Tuesday, 2 August 2022


Hertfordshire Regiment territorials leave Letchworth for France 1914
(My grandmother is in the white hat, my grandfather behind on her right)

Last week I was having an enjoyable exchange of views with some old friends on a WhatsApp page that was set up following the college "gaudy" I mentioned a few posts ago (A Literary Discovery). Naturally, one topic led to another, from the event itself to COVID (half of our WhatsApp group attendees caught it), from undercover dining and drinking clubs to Rory Stewart's politics (and remarkable face), to the recently-concluded "Wagatha Christie" case (one of the group is a senior lawyer closely identified with the case – I know, I sometimes keep dodgy company). But the most interesting thread resulted from a discussion of the college's WW1 Memorial Book that I had linked to in that blog post, which ultimately led to three simple but related questions: "Were any men from our college killed fighting on the 'other' side?"; "Is there an equivalent memorial volume for WW2?"; and, "Do they have WW1 and WW2 memorials in Germany?"

Now, if there's one characteristic common to most Oxbridge types, it's an instant, unfounded conviction in the veracity of one's opinions, even – especially! – when based on the flimsiest actual knowledge, evidence, or experience. I'm no exception, and I doubt this blog would exist otherwise. Although I hope that I do considerably less harm here than the typical government minister does, rather too many of whom have had their baseless self-belief reinforced on the PPE ("Politics, Philosophy, and Economics") course at Oxford. So my instant, confident opinions on those questions – based on nothing more than a moderate command of the German language, some visits to German-speaking countries, and a quick survey of Wikipedia – were that, yes, there may well have been "enemy" college casualties that went unrecorded in the Memorial Book; no, I couldn't see any evidence of a similar 1939-45 memorial book; and, yes, there would be some WW1 memorials in Germany, although probably not as many as in Britain, but no, there wouldn't be any WW2 memorials to speak of.

The so-called "Great War" was an enormous and unprecedented shock to European and British society and culture, and marked the end of a certain innocence about the nature of warfare and the acceleration, although not the beginning, of the questioning of the rigid class-structure and aims of British society itself. The industrialised slaughter of mass-conscripted men left its mark on even the smallest villages. I don't think I've ever been in a town or village in Britain that does not have a war memorial – typically in pride of place on a village green or town square – engraved with the names of the local men who died. The attrition rate among young infantry officers, obliged to be first "over the top", was especially high – Robert Graves estimated their life expectancy in the front line at two weeks, and the Balliol Memorial Book lists nearly 200 deaths from just one Oxford college, mostly junior officers. After the war's conclusion, it seems to have been felt that a great national mourning (combined with what would now be acknowledged as the mass PTSD of the surviving younger male population) could only be assuaged by convincing "the people" of the necessity, justification, and quasi-sanctity of the "sacrifices" required to achieve what passed as victory; local memorials were an important part of this attempt at transmuting raw grief into more manageable, contained acts of "remembrance". If you don't know it, Geoff Dyer's book The Missing of the Somme is worth reading as a reflection on this process of memorialisation [1].

All of which must have been so much more problematic in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the other so-called Central Powers. You could be forgiven for wanting to draw a veil over mass deaths incurred in a war you had both lost and been instrumental in starting; words like "sacrifice" must have rung especially hollow. So my presumption was that there would be 1914-18 memorials in Germany, but fewer and probably more impersonal than here. As we know, unrest about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was widely felt, and the poisonous legacy of WW1 – not least the Dolchstoss myth – was influential in the rise of the Nazis. And as for 1939-45, it seemed very improbable indeed that anyone would want to be reminded at all of that darkest chapter in German history.

However, I may be over-confident in my own opinions, but if I have learned anything in thirty years as a professional librarian it is that any asserted "fact" rewards checking, and the best place to check institutional facts is in an institutional library. So I put in a call to the college library, and within a day got back a truly comprehensive answer. It turned out that any questions one might have about Balliol deaths in WW1 had been answered and statistically tabulated in an article in the college Record (an annual publication distributed to alumni, not unlike a school magazine); in the issue for the year 1975, as it happened, when, curiously, those of us in the WhatsApp group were actually in our first, second, or third years at the college. There were indeed ten Germans associated with the college who served in WW1, of whom just two died, including the son of the Chancellor, Friedrich von Bethmann-Hollweg.

As for WW2, it was confirmed that there is definitely no equivalent, expensively-produced, double-volume memorial book. In fact, all the library was able to produce for me were some partially-digitised notebooks, some as typed pages, others in manuscript, listing the casualties: a relative handful in the tens, not the hundreds. Numbers aside, it seems that by 1946 the enormous pressure of national sentiment had gone out of the memorialisation process: we were already in the post-war world, eager to get on with life and looking ahead to the emergence of the welfare state. If you look at most local war memorials in Britain, a similar handful of 1939-45 names will have been added to the existing monument at the bottom, like an afterthought or postscript.

Which brings us to those non-existent German war memorials. On which subject, I was completely wrong – who'd have thought it? – misled by my own uninformed instincts and, to an extent, by the biases of the English-language internet. A cursory search using the German word Kriegerdenkmal (war memorial) threw up, amongst others, this remarkable site: Onlineprojekt Gefallenendenkm√§ler (Online German War Memorials Project). It seems that not only are there memorials, but lots of them, and many of them also include names added from 1939-45, just like ours. As a sample, I took a look at the Rheinland-Pfalz region where my secondary school's exchange-partner town, Ingelheim-am-Rhein, is located, and was astonished at the sheer quantity of memorials recorded, photographed, and transcribed. But most astonishing of all (to me, at any rate) is the fact that, quite unlike our British monuments, the names from WW2, where present, generally outnumber those from WW1, often by a very large margin. A stark reminder that Germany lost between 4.5-5.5 million military personnel, compared to Britain's 384 thousand.

As for German men from the college who died in WW2, there were just five, and their names were added in 1947 (against protest from some old members) to the marble memorial tablet in the college chapel. One of these is of special note: Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944. 

1946, somewhere in N. Herts...
"Eager to get on with life and looking ahead to the emergence of the welfare state..."
(Back row: all ex-army, top ranker my mother, 2nd right, a sergeant)

1. Alex King's Memorials of the Great War in Britain : the symbolism and politics of remembrance was well reviewed, but I haven't read it myself.


Stephen said...

I remember visiting a German war cemetery somewhere in Northern France in the late nineties.

From memory, it was pretty grim, as is, I suppose, fitting: the grave markers were some sort of very dark stone and the landscaping of the [Smallish] site was pretty sombre.

I was moved enough that I felt I ought to leave a comment in the visitors' book but couldn't come up with anything commensurate with what the cemetery represented.

[Incidentally there's a good interview with Geoff Dyer on the Louisiana Channel on YouTube, posted a week or two ago, should you be interested.]

Mike C. said...


War cemeteries are obviously a bit different to local memorials, but you find them all over France, large and small, as well as isolated war graves. The various national war grave organisations do a great job of keeping track and maintaining them -- we've got quite a few here in Southampton.

Geoff Dyer is an interesting writer -- I'm just reading his photography essays in "See / Saw" -- I may check that out, thanks.


Stephen said...


"War cemeteries are obviously a bit different to local memorials" — yes: I'm afraid my mind jumps around, in this case from war memorials to war cemeteries. [I think this may have been one of those 'Senior moments' they keep telling us about.]


Mike C. said...


It's a perfectly sensible connection to make -- a senior moment would have had you writing "memorial" on your shopping list, and later wondering why. Do not ask how I know this.


Stephen said...

"… a senior moment would have had you writing "memorial" on your shopping list, and later wondering why. Do not ask how I know this." — I haven't quite reached that stage yet Mike but I know it's on the horizon.