How best do you commemorate a war? A war that was once supposed to be over by Christmas? A war that was supposed to end all wars? A war that killed tens of millions?
The war memorial in Carnoustie is in the town centre and it displays the names of 140 local men killed between 1914 and 1918. For a town with 5,000 inhabitants, that represents something like 3% of the population. It's hard to imagine the scale and the intensity of the grief that must have touched every family. The only comfort – if there could be comfort – was that all small towns in Scotland would have been coming to terms with similar losses. Such memorials were an attempt by the survivors to make sense of the unimaginable war which they had lived through but many others had not. The story they hoped to tell was one of bravery and sacrifice.
There had been some sense of relief at the armistice in 1918, but once the war was over, no-one was certain about how to acknowledge the losses which they had just suffered. It was only a few days before the first anniversary that King George V made a call for everyone to commemorate the armistice by two minutes' silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was widely observed and it became an annual event from that year onwards.
Attention also turned to permanent physical memorials of the war. The Cenotaph, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was the centrepiece for events to mark Remembrance Day in Central London in 1920. Bodies of soldiers had been buried where they had fallen and a coffin containing the remains of an unknown soldier was brought over from Europe, taken to the Cenotaph for the unveiling ceremony, and then on to Westminster Abbey for burial.
Many local communities took steps to make monuments to remember their own particular losses; smaller communities often chose a celtic cross or a bronze plaque; some places, such as Sheffield, planted trees. While Carnoustie's memorial was placed on the High Street of the town, nearby Forfar erected a mock mediaeval turreted tower on the top of Balmashanner Hill; Dundee has a plinth on the top of the Law to commemorate the 4,000 Dundonians who lost their lives.
The Carnoustie memorial is in a formal garden and consists of a curved sand stone wall with the statue of a mourning Highland soldier holding a cross and a wreath above the names of the 140 dead. It was opened formally on 31 October 1921, and my grandfather, Robert M Reid, who had had a long involvement in volunteer military activity, took part in the ceremony. In the absence of any war graves in this country, such memorials provided a space for people, individually or collectively, to pay their tributes to the dead.
The memorials provided an important sense of recognition of the losses which society had experienced during the war years, but they acknowledged only one part of the story of the aftermath of the war. They reflected a sense of gratitude to those who gave their lives in the war, but they were unable to engage with some of the complex and troubling issues relating to the conduct of the war.
There was no reference to the many soldiers who had suffered from what was than called shell shock but what we would today recognise as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This was marked by symptoms such as stammering, confusion, nightmares or disorientation. Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh became a specialist centre for treating soldiers with shell shock until such time as they were deemed fit enough to be returned to the front. Many never recovered, and as late as 1929 the Ministry of Pensions recorded over 70,000 cases of former service personnel still suffering from shell shock. Regular employment proved difficult and many were reduced to jobs like selling matches on street corners. Even after the end of the war, there was not always much sympathy for these damaged soldiers; some senior military figures saw it as a weakness which should not be condoned.
Over 300 men were shot for cowardice or desertion, and it now seems that many of them were suffering from shell shock. The names of such men were excluded from war memorials, thus adding stigmatisation to the grief which their families were already feeling about their loss.
Women had played a key role in the war, particularly in relation to nursing and the home front, and while there had been some fatal accidents in munitions factories and some mental breakdowns, in most places, such as Carnoustie, there was no reference to their contribution. Some women may have received the right to vote, but the memorials focused only on the war dead rather than the impact of the war on the whole community.
Conscientious objectors had been treated harshly during the war itself and the ending of hostilities did not make them any more popular. An anti-war paper called Forward had been published in Dundee and it claimed that the city was 'fair hotchin' wi conshies.' Euan Geddes Carr, a man from a politically-active family in the Dundee Overgate, was opposed to this war and was sentenced to hard labour. He spent time in a number of prisons and collected the signatures of other conshies in his autograph book, which is now held in the McManus museum.
A particularly difficult, virtually unmentionable topic was the mental health of those soldiers who had survived the conflict. Extracts from the diaries and memoirs of some soldiers make it clear that there had been some level of satisfaction in the killing process itself. The use of terms such as 'beautiful and thrilling' or 'joy unspeakable' reveal aspects of their identities that they may not have been aware of before the war. Henri de Man, a Belgian politician who had fought in the war, reflected as early as 1919, that, in the event of conflicts in their daily lives, 'ex-servicemen might remember how easy it is to take another man's life, and what a delight there is in doing it.'
The family of a friend of mine chose to mark the centenary of the death of one of their great uncles at Passchendaele in 1917 by bringing together all the paintings which he had painted before his death at the age of 20; they put the images of them online
to enable others to reflect on the loss of life and talent of this young man. His mother found it too painful to refer to him, and so younger members of the family grew up with none of the stories that families hand down about incidents in the lives of their members. He had been silenced as well as killed, and only these paintings broke that silence.
Most dead soldiers never had the opportunity to develop artistic skills in this way and no chance to leave any tangible legacy. Scots often have a knack of avoiding difficult topics and many coped with their grief by silencing any discussion of the lives of their dead family members.
The Carnoustie war memorial recorded the names of fallen soldiers and provided some space for their individual stories not to be forgotten. Spectators bring their own interpretations of the war to the memorial and are able to reflect on these young men who had barely begun their lives before they were wiped out. Under the circumstances, naming the names of the fallen for all the world to see was the most respectful thing they could have done.