with the expectation that civil society would maintain them. While a great many memorials are regularly maintained, such as the significant monuments in town centres and parks, a great many of the smaller and more remote ones are not.
The War Memorials Trust provides grants to repair some of the most neglected. Last year it awarded 78 grants, worth around £100,000 - up from £75,000 in 2009. In 2010, in a bid to put to rest questions over who had responsibility for individual memorials, the trust launched a campaign to get local councils to observe the condition of all memorials in their area. The local authorities were asked to nominate an officer to be responsible for monitoring their condition and reporting disrepair. Surprisingly, this basic level of monitoring was not something many local authorities were already doing, and the campaign made some headway in changing things.
"Around half of local authorities have nominated a war memorials officer - which we were really pleased about because of the current economic climate and the challenges faced by them," says Moreton.
The issue still remains, however, that even if a council observes a memorial falling into disrepair, it is not necessarily down to them to fix the problems.
"Nobody knows who looks after them or who is responsible for them all," says Moreton. "100,000 is the estimate of the total number - the National Inventory of War Memorials has 65,000 on its records - and what state the rest of them are in is an unknown.
"Also, one person's 'bad condition' is another person's 'appropriate condition'. One of the big debates when we're looking at when considering grants is whether to clean them or not. Should a memorial look its age or should it look like something that the commonwealth war graves commission maintain where they keep them all bright and sparkling?"
The question is irrelevant, of course, if a memorial is targeted for theft, melted for scrap and simply no longer there. This issue, again, is something the trust is acting on, launching the In Memoriam 2014 campaign, which aims to "locate, log, maintain and protect" all of the UK's memorials in time for the centenary of World War I. In partnership with the SmartWater Foundation, the memorials will also be security marked and scrap dealers issued with UV torches to detect the substance. It's a step that shouldn't have to be taken, but should stop all but the worst offenders from targeting these monuments.
Moreton is keen to dispel the idea that rising crime and neglect is down to a growing indifference about the memorials as younger generations come through, and even that young people are leading the mini crime wave.
"There's no research about who does this sort of thing," she says. "We very much feel there's no reason that younger generations don't care as much but what we have to realise is that their relationships with their war memorial is going to be different from those who actually participated in or remember those who were in the world wars. There are an overwhelming number of young people who do understand, who do care, and we're going to work with schools and youth groups to improve that."
There is time between now and the upcoming centenary of World War I to ensure people recognise the significance of war memorials, and perhaps get them to reflect on how we treat our memorials, but after then the job may be more difficult, Moreton warns.
"We anticipate in the run up to the centenary that interest will remain high," she says, "but I think that after those events, that might be the time – if we've pulled out of Afghanistan and such like – that might be when interest starts to wane."
Now, 93 years after the original Armistice Day, and with no living British World War I combat veterans, there is more reason than ever to recognise and support your local war memorial.