What is a war memorial?

There is no legal definition of a war memorial. People think about them in different ways. This means there is no simple answer.

All sorts of objects can be war memorials including crosses, plaques, bus shelters, lighthouses, stained glass windows and sculptures.

On this website the basic definition used is:

Any physical object created, erected or installed to commemorate those involved in or affected by war or conflict. This includes memorials to civilians and animals.

The main thing that makes an object a war memorial is if it marks the impact of war on people or animals. It is not a piece of military memorabilia or an object that remembers an anniversary of a conflict or somewhere people lived in wartime. It must commemorate people whose lives have been impacted by war.

Imperial War Museums War Memorials Register has a more detailed definition of a war memorial. You can find this here.

At War Memorials Trust, the charity follows the War Memorials Register definition to help explain the types of war memorials that can and cannot be funded by our grant schemes. You can read this in full below.

Yes – it is a war memorial

  • Addition to a gravestone: Where the name of a person is on a family grave or headstone but their body is not there. That addition is seen as a war memorial, see the example of G. Durrant (WMO/174166).
    Additions to gravestones can be added to War Memorials Online. However, when additions to gravestones are reported as being in Poor or Very bad condition, War Memorials Trust cannot take any further action. We explain why on the Trust’s website
  • Memorial plaques to individuals killed in conflict or those who died on active service are treated as war memorials. This is where the primary purpose of the object is to commemorate their death or service in war, such as in the example of J. J. Hancock (WMO/254691)

Maybe – it is a war memorial

It is not always clear-cut what a war memorial is. It is a grey area. War Memorials Trust staff frequently discuss this as different people see different things as war memorials. Please contact us if you are not sure about something.  

Sometimes War Memorials Trust leaves items on War Memorials Online which are not war memorials with an explanation on why they are not. This is because people may add them back onto the website if we remove them so we think it is better to leave them on for now but with a with an explanation on the record.

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries, memorials and graves. Items managed by the CWGC are owned by them. Any works that are carried out are paid for by them. A few of CWGC’s items are war memorials under our definition but many of the crosses and cenotaphs are cemetery features and not war memorials. As stated below graves are not war memorials.
  • Memorials which commemorate the presence of military units in war and thanksgiving memorials. Memorials which mark where a military unit was based during wartime or memorials which give thanks to the people of a town for their hospitality to foreign troops during wartime, for example the Polish or US Armies. These commemorate a geographical deployment during war rather than the impact on the lives of people or animals.
  • Memorials to a person’s life. Many statues and plaques are created to record a person and their life. Often these will mention military service or involvement in war. Where the service or conflict is not the main reason for the memorial it is unlikely this would be a war memorial. For example, this memorial to Edith Cavell (WMO/112067) is a war memorial. This is because the memorial commemorates her death helping soldiers during the war. But the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square is not a war memorial because it commemorates his role as a leader and politician, not his military involvement.    

Not war memorials

  • Graves: If the body of the person commemorated is there then this is a grave and not a war memorial
  • Military memorabilia: Just because something was, or could be, used in war does not make it a war memorial
  • Objects which are not primarily war memorials: some objects such as street signs, blue plaques and benches are created with the main purpose of giving information or to provide seating. A military association may be added to these objects but it is not their main purpose.
  • Published or mass-produced rolls of honour. Some communities created their own individual Rolls of Honour which are war memorials. But there were also Rolls of Honour which were mass-produced and not dedicated to a certain place or group. An example you may https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/national-blue-plaques-scheme/see are those with the heading ‘For King and Country’ under ‘Roll of Honour’ and the town/village/church will have been filled in by hand under ‘Place’. WMT does not see these mass-produced rolls of honour as war memorials.
  • Regimental colours/standards/flags/ensigns: At the end of their life ‘colours’ are often laid up in churches or museums. Unless they are dedicated as a war memorial then these are not war memorials.
  • Standardly issued items: Items issued by government or organisations in recognition of acts or sites associated with conflict. These might include; soldier silhouettes, Dead Man’s Penny, Discharge certificate, a plaque to remember Warship or Weapons Week, Airfields, WW1 Victoria Cross Commemorative Paving Stones, or an individual’s medals. These items have an important association with conflict but they are not seen as war memorials under the terms of this website. Some may be recorded elsewhere by other organisations.
  • Historical markers: Objects that mark something historical, a significant action by an individual or where they lived are not automatically war memorials, even if the act or person has a military connection. The assessment considers the primary intent of the commemoration. A 'blue plaque' is not a war memorial as these schemes celebrate the links between people and buildings or the impact people made in communities. Not everyone commorated is linked to war or conflict therefore the primary intent of these is not a war memorial. Some of these items have an important association with conflict but they are not seen as war memorials under the terms of this website. They may be recorded more appropriately elsewhere by other organisations such as London's Blue Plaques, The Historial Marker Database etc.

What to do if you are not sure if something is a war memorial

Our team is happy to discuss any items. It is always easier to do this if you have a photograph so please include if you can.

You can email conservation@warmemorials.org

Report a memorial which is not a war memorial

If you think an item on War Memorials Online is not a war memorial then please report this by selecting ‘Report inappropriate record’ and then 'Remove record'. This will remove the record from the website so should only be used if you are sure. Your report will then be reviewed by War Memorials Trust staff who will either remove or republish with an explanation. If you are not sure then contact us to discuss.

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