War Memorial Tour in Cambridge
It was a cold, windy and rainy Saturday morning in Cambridge, as we set out on our mini war memorial tour. War memorials are scattered throughout the British landscape: communities built monuments to keep their memories alive. After the Great War, the building of war memorials became the principal means of commemorating those lost during the conflict. Communities large and small in England — cities, towns, villages — began to erect war monuments. The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London is especially striking in that it commemorates the nation as well as the individual, ‘Unknown Warrior’ laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. The unveiling of the monument on Armistice Day began the ritual of Remembrance Day, a ceremony by which the public could “celebrate the successful outcome of the Versailles Peace Conference which it had hoped would reach agreement during the summer.”
Pellets of rain and flying leaves notwithstanding, we made it to the University Library and the back entrance of Memorial Court — the newer part of Clare College, built just after World War I to memorialise the war. Where there was once a field hospital treating soldiers for wounds, now there are students thumbing their smartphones, and unloading their bicycles with library books. The history of the field hospital is not well-known, but Clare College will hopefully memorialise this somehow, in the future.
As a war monument, Memorial Court itself is quite different from other Colleges. When one enters the courtyard, there are separate memorials for both World War One and Two on either side of the main entrance. Yet in Old Court, the Clare College Chapel contains further memorials like other College chapels.
We then walked to St John’s College, whose memorial is similarly situated in their chapel,commemorating both the First and Second World War soldiers. The light emanating from the window initially drew our eyes to the golden eagle at the top, who seemed to guard the memorial. The dark stone, with the red and the gold, combine to make the names of individual soldiers stand out alongside the dates of conflict, highlighting the long duration of these battles.
On our way to the next College, we paused to consider how some of the first war memorials originated in Britain. Within the cantabrigian landscape, it was easy to understand the communities’ motivation to commemorate the fallen. It is hard to imagine nearly half the College members dying in the space of four years — never having the chance to return and finish their education. Indeed, this sentiment incited the British Legion to work under the slogan of ‘Honour the Dead, Serve the Living’. Memorials became a means of bridging the gap between those who had died, and the survivors of the war.
Next, we went to see the memorial at Trinity College, also tucked away in the chapel. We could only find the World War Two memorial, which engulfed one wall completely, with a statue of Newton, arguably the most famous Trinity alumnus, placed in front. A number of Viscounts are recorded to have lost their lives in the war: Viscount Eleveden for example, alongside Lord Frederick Cambridge. Barring their titles, all men were commemorated alongside one another — the product of a need at that time for social unity. Like the war graves in continental Europe, the monument shows that in death, we are all equal. The gilded Latin at the top of this memorial is stunning; and the light-coloured stone along with the sheer size of the memorial make it one of the most appealing from our tour.
Our next stop was Gonville and Caius College. Their memorial is at the entrance to their chapel, with separate World War One and Two memorials on either side. Continuing this theme of social unity, we noticed here that servants of the college are also commemorated. Neither of us having studied the history of other Colleges, we were unable to tell whether other College servants were accounted for — but we felt it was only right that they be commemorated alongside those scholars who died. We also appreciated that this memorial, like Clare’s, was recognizable before we even entered the chapel.
Our final College was Corpus Christi College. Both their World War One and Two Memorials are adjacent to the altar. The style of these memorials indicates that they were designed by the same person . The memorials are minimalist: no Latin and no gold — just the dates of conflict and the names of those fallen, embossed in red. Despite being much smaller than the Trinity memorial, the simplicity of Corpus Christi’s is equally if not more powerful. Indeed, it’s a shame that the memorial is tucked away by the altar, but its proximity to Christ is thoughtful. The flickering candles add ambiance and give a personal, human dimension to what might otherwise be seen as a mere piece of history.
In search of a quiet café, we discussed the Cambridge memorials in relation to the more famous war memorial on Hills Road, near the train station. This sculpture is a powerful rendition of a walking soldier, very lifelike. It humanises the experience of war, with its focus being only upon one soldier — not unlike the Unknown Soldier of the Cenotaph. Occupying a prominent place in the city, this memorial seeks to commemorate all those in Cambridge who lost their lives, and serves as a constant reminder to visitors arriving via the train station.
We did briefly wonder about the Cambridge women serving during the war. Is there a memorial dedicated to them? Although the Hills Road memorial is supposed to memorialise everyone, we still see women pictured as the ‘other’ sex. We would love to hear from anyone who knows about how and whether women were commemorated for their service in Cambridgeshire.
As the rain splattered our coats faster and faster, we made our way to Fitzbillies for some tea and Chelsea buns. Whilst we were there, we learnt that the cafe was originally established by the veterans Ernest and Arthur Mason, using their demobilisation pay to purchase the site in 1921. Thawing over our tea, we realised that whilst life had ended for some, it had continued for others at the same, steady pace. Like us, those who remained could still enjoy tea on a rainy day, but they carried with them the painful memories wrought by the horrors of the First World War.