Skip to main content

How the nation mourned after the Great War and the Memorials of Greater London’s Reserve Forces

With the ending of the First World War, it was recognised that the nation would need a National memorial as a Place of Remembrance. Accordingly, plans were made to erect a memorial that would stand at the heart of the capital in Whitehall. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the memorial would be erected in time for the Victory parade scheduled for the 19th July 1919. This was a temporary structure made of wood and plaster and was scheduled to be pulled down after just three weeks. Government plans were soon in trouble from an army of grieving women who were not about to see the symbol of their sacrifice pulled down so soon, and with the ally of a powerful press, the government abandoned its plans and erected a permanent structure. The new Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V on the 11th November 1920 after which the Unknown soldier was interned at Westminster Abbey.

Almost as soon as peace was declared the British Government set about laying out the war grave cemeteries that became the Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites that we know today. It was British policy to bury the fallen where they lay.

The Cenotaph in Whitehall. The National Symbol of Remembrance.

Eventually each soldier’s grave would be given a headstone engraved with his name, number and the date that he died set out, usually below the badge of his Regiment, and with due deference to his religion. Where a body could not be identified the inscription would read ‘Known Only To God’. Conversely if the body could not be found, the soldier’s name would be engraved on one the huge memorials that tower over former battlefields, probably the most famous being the Menin Gate at Leper. As fitting as these symbols of remembrance were, the journey to France and Belgium in the 1920s was beyond the reach both practically and financially of most relatives.

The answer was to build local memorials to the fallen in the towns and villages where they had once lived. 1921 saw almost every town or village throughout the UK erect their own memorial where the names of their fallen were recorded either on the memorial itself or perhaps in a nearby church. In this way it could be said the fallen had returned home. All except that is for 41 villages in England and Wales where all the men that went away to war returned, so what need of a memorial? To this day such Parishes are known as ‘Thankful Villages’.

The City and County of London meanwhile united in erecting a memorial in front of the Royal Exchange commemorating the sacrifice of those from Army and Naval units raised from within the Capital. There are no individual names on the memorial but rather the names of their units. Only one is a Regular Regiment, the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). The rest are from the Territorial Force and the London Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Each unit listed on the memorial was presented with a Copper plaque depicting the memorial and listing the units. Today these plaques can still be found in drill Halls all over Greater London.

One of 2,500 Commonwealth War Grave Commission Cemeteries constructed Worldwide.

The London Troops Memorial unveiled by Prince Albert, Duke of York on November 12th 1920.

In 1923 Copper plaques replicating the memorial were presented to London Units listed on the memorial.

In 2014 the Imperial war Museum began a nationwide survey listing every war memorial in the UK. At the same time GL RFCA added a register to its ‘Stepping Forward’ project that would initially list every unit memorial commemorating the fallen in both world wars, located in drill halls, churches or other buildings, that recorded the sacrifice of the Reserve Forces and Auxiliaries of Greater London. It was soon discovered however that other memorials had been erected outside the London area by local councils and authorities to commemorate the fallen from London Units that had trained locally.

A wayside memorial in remembrance of the Officers, Warrant Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and men of six battalions of the London Regiment who were stationed in the Hazelly Down Pre-Embarkation Camp at Twyford near Winchester in Hampshire from 1916 – 1918.
Image copyright – Stephen Davies (WMR – 55308)

There is a problem with the preservation of Reserve Forces Memorials as they are mostly hidden away from public view and when a drill hall is sold or demolished, it is difficult to find a new and permanent home for the Memorial. Perhaps the saddest case was when the memorial of the 3rd (City of London) Battalion The London Regiment (RF) had to be removed from its Harrow Road drill hall that was demolished in order to make way for the Westway flyover. Despite the Regiment’s best efforts a new home could not be found and the memorial was destroyed.

Memorial to the 1st and 2nd Heavy Artillery Brigade, Royal Garrison Artillery, originally erected in the drill hall at Barnsley Park and now Located in St Mary Magdalene Church, Holloway. The London Troops plaque is mounted within the memorial.

The original survey of memorials to the Reserve Forces of Greater London listed 49 locations. Continuing research has increased the total to 97, now all listed on the RFCA ‘Stepping Forward’ website.

Lord Deedes MC, the distinguished politician and journalist said in his Forward to the book ‘A Century of Remembrance’ by Derek Boorman, ‘The two world wars were a turning point in our history. That is why these memorials must stand in good repair, a reminder to later, more forgetful and careless generations of the human cost of total war.’

Derrick Harwood, Association Historian