Before the Remembrance Sunday commemoration began on Sunday, November 9, 2014, the BBC’s David Dimbleby told viewers that, prior to the creation of the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, many towns had small street shrines for the First World War dead and the actively serving members of the Armed Forces.

I’d not heard of street shrines before, although our community has one such which, long ago, was revised to list only the dead and not those who served and returned home.

In doing a bit of research, it transpires that many European and Anglo-Saxon nations also had memorials of varying sizes to remember their soldiers who served and died in the Great War, so-called because of its horrors and loss of life. A Wikipedia entry on World War I Memorials tells us (emphases mine below):

In Britain and Australia, early memorials were closely linked to the need to promote military recruitment and the state had an ambivalent attitude towards the informal memorials that emerged during the conflict. In Britain, stone memorials to the war began to be erected in towns and villages from 1915 onwards; some of these were given out by the state as rewards to communities for meeting military recruitment targets.[36] In Australia, the existing memorials to mark the Boer War were used initially used for commemorative ceremonies intended to increase military recruitment.[37] As casualties increased, rolls of honour listing the dead began to be displayed in Britain and honour tablets with the names of those who had enlisted were put up inside Australian buildings: Australia used these lists to apply moral pressure on those who were not yet joined up.[38] Informal memorials began to multiply as the war progressed. Local Australian groups erected small monuments, such as drinking fountains and stone pillars, to the point where the government became concerned about the expenditure on them and passed a law in 1916 to control their numbers.[39] In Britain, some Anglican church leaders began to create street war shrines to the dead. These cheap, local memorials were mainly constructed in working class districts, often built from wood and paper, and were used for holding short services in honour of the dead and to hold donations of flowers.[40] They were criticised, however, as promoting Catholic ritualism.[40] Official support for the shrines only came after a national newspaper campaign, efforts by the Lord Mayor of London and a well-publicised visit from Queen Mary to a shrine, and standardised stone shrines then began to replace the earlier, temporary versions.[41]

Across the German Empire nagelfiguren, war memorials made from iron nails embedded in wood, became popular, particularly in Austria.[42] These took various forms, including knights, shields, eagles and crosses, as well as submarines.[43] This practice had medieval origins, and the memorials were reinforced by the promotion of burgfrieden during the war, a medieval pact in which disparate German communities would put aside their differences during a conflict.[44] In some cases, relatives of the deceased were encouraged to hammer memorial nails in as part of the ceremonies, while children might be encouraged to read out poems in a medieval style.[45] At some nagelfiguren a charge was made for each nail used, with the revenues donated to charities supporting soldiers, orphans and others affected by the conflict.[43]

In Britain, the shrines were, at times, problematic. A history of the shrine at Christ Church, Watford, says that the Church of England supported the shrines:

The Church of England actively promoted street shrines during the war.2 They provided a means of expressing and mobilising collective emotions and values, and helped to recruit support for the Church as well as the war effort.3

That said, as the Telegraph‘s Christopher Howse wrote in 2009:

This did not come without controversy. Prayers for the dead went against the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. J H Kensit of the Protestant Truth Society said that the shrines inspired idolatry, and he made a protest at the unveiling of a shrine at St Bartholomew the Great in 1917. Kensit was taken for a pacifist and nearly set upon by the crowd.

Overall, however, the shrines, as Howse heard in a lecture by University of Kent historian Mark Connelly, were popular and united people:

Such shrines attracted, too, the interest of Catholics and Jews in the East End at a time when joint prayers by people of different faiths were not countenanced. “Once when a shrine was dedicated in Bethnal Green,” Elma Paget wrote, “the street was crowded from end to end with women, bare-headed Englishmen, and head-covered Jews. The Bishop, after giving the blessing in English, turned to the Jews, thanked them for joining in, and then gave the blessing in Hebrew.”

Unlike today, clergymen, especially Anglicans, considered the Great War to be a just war:

The Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, believed the war was a sacred cause. Speaking at a shrine at Prestons Road, Poplar, he said: “This nation had never done a more Christ-like thing than when it went to war in August 1914.”

The shrine from East London pictured at the top of this post comes courtesy of the Friends of Stoneham Park shown in an article which discusses the restoration of their own community’s shrine, a standalone stone structure.

The Friends of Stoneham Park explain:

The first street shrine was built in mid 1916 in South Hackney in London. The subsequent movement was prompted by a series of articles in the London Evening News, and by the support of Selfridges department store. The wartime evangelism of the Church of England played a significant role. After Queen Mary visited the East End shrines, the movement spread rapidly thoughout the country. So popular was the concept, that standard shrines were soon commercially available.

Their account and Wikipedia’s differ as to whether the first shrine went up in 1915 or 1916. However:

These wayside shrines, at first makeshift, were often sited away from the usual places of worship, and were most common on city streets. Significantly – and unlike, for instance, later civic war memorials – the shrines commemorated men from small geographical areas, and from very close-knit communities. The shrines usually comprised fresh flowers, the Union Jack and other flags, a cross or crucifix, and sometimes appropriate patriotic or sentimental engravings cut from magazines.

It is unclear just how they originated, although, as with the aforementioned smaller German memorials, an atavistic yearning for the ancient past could have played a part:

The shrines were a spontaneous phenomenon, perhaps tapping into folk memories of flower-decked holy wells.  

However, it could also have been letters home from the troops which led to their creation:

one writer suggested that soldiers fighting overseas in Catholic districts had been impressed by how providence seemed to preserve many crosses and shrines amidst the devastation of war, leading them ‘to desire for their own land the blessing of similar wayside crosses.’

Townswomen were in charge of decorating and maintaining street shrines in Britain.

Larger standalone shrines soon came under the scrutiny of artists and craftsmen to ensure they were aesthetically pleasing and durable structures:

In 1916, the missionary Civic Arts Association was formed out of the Art Workers Guild, to promote ‘the utilization for Civic purposes of the Arts and Crafts throughout the country’. This self-appointed ‘committee of taste’ was concerned during WW1 that war shrines and memorials should be well designed and of good quality and materials. The CAA organised a competitive exhibition of war memorials in 1916 (in which the sculptor Eric Gill won second prize), and published two pamphlets providing guidance for the making of shrines, written by the architects Edward Warren (1856-1937) and George Jack (1855-1931).

It wasn’t long before Britons wanted small memorials for the home. Here, the Civic Arts Association also played a role:

In 1916, the Civic Arts Association had invited competition entries for designs for ‘Inexpensive Memorials for “The Home”‘. This idea was properly realised by the Goverment in 1918 with the bronze ‘Next of Kin Memorial Plaque’, or ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, a momento given to the families of every soldier or sailor who died in the war, sent out with an illuminated scroll and printed letter from the King. Perhaps these items were born out of the shrine movement. If so, then it is appropriate that many people made domestic shrines around these plaques, arranged together with the deceased’s medals and photographs.

After the war, some shrines fell into disrepair. The Great War brought an untold amount of bloodshed for the era. The Friends of Stoneham Park surmise that the shrines reminded mourners of their loss, still very much at the forefront of their minds. By the end of the Second World War, many Great War shrines had disappeared because of neglect. Some were moved into the local Anglican church, Watford’s being one of these. (The names were repainted to include only the war dead.) Others had been replaced by a stone cross memorial, often seen in the centre of many British towns and villages. It is at these monuments where annual Remembrance Sunday services are still held today.

And now onto the Cenotaph‘s history. David Dimbleby told viewers that after the war thThe Cenotaph, Whitehall, Londone first military walk past was along Whitehall. An empty coffin was placed in the road. The men in uniform passed it during their commemorative march.

Photos of the walk past and the empty coffin appeared in newspapers and magazines. They gripped the public’s imagination and an appeal was launched for a permanent monument in Whitehall to honour the glorious dead. Sir Edwin Lutyens was asked to design a wood and plaster cenotaph.

In 1919, the present stone Cenotaph (pictured) was built, a project which Lutyens also supervised. It has the same design as his earlier structure and is the central monument for the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony in London.

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