Thursday 30 October 2014

War Memorials: revisiting an OpenStreetMap Project of the Week

Great Gable from Broad Crag col - - 768103
Great Gable, a mountain in the English Lake District.
The summit and around 1200 ha of the surrounding area are dedicated as a war memorial.

Four years ago I proposed mapping war memorials as the OpenStreetMap Project of the Week. It ran in early November 2010 to coincide with the anniversary of Armistice Day, when several countries honour their war dead. At the time I was intrigued at how this particular topic resonated with mappers.

I was gratified that both Peter Reed and Chris Hill felt engaged by the idea. Richard Weait, co-ordinator of Project of the Week, wrote a very interesting post about the poem "In Flanders Field" which was written by a Canadian.

I know that both Peter and Chris are similar in age to me. It seemed to me that it is predominantly people over 50 for whom both World Wars hold special significance.

In my case it is the First World War which has impinged most directly in my life. Both my parents were children during WWII, and so, unlike many of my contemporaries at school and college, no-one in the close family had been in the military during that conflict.

However, my grandfather served in the Mediterranean during WWI. I also just about remember one of my grandmother's cousins who suffered chronically from, what we now call PTSD, but was then known as Shell Shock.

Perhaps more significantly my grandmother's two older sisters were part of the generation of "Surplus Women": young women outnumbered young men by a significant margin in many European countries after the end of WWI. Virginia Nicholson's book Singled Out provides an overall context. Both my Aunts' romantic partners were killed during the war.

They both became businesswomen, running small business making cakes and patisserie. One had better luck financially than the other because her shop was in a more prosperous location, and therefore did not lose as much custom during the 1930s depression. However both lost their businesses to bomb damage in WWII. As women without families they were required to work where the government sent them (called "directed labour"). One managed to get work with someone she already knew, whereas the other ran a NAAFI canteen on an air-base, where she met her husband, a local, widowed, farmer.

I remember them both as slightly stern old ladies. We were expected to behave well in their presence. With the benefit of hindsight I realise how kind, and often indulgent, they were to us as small children. Both would have risen to the challenge of a fancy OSM cake with ease: I still remember that one used to make cakes for us shaped like sailing yachts with rice paper sails!

Much of what I recount above I only learnt later. I don't recall WWI being mentioned very much by the older members of the family. I do know that there was always a sense of lives wasted futility, and a feeling that such things should be remembered (see Vimy Ridge below). I imagine this experience would have been true for many people of my age, for others it would have been WWII.

Vimy Ridge

Canadian National Memorial
Canadian National Memorial by Mark Kilner, on Flickr
Incidentally, images of this site create amazing headaches over copyright provisions.
The first war memorial I have a distinct memory of visiting was the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, the site of a battle. This was, by First World War Standards, not a particularly bloody battle, resulting in the loss of around 4000 Candadian lives and an unknown number of Germans. It had particular significance in Canada because it was the first time all the units of the army had fought together. It is also a good site for a major memorial, positioned high on a scarp overlooking the former coalfields around Lens.

I was nearly 7 years old at the time and we were on a family camping holiday travelling through France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. We visited early on a misty August morning. The area close to the car park is now wooded, but is full of shell craters, old trench lines (some of which have been preserved) and other remnants of the battle. Much of the area is still unsafe from unexploded ordnance.

As we drew near the memorial the sun burnt off the mist, and the stark clean lines of the monument shone in the sun. Close up I saw that every surface was covered by names of Canadian soldier who had lost their lives during the war. This simple listing of names is still one of the most effective way of communicating the enormity of loss of life and has been used elsewhere for Holocaust memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. It certainly left me with a lasting impression.

I returned there almost to the day 18 years later. Just about everything, including the weather, was as I had remembered it as a 6 year old.

Looking at maps I realise now why this memorial was the one we visited: it is close to a main road from the channel ports and the monument is a prominent feature in the landscape. I presume our original visit was more or less by chance: we were passing and my parents knew something about it.

Other Memorials

One or two other memorials have a specific personal resonance:
Air Forces Memorial Runnymede
The Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede
CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons
  • The Air Forces Memorial. This is the main memorial to men and women who lost their lives serving in the Royal Air Force during WWII. When I was a student I lived in a house with a landlady: her eldest son never returned from a bombing raid in 1943. He would have been 19 years old at most, a couple of years older than my mother. When I visit I always think of the mother mourning her lost son. The memorial has another meaning to me too: later I shared a house with the grandson of the architect. His father, the architect's only son had died very young, something which affected both his father and son.
  • Great Gable and Scafell Pike Memorials. (see image at top of blog). These are two contiguous areas of mountainside in the English Lake District. Both were acquired after WWI, gifted to the National Trust and dedicated as War Memorials. The smaller on Scafell Pike, to the men of Cumberland who died in the war; the larger centred on Great Gable dedicated to the members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club (FRCC). The latter has always had more attention because since it was dedicated in 1924 it has been the site of a religious service on Remembrance Sunday. I believe typical attendance is around 500 people. Both these memorials are inspiring to me because it is both possible to remember their lives and enjoy walking and climbing in a landscape which meant a lot to them.
What prompted writing this post were two books I have read recently:
  • Into the Silence by Wade Davis. This is about the first three European (strictly speaking British) expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s. I was originally sceptical about a new work on this subject: many people write books about it, but often fail on the original research. However, Davis not only has used a lot of primary sources, but he has had the great idea of showing how the men who first tried to climb Everest were all deeply affected by WWI. He starts with the dedication of the FRCC memorial on Great Gable, and after reading the book this seems deeply fitting.
  • FRCC Centenary. A slim volume published by the FRCC this year as a supplement to its Journal. It contains a short history of the decision making involved in deciding on a memorial and purchasing the land, as well as short biographies of those remembered on the memorial.


Personally I dislike associating militarism with war memorials, or calling all those remembered "Heroes". The truth is that there were brave people, cowardly people, honourable folk and dishonest folk. Some died believing in what they did, others died in terror because there was no alternative. All died young, and their deaths affected many people around them, and even later generations.

I will try and map a few more war memorials as a personal act of remembrance unencumbered with symbols. I'd hope to persuade other OpenStreetMap mappers to do something similar: for all participants in any conflict. I'd love to see more unusual memorials, such as the two mountains mentioned above, mapped.

As ever with OSM, we map that which has meaning to us. I hope I have explained why mapping these particular features has meaning for me.

I hope you might join in me in my little mapping quest.

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