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War memorial design through the ages

Our memorials to the missing bear the names of more than three quarters of a million world war casualties. Find out how geography, climate, building materials and history influence war memorial design

Comparing different types of war memorials

War memorials come in all different shapes and sizes.

The idea of commemorating the dead has been present throughout history; archaeologists believe that the White Monument in Syria is the earliest war memorial, dating from the 3rd Millennium BC. 

In the Classical era, Ancient Greeks and Romans built incredible structures and monuments commemorating their fallen and their victories. In the UK, one of the earliest war memorials is All Souls College at the University of Oxford: part of its foundation in the 1430s required its fellows to pray for those that had fallen in the wars with France. 

At the CWGC, we have a very defined idea of what a memorial is. Shaped by our role and responsibilities outlined in our Royal Charter, our memorials are Memorials to the Missing -- a physical place of commemoration for the servicemen and women of Commonwealth forces who died in the world wars and who have no known grave, or no grave but the sea. 

We also have a different types of war memorial called Screen Wall Memorials and Special Memorials that we use when the location of a grave is known but we are unable to mark it. 

But we are not the only organisation that is responsible for war memorials. In cities, towns and villages the world over, communities remember the fallen in their own traditions and at their own memorials. 

What are war memorials made of? Materials and construction

Put simply, CWGC memorials are made of whatever material best suited the needs of the site in question and the vision of the architect or sculptor. 

Many of our regular visitors will be familiar with the Portland stone that is used in many of our sites, particularly in the UK and in the cemeteries and memorials of the Western Front, but it is only one of a number of different materials used in our sites across the world. 

Portland stone is most commonly associated with our work, and for good reason. Portland stone is a white limestone, quarried in Dorset on the Island of Portland which gives it its name. It has been used in many world-famous buildings, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and the United Nations headquarters in New York City. It is durable, well suited to the climates of the UK, France and Belgium, and was in large quantities when the Commission’s architects started designing the first cemeteries and memorials, so the clean, uniform stone with which they were already familiar was a natural choice for them to use with France and Belgium in mind. 

But Portland stone wasn’t the right choice for every cemetery or memorial. In some countries like Iraq and Egypt, acidic soil would erode certain kinds of stone, while in places like  Scotland and Gallipoli in Turkey, only the most resilient of stones could stand up to the weather. 

These issues were further complicated by issues of distance. The further from Dorset the sites became, the less it made financial and logistical sense to ship stone, quarried in Southern England, halfway around the world when other alternatives were available. 

Our records show that the majority of the Alamein Memorial’s walls and cloister were made from locally sourced Alamein Limestone, with Portland stone reserved only for the inscription panels on the memorial itself - even the Cross of Sacrifice and Stone of Remembrance were made out of Travertine, a type of limestone common to the Mediterranean. 

Often, the architect’s own experiences would dictate the material used. H. J. Brown, who worked on CWGC sites across India, Pakistan and Burma after the Second World War, provided a detailed set of notes alongside his architectural plans for Taukkyan War Cemetery and Rangoon Memorial stating: 

“All ashlar (a type of decorative masonry) to be in grey Bangalore Granite… Rubble walling to be of granite from Taungzon or other approved source in the district.”

He also provided an estimated breakdown of the materials he would need to create the cemetery and memorial including 15,500 cubic feet of rubble, 26,500 cubic feet of dressed stone and 2,600 yards of paving. 

Brown also left a breakdown of estimated costs, totalling £138,555 - a cool £2.5 million in today’s money – for a single cemetery and memorial to the missing. 

Design inspirations - the ancient world

The influence of the ancient world can still be seen on our lives today. From our systems of government to our roads, Ancient Greece and Rome are at the root of many aspects of the modern world. 

The same can be said of war memorials around the world, including many of the CWGC’s memorials to the missing. 

One of the most well-known war memorials that take influence from the ancient world is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Opened in 1836, the Arc de Triomphe honours those who died during France’s revolutionary wars and Napoleonic campaigns and is modelled after Roman monuments like the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Constantine. 

Similar arches and gateways can be found across the world, such as the Marble Arch in London, the Soldiers and Sailors Arch in New York City and the Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest. 

One of the memorials cared for by the CWGC takes the form of a triumphal arch. Set in a prominent location in New Delhi, the striking Delhi Memorial, also known as the India Gate Memorial, is both India’s national memorial to the fallen of World War One and a memorial to over 13,000 servicemen of that war. While most Indian servicemen who fell during the First World War are commemorated by the CWGC outside India, 13,000 names are inscribed on this triumphal arch as they have no known grave, or their graves cannot be maintained. 

Delhi Gate and Arch of Titus

Hallmarks of the triumphal arch can also be found on one of our most famous WW1 memorials

The front and rear facades of the Menin Gate in Ypres echo the Arch of Septimius Severus - a larger main archway with two smaller openings on either side, framed by four Tuscan columns. 

That’s where the similarities end, however. The Arch of Septimius Severus was built to celebrate Roman victories against the Parthians and is decorated with reliefs of famous battles, while the Menin Gate, built to commemorate. It is far more understated, with subdued carvings decorating the outside, and the names of more than 54,000 missing soldiers of Commonwealth forces of World War One carved in stone on the inside. 

One final link to the ancient world can be found in the engravings and sculpture on its walls. Six wreaths above the archways, a mixture of laurel and oak, represent victory and strength, while two Latin phrases are inscribed: Pro Patria and Pro Rege, For Country and For King. 

Ypres Menin Gate Memorial

Another great example of ancient design influencing modern monuments are the obelisks. 

Obelisks were common in Ancient Egypt and examples like the Luxor Obelisks still stand today, one in its original position in Luxor, the other on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The Egyptians weren’t the only ancient civilisation to construct these incredible monuments; similar obelisks were built in Ancient Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire, Assyria and Ethiopia, and even further afield. 

More modern examples have been built across the world, including the famous Washington Monument in America and the Obelisco de Buenos Aires in Argentina. 

In the UK, the three matching CWGC naval memorials in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham are obelisks. 

At the end of World War One, a decision was taken to commemorate those sailors who had no grave but the sea on three memorials, one at each of the three manning ports of the Royal Navy. 

The Admiralty requested that these memorials serve as marker points for ships returning to the safety of port. 

In 1921, Sir Robert Lorimer designed the three obelisks that would stand at each of the ports. Around the bases of the memorials were bronze panels listing the names of the sailors who had never returned home.

While the obelisks themselves are similar, each memorial has individual details in sculpture and decoration, and the Second World War extensions to each memorials increased the differences between the memorials. The design of Plymouth Naval Memorial includes statues of Neptune and Amphitrite, whereas the design of Portsmouth Naval Memorial includes pillars topped with seahorses at its entrances.  

Types of obelisks

Luxor obelisks in France (Left) and Luxor (Centre), the CWGC Portsmouth Naval Memorial (Right)

19th Century war memorial architecture

The 19th century began with a bang. In 1803, the Napoleonic wars began - a series of conflicts pitting Napoleon’s French Empire and her allies against a coalition of other European powers, including, at various times, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria. 

During the Napoleonic wars, Great Britain won one of her finest naval battles and cemented the name of one of her greatest heroes into legend. 

At Trafalgar, the British fleet, commanded by Horatio Nelson, defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet, reinforcing Britain's seafaring reputation and cementing the Royal Navy as the preeminent naval force in the world for the rest of the century. 

Today, a memorial to that famous battle remains one of London’s most famous landmarks.

Nelson’s column stands in Trafalgar square - a classical style victory column topped with a statue of Nelson himself. Around the base are bronze reliefs of some of Nelson’s most famous victories. 

Those that have been paying attention will already have noted the similarities between the obelisks of the CWGC naval memorials, a tall monument with bronze panelling at its base - but the similarities between these maritime memorials don’t stop there. 

Nelson’s column is guarded by four barbary lions - also known as the Landseer lions, after their designer - cast in bronze recovered from the cannons of defeated Spanish and French ships. 

At the base of each of the three naval memorials of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham, sit four lions. Carved in stone, rather than set in bronze, each lion lies on buttresses at the four corners of the memorials’ base, head up, surveying the landscape - just like their famous cousins in London. 

Lions at Trafalgar Square and at Portsmouth

20th Century war memorial architecture 

One of the main places to visit to find modern war memorial architecture is at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire. 

The Arboretum is a 150-acre site that contains nearly 400 memorials to different branches of the armed services, for those who fought in specific campaigns during the 20th century, and other civilian organisations such as the emergency services. 

The Arboretum itself opened in 2001, and there are many modern expressions of modern war memorial architecture - although many of the memorials there take influence from the 20th century, and even echo the work of the CWGC. 

One of the most striking memorials at the Arboretum is the memorial to the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division - known as the Polar Bear Memorial. 

The division was formed in 1908 and saw service during both world wars, but it was during World War Two, when the division was serving in Iceland, that it took the polar bear as its insignia. 

Its memorial at The Arboretum is a 9-foot by 5-foot polar bear, carved from hardwood, captured mid-roar atop a stone plinth bearing the regiment badges of the division. 

One cannot help but draw comparisons with the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel. 

Newfoundland Memorial and Polar Bear memorial

Beaumont-Hamel was the site of the bloodiest day of Newfoundland’s military history. 

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, an attack was made on strongly fortified German lines in the Beaumont-Hamel sector. Part of the attacking force was the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment. 

1 July 1916 has gone down in history as the worst day in British military history. The Newfoundland Regiment suffered one of the heaviest unit losses on that day; having begun with close to 800 men, by the morning of the following day, some 670 Newfoundlanders were wounded, missing or dead. 

Such was the bravery and the sacrifice of the Newfoundlanders that the site at Beaumont-Hamel was chosen as the place for a national memorial for all Newfoundland soldiers and sailors who died during the war. 

Like the Polar Bear Memorial, the Newfoundland Memorial consists of a great sculpture of the emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment -- a great caribou -- standing sentinel, overlooking the Beaumont-Hamel battlefield. On panels below, the CWGC commemorates by name over 800 servicemen of Newfoundland units who have no known grave, or no grave but the sea.

WW1 memorial designs

Today, more than 100 years after the end of the Great War, we still commemorate close to half a million missing WW1 servicemen and women on our memorials around the world. Once, they provided a physical location for grieving families to remember their loved ones; they still provide a place for the debt of honour their societies owe them to be repaid and warn of the cost of war. The importance of war memorials cannot be overstated. 

Vimy Memorial: Canada’s National Memorial in France

One of the most striking memorials of World War One is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France. 

At the Vimy Memorial, the CWGC commemorates by name more than 11,000 missing Canadian servicemen who died in France, but the beautiful structure also stands as a national memorial to all Canadians that fell during WW1. 

The memorial stands atop Vimy Ridge, where Canadian soldiers made one of Canada’s major contributions to the war, and perhaps its most famous action: where four divisions of the Canadian Corps captured this key ridge during the Battle of Arras -- a major strategic victory. 

Vimy Memorial

The memorial, designed by Canadian architect Walter Seymour Allward, is constructed from bright, white limestone, and consists of two tall pylons built on a wide base. The 30-metre-tall pylons represent the close ties between France and Canada - bearing a fleur-de-lis and a maple leaf respectively. 

If the structure - visible for tens of kilometres around - wasn’t impressive enough, visitors to the site will be taken aback by the sculptures and carvings that adorn it. 

Twenty sculptures, carved onsite based on Allward’s plaster models, can be found around the base of the memorial, and even carved into the pylons themselves. The sculptures represent the values shared by Canada, France and the British Commonwealth, among them justice, peace, truth, knowledge and gallantry. 

The sculptures around the base of the memorial signify Canada’s sorrow at the cost of war. The largest is a weeping woman who looks down at a stone tomb, decorated with a helmet, sword and laurel leaves. The figure is said to represent Canada herself as a devastated mother mourning the loss of her sons. 

The Neuve-Chapelle Memorial 

The CWGC’s memorial at Neuve-Chapelle commemorates over 4,600 missing servicemen of the Indian Army of World War One. 

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle (March 1915) was one of the first major contributions made by Indian soldiers during the war. A combined British and Indian force attacked the German lines at Neuve-Chapelle, and despite fierce defenders and heavy casualties, succeeded in capturing important sections of the line. 

Owing to the bravery that Indian troops had shown here, it was chosen as the place for a memorial for all of the missing Indian soldiers and labourers of the war on the Western Front. 

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial takes inspiration from Indian culture and history. 

At the same time as the memorial was being designed, Baker (alongside Sir Edwin Lutyens) was working on Parliament House in New Delhi, the seat of Parliament in India. Both the memorial and the Parliament House were circular and hypaethral - in other words, without a roof - although the Parliament House did have roofed structures within its perimeter. 

It is likely that both structures were inspired by the Yogini temples, circular open-air temples with a shrine in the centre found across India. Instead of a shrine, in the centre of the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial is the CWGC Stone of Remembrance. 

One of the other main features of the memorial is a pillar built onto the memorial’s wall. 

Topped by a lotus capital, Imperial British Crown and the Star of India, the pillar is likely inspired by the Pillars of Ashoka - a series of pillars built across India by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. 

Neuve Chapelle Memorial pillar

The Pillars of Ashoka are typically topped by animal capitals and inscribed with edicts from the Emperor about morality based on Buddhist teachings. 

The pillar at the memorial is topped by symbols of Britain and India, representing the two nations’ combined forces at the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Like the Ashoka pillars it also bears an inscription: ‘God is One, He is the Victory’ written in English, with similar texts in Arabic, Hindi, and Gurmukhi.

At the base of the pillar sit two carved tigers, the national animal of India, seen as sacred guardians and protectors in many Indian cultures.

The walls and shelter buildings at the memorial also incorporate an Indian architectural element called jali or jaali, which translates to ‘net’. These are perforated stone screens or walls, designed to promote light and air flow while minimising heat and rain ingress, although at an open air memorial in France these are predominantly decorative. 

Neuve Chapelle Memorial

The memorial walls follow a standard square lattice, while the top-most sections of the walls of the shelter buildings incorporate a more intricate, star-based pattern, evoking the five-pointed Star of India. 

The Indian soldiers and labourers commemorated here travelled halfway around the world to fight and die for the British Empire; the care and thought that went into this design is one small way to thank them for making the ultimate sacrifice. 

WW2 memorial designs

It was a mere seven years following the completion of Thiepval Memorial - our largest memorial to the missing - before the world was consumed by war again. Technological developments, particularly in flight, meant that the war moved further and faster, meaning that the CWGC had to become a truly global organisation to commemorate those who fell in World War Two. 

Rangoon Memorial

In some memorial designs it is easy to see how practicality had a part to play in guiding the architect's hand. 

The Rangoon Memorial within Taukkyan War Cemetery in Burma (Myanmar) is one such example. 

Nearly 27,000 missing Commonwealth servicemen of World War Two are commemorated here, close to 20,000 of whom served with Indian forces. 

Rangoon Memorial

One of the issues facing the architect, H.J. Brown, was creating a memorial that allowed space for each of the names inside a cemetery that also contained more than 6,000 Commonwealth burials. 

The eventual design was a circular rotunda flanked by two long open garden courts in which the names of those commemorated are inscribed on two rows of panels. 

This design had several practical benefits. 

Firstly, the main rotunda had enough space for inscriptions in English, Urdu, Hindu, Gurmukhi and Burmese to be incorporated, and like King Arthur’s round table, each has equal status on the curved rotunda walls. 

The design of the panels also meant that the names could be nicely spread out and easily accessible, and the open sides of the memorial allowed air flow, preventing the memorial from becoming hot and stuffy - with the additional benefit of providing shade for the intense tropical sunshine or the monsoon rains depending on the season. 

Singapore Memorial

One of the most eye-catching memorials in the CWGC’s care is the Singapore Memorial in Kranji War Cemetery, where over 24,000 Commonwealth dead are commemorated. These men and women all casualties of World War Two. They died in the defence of Singapore, in other actions in the region, and in Japanese captivity. 

Singapore Memorial - unveiled in 1957 - is, perhaps, the closest the CWGC came to embracing the modernist architecture that rose to prominence in the 1950s. 

Made predominantly from grey brick and concrete, its monochromatic colour scheme, straight lines and harsh angles are a far cry from the red brick and limestone grandeur of Thiepval Memorial. 

Singapore Memorial

Yet beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and visitors to Kranji will find a memorial that encapsulates the three military branches. 

A visitor might look at Singapore Memorial and see the rudder and elevators of an aircraft’s tail; others may look at the columns that bear the names of the fallen and see a column of infantry on the march; some might see the flat top and superstructure of an aircraft carrier, while others see the sail of a submarine breaking the water’s surface. 

Each is a valid interpretation of one of the Commission’s most intriguing designs, as Singapore began the war as the keystone of British strategy in the Pacific, home to units of the Royal Navy, Army and Air Force tasked with the protection of British assets in the region in the face of Imperial Japanese aggression. 

The future of war memorial design

The CWGC has recently announced the winners of an architectural competition for the design of a new memorial in Cape Town, South Africa. 

A memorial for the 21st Century involves different challenges and considerations than the ones our predecessors faced when they started our work over 100 years ago. 

Designing a new memorial

One of the hot topics culturally at the moment is sustainability and conservation. 

At the CWGC we are already trying to be as conscientious about conservation as we can. We prefer to repair than to replace and to match the original materials as closely as possible. The development of any new sites should adhere to these principles. 

One of the unique facets of the memorial plans is the inclusion of individual markers for each of the men commemorated at the memorial. These markers are to be made out of African hardwood. Not only is this choice of a renewable material a fitting part of our sustainability plans, but it is also a smart cultural choice - a memorial in Africa for African forces should include locally sourced materials. 

It is also important to ensure that the memorial is accessible to anyone and everyone. 

Situated in The Company’s Garden in the heart of Cape Town, it is vital that the new memorial be easy to navigate. The plans include ramped access and paved pathways across the site, as well as the provision of seating for quiet contemplation. 

The names that will be part of this new memorial have been found through our work in identifying historical cases of non-commemoration. We have a dedicated team of researchers diligently working to discover Commonwealth war dead who should be commemorated by the CWGC. 

We know that circumstances and the passage of time are working against us, but as our teams continue to uncover new evidence, we know that there may be names that won’t be found. This is reflected in the design of this new memorial. 

The markers at this site will be laid out in the straight rows that you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever visited our cemeteries around the world, but to represent the names that are yet to be found, intentional gaps will be left in the rows, marked with a light, to signify that while their names are as yet unknown, these men are not forgotten. 

The future of war memorials

The CWGC will continue to care for our cemeteries and memorials in perpetuity. We hope that future generations will continue to visit our sites to learn about the servicemen and women we commemorate and to share their stories. 

Advances in technology are opening up more routes and opportunities to help us continue our work. 

Already, we have begun digitising our Rolls of Honour, making them more accessible for the people that wish to read them. 

Mobile and web applications, such as our own CWGC App, provide alternative methods for people to discover more about our work and the servicemen and women we commemorate, and access to digitised archive documents make it easier than ever to discover their stories. 

Why not use our website’s cemetery and war memorial search tool to discover a CWGC site near you?