A Valhalla of remembrance
The National Memorial Arboretum is an ambitious landscape of trees and statuary — but does it work?
This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Confederate generalissimo Robert E. Lee’s family home was at Arlington, on the edge of Washington DC. During the US Civil War it was taken over as a Union Hospital, and as the wounded died, the estate’s grounds became their burial ground. This was a deliberate act of vengeance, rendering it incapable of ever returning to its former owners: its ground was sown not with salt, but with bones.
Arlington duly became America’s most renowned place of military honour, and an arboretum was planted on this hilly Virginian site. It has evolved and is now a sacred military landscape, its 650 acres hallowed by the presence of 14,000 veteran dead.
The UK has nothing quite like this. The National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas is our closest equivalent — but without the bodies, without state funding, and with a stronger civilian presence. The brainchild of Commander David Childs RN, it is in the guidebook’s words “a living tribute that will forever acknowledge the personal sacrifices made by the Armed Forces and civilian services of this country”. This it does through tree-planting and by the raising of monuments: just under 400 at last count and rising, the newest being a vast pivoted door forming the UK Police Memorial, unveiled at the end of July.
It is a place for private remembrance and for larger gatherings, when communities of interest — regimental, naval, squadron, or those united in a shared loss — assemble at their particular shrine, or in front of the Armed Forces Memorial. For some, these recollections are historic, harking back to 1914-18. Others’ losses are more immediate: a Covid Memorial is underway, and one to Captain Tom.
Its origins go back to 1988: the first memorial came ten years later. A fund-raising drive was launched by John Major in 1994 and it benefited from a governmental initiative to make good an area of the Midlands which was blighted by open-cast mining and gravel extraction. Under the umbrella of the “National Forest”, what had been one of the least forested areas in England was to be revived: echoes of Arden and Sherwood would revivify a post-industrial landscape beside the Trent.
Redland, the aggregates firm, donated the site and the Millennium Commission put up 40 per cent of the cost of laying it out. Private donations formed the rest, bringing with them a wave of small-scale monuments. The reception building offers the usual facilities (and a shop with a remarkable array of poppy themed merch). More unusual is the chapel, lying across from “Heroes’ Square”, where daily events are held featuring the Last Post and two minutes’ silence; its timber columns and carved faces give it the feel of a youth hostel.
Childs’ foundation was taken on by the Royal British Legion, the service welfare organisation founded in 1921 and most associated with the Festival of Remembrance, the martial jamboree held in the Albert Hall at the time of Remembrance Sunday. That event is a singular brew of sentimentality, pride, nostalgia, comradeship and razzmatazz: some of these characteristics find their way to the Arboretum, which was officially opened in 2001.
The NMA is first and foremost a green destination, a new landscape on its way to maturity
Trees have formed memorials before: at Whipsnade, the “Tree Cathedral” created in the 1930s stands as a tribute to the fallen friends of Edmund Blyth, with limes and other species planted in the form of a church. In Croydon is the Promenade de Verdun, a row of Lombardy poplars planted in French battlefield soil and opened as a tribute to Britain’s allies in 1922. More common are orchards or avenues of trees, with metal plaques identifying the names of the dead who are remembered in this way. The NMA is first and foremost a green destination, a new landscape on its way to maturity.
If it began as a place of military tribute, it has now tapped a vein of national mourning, and secular shrines are arriving. In today’s fluid society, in which geographical attachment is replaced with communities of interest, having “a place” for remembering becomes harder to find; churchyards no longer suffice for so many.
Yet twenty-first century Britain has a thirst for commemoration: this 150-acre reclaimed space serves as a pressure release valve, enabling these communities to club together and afford a more impressive tribute than a purely local initiative might manage. The introduction of civilian memorials (to stillborn children and to scouting) has widened the catchment.
There is no mistaking the stars of the place. Dominating the central avenue is the Armed Forces Memorial, a stepped mound with a circular walled enclosure, an imposing affair based on the Roman mausoleum of Emperor Augustus. Aligned on the site’s main avenue, it is ringed with sentinel holm oak columns and was opened in 2007. One flight of steps leads up to the memorial enclosure: high Portland stone walls inscribed with the names of those killed on active service from 1948 onwards (there is plenty of room for more, depending on how costly the country’s foreign policy is in the years to come).
On either side of the central area are finely modelled giant sculptural groups by Ian Rank-Broadley which show the recovery of wounded or dead, and of civilian succour. This is the imagery of the war on terror: the depiction of bravery, endurance, compassion, civilian suffering. It recalls those Edwardian monuments to the Boer War which stressed protection of wounded comrades and the defence of homeland.
The architect, Liam O’Connor, is the leading specialist in such projects: he was the designer of the Bomber Command Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, and more recently has just completed the Normandy Memorial above Gold Beach. Much of the controversy surrounding the former related to its inner London location near Apsley House: had it been here, with room to stretch its lanky classical limbs out, it would surely have met a warmer reception than it did.
There is no mistaking the ambition of the Armed Forces Memorial
There is no mistaking the ambition of the Armed Forces Memorial. It was costly, a price partly borne by Lottery gifts. Other memorials are private initiatives, the fruits of collective drives to ward off oblivion: for veterans of campaigns, and for amalgamated regiments. The most memorable combine artisanal flair with specificity: the slate enclosure for the Royal Welsh Regiment uses a material of national resonance with inventive skill.
Masonry is a key art form here, ranging from O’Connor’s crisp ashlar to the raw blocks of Falklands Islands stone which form the Royal Engineers monument. Boulders and slivers of rock are one of the preferred modes: megaliths, freighted with memories of ancient rites, of varying degrees of impressiveness. The paths are laid out like a Georgian “wilderness”, their twists and turns bringing new encounters thick and fast.
If you stopped to read every inscription you would need weeks. Some memorials are highly didactic: a statue of an Askari, a soldier in the King’s African Rifles, is accompanied by several boards telling the history of the regiment. The imposing Polish memorial comprises a coarse bronze figural group surrounded by sixteen granite panels, each telling one facet of Poland’s grimly gallant war. To read these would take a quarter of an hour.
Other monuments leave it to volunteers to explain the history, and they do this rather well. Among the best-known is the poignant Shot at Dawn, donated by its sculptor Andy DeComyn to remember the 309 men executed in the First World War for cowardice, desertion or striking an officer.
The columnar figure of the blindfolded teenage soldier stands in front of a thicket of poles, each labelled with the name of one of the shot men. Our guide, a history teacher, took us from pole to pole, telling us who was the youngest to be shot, which two were to officers, and showing us Private Harry Farr’s: it was his family which led the campaign to secure a posthumous pardon for these victims in 2006. Sculpturally it is fairly crude: but that is not the point. As a memorial, it works: it gets you thinking.
Clearly the NMA now shoulders some of the responsibilities of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for remembrance. Pilgrims seeking actual places of burial from the world wars should continue on to Cannock Chase 15 miles away, where the haunting German Military Cemetery opened in 1967 has gathered together the 5,000 dead from both world wars. The NMA has no dead, only memories.
It also has commemorative objects, such as a length of track from the Burma railway and stones from Dresden’s Frauenkirche, formed into a circle of Blitz remembrance with the names of bombed cities inscribed. This reconciliatory ring is located near to the RAF’s grove, where squadron monuments cluster, and the Japanese cherry trees of another friendship garden.
Does the NMA mark the culmination of the jardin anglais, the poetic landscape of elegiac memory?
Does the NMA mark the culmination of the jardin anglais, the poetic landscape of elegiac memory? Not really. The place seethes with monuments like a cemetery, but lacks their frisson of burials. It is a cousin of the sculpture park, but with few pieces of aesthetic power. This is a landscape of inscriptions, almost akin to the soulful acres of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta: but without that consistency of vision.
And ultimately it is this lack of consistency which perplexes: here is the stylistic free-for-all, the pick-and-mix approach of today’s public remembering.
It is here that the contrast with the CWGC sites becomes so clear. There, uniformity and order prevail. Here, it is the emotions which set the tone. Whereas the war graves were a government undertaking, this is a charitable initiative, steered by the preferences (and pockets) of donors and interest groups. The Commission held out against family calls for repatriation of bodies or bespoke headstones, and incurred bitter resentment. The NMA has more of an anything-goes policy. The fragmenting of conventions of grief and memory — of the sort which lead to rows over whether the word “Nan” is acceptable on a tombstone — is played out here for all to see.
Does it work? In parts, yes, and certainly for its main audiences. The journey from old gravel pit to arboretum is pleasing enough, and the key set-pieces (above all the Armed Forces Memorial) stand out as new episodes in the enduring tale of classical remembrance. There is much good sculpture to admire: Charlie Langton’s flayed “Pegasus” of the Parachute Regiment memorial, taut with kinetic force, stays in the memory as does a gentler pair of Land Girls. Boldly modern monuments generally fare less well.
It’s a very British affair, a populist Valhalla, and slightly random in its accumulation of tributes. As toppling statues becomes for some an article of faith, it is consoling to see them proliferate here, a reminder of the binding power of shared memory. For taking 21st century Britain’s emotional temperature, and seeing the Armed Forces Covenant made manifest, a visit here is recommended.
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