Tracing the history of a war memorial
As many war memorials were created through local initiatives, there is no central authority dedicated to recording or registering them in the UK.
IWM's War Memorials Register aims to become the most comprehensive list of war Memorials in the UK, and is a useful resource for information and references to find the history of Memorials.
Other organisations documenting the history of War Memorials include:
- Historic England, for nationally protected Memorials and monuments in England
- Commonwealth War Graves (CWGC), for war memorials and cemeteries dedicated to British and Commonwealth casualties around the World from the First and Second World Wars
- American War Memorials Overseas, for wartime memorials dedicated to Americans outside the United States
Local record officers or history centres may also hold records about the creation of memorials, including committee minutes and plans. The National Archive's (TNA) find an archive database, can help you find your nearest repository.
You can also ask your local or Family history society if they have already carried out research.
Local newspapers may have also reported every stage of the story of a war memorial from its inception to its unveiling. Local libraries and archives will often hold copies, but many newspapers have been digitised and can also be accessed online.
- British Newspaper archive (£)
- ProQuest Historical Newspapers (£)
- Welsh Newspapers Online
- Newspapers.com (£)
For war memorials on Church property then Church records, including faculties, i.e. church planning permission, may also provide detail about the erection of the memorial.
Information listed on War Memorials
Many different events or groups of people may be commemorated on a war memorial, not just those who were killed on active service. War memorials can commemorate:
- War, conflict, victory or peace
- Casualties who served in, or were affected by or killed as a result of war, conflict or peacekeeping
- Those who died as a result of accident or disease while engaged in military service.
Individuals can also be commemorated in many different places including:
- Official commemoration by CWGC
- The community they lived in
- Where they went to school, college or university
- Places of work
- Military units
- Through vocations, memberships, faith or professional bodies
Official memorials in the UK
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorate British and Commonwealth people in service who died during the two World Wars.
As the official record, they use precise criteria to determine who is commemorated on their memorials. CWGC memorials only bear the names of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the designated war years in service or of causes attributable to service and have no known grave or were buried or lost at sea. For the First World War, the dates are 4 August 1914 to 31 August 1921 and the Second World War, 3 September 1939 to 31 December 1947.
Commonwealth civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the Second World War are listed on a roll of honour, housed near St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, London.
When creating these memorials as the Imperial War Graves Commission, CWGC received instructions and casualty information from military and government authorities, which dictated who was commemorated.
The Armed Forces Memorial and Roll of Honour
The Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire commemorates members of the British Armed Forces who were killed on duty or through terrorist action since 1 January 1948.
The Memorial is overseen by a panel that considers potential additions, names for consideration are automatically provided to them by the Ministry of Defence.
The Armed Forces Memorial Roll of Honour contains the names of all UK Armed Forces personnel who have died during their service, since 1948, regardless of the cause of death. Names are added to the Roll of Honour by the Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) who are informed of all deaths in service.
There is no general rule which determines who, or what is commemorated on other war memorials. The committees or groups behind the creation of the memorial were usually responsible for deciding who it would commemorate.
The criteria of commemoration can vary widely and may include:
- People who died
- People who served and returned home
- People from a geographical area
- People who were members of a military, professional or vocational organisation
- People whose family made a donation, or paid for them to be commemorated on the memorial
- Individual requests
Despite these criteria, information often had to be gathered by word of mouth, door-to-door, by post or, through church or local press announcements. The reasons for decisions and the process of information gathering is often now lost, though local newspapers or Parish Meeting minutes may describe discussions.
Additions to gravestones
Gravestones which mark places of burial are graves and not memorials. However, many families chose to commemorate loved ones who were buried elsewhere, by adding a dedication to a family burial place.
This additional dedication is known as an addition to the gravestone and was commonly added to the headstone, grave kerb or memorial of another family member to commemorate a war casualty.
Errors and omissions
There are many reasons why errors or omissions can occur on war memorials, though these are often not malicious. What may now look like a mistake may have been a deliberate choice at the time the memorial was created. Some factors that influenced what we could now see as errors or omissions include:
- A name can be spelt in different ways
- The person may be commemorated on a different memorial or location
- A family may have requested a person not be commemorated, or commemorated in a different place
A family may have been unable to afford a financial donation for a person to be commemorated
You should consider whether it is appropriate to request a change to a war memorial, before raising a concern. You should also provide evidence that demonstrates an error has really been made.
Any decision to change or add names to a war memorial will be at the discretion of its owner or custodian, though this can be influenced by factors such as the memorial being protected with historic listing.
A church in custody can authorise some changes, but may only consider the names of those who have died on active service.
If there is no clear owner, the local council has authority under the 1923 Local Authorities (War Memorials) Act.
Researching names on war memorials
There are many different ways to research the experiences of an individual.
Commonwealth War Graves online casualty database provides information on the various war casualty records they maintain for people who died during the First and Second World Wars.
IWM's extensive collections reflect people from all walks of life. Our outstanding research library includes over 150,000 books and periodicals. Search our online catalogue for materials we have in our collection that you can request to view.
IWM do not hold personal service records or official documentation.