WINTER 2000/01
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goddessess of peace


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Wellington Arch seen from the Artillery monument at Hyde Park Corner, London


AS THE 20th century came to its final close, the Wellington Arch at London's Hyde Park Corner has, according to English Heritage, 'been saved from ruin and returned to its full glory'. The removal of this 172-year-old monument from the 'Buildings at Risk Register', following the completion of a £1.5 million restoration project, was celebrated with fireworks in mid-December.

Built in 1828 and originally intended as a ceremonial gateway to Green Park and Buckingham Palace, the arch and its completion was taken over by a committee then organising a national monument to the Duke of Wellington. In 1846, when he left public life after losing the Tory party the election, a massive and wholly disproportionate equestrian statue of the Iron Duke was set up on the arch. The public outcry that followed showed how fickle fate can be. The statue of the victor of Waterloo (albeit with a little help from the Prussian army) was unceremoniously despatched to Aldershot.
Fifty years later, just two years before the English once more joined in battle with the Prussians (though this time on opposing sides), 'Peace descending on the Chariot of War' was erected on the long-vacant arch-top. It has now been splendidly restored.

Further treats are in store for visitors to London in the spring, when the final phase of the restoration of the arch's interior will be completed. Here visitors will be able to view exhibitions about London's war memorials. A leaflet, first in a series 'on London's distinguished heritage of public memorials and sculptures', is already available, based on a tour of 13 major war memorials in central London. Visitors and locals alike have so far passed by most of these without a glance, let alone understanding.

Many public sculptures are in fact worth a passing glance. Some even have entertainment value: spot the Kaiser's whiskers on the dragon slain by St George on the Cavalry Memorial, or wonder at the memorial given by the grateful Belgians, begun over a year before the war had even ended! Most public monuments are displays of self-aggrandisement, power or justification, and 'war memorials' aren't all that different. At one time they also provided a meaningful and helpful focus for the bereaved, but today even that function is long gone. Only their project to justify war remains.

Now that the British Legion allows mere civilians (is this the product of desperation?) to take part in the march past the national war memorial, the Cenotaph, on Remembrance Sunday, the march grows ever longer as anyone wishing to be associated with the spectacle joins in. The public mostly ignore the British Legion's peculiar appeals - 'The Poppy can only continue with your help. Please help to keep it alive - always and for ever'. Institutions, on the other hand, manifest a strange kind of political correctness: they put up notices or make announcements indicating that 'There will be a one (or two) minute silence'. These, too, are mostly ignored, except when television cameras are on the scene. Politicians and television presenters appear each with a 'compulsory' red poppy, but the buttonholes of people outside the studios are significantly bare.

Far below the goddess of peace on the Wellington arch, in a shady and neglected corner, lies an unusual statue of a dead soldier. Few war memorials have dared such a representation. Here what could have been a powerful statement against war - surrounded as it is by the more sentimental imagery of the Royal Artillery's official memorial - ends up saying very little of war's terrible truth. Not surprising - it's not what war memorials are supposed to express



Some 600 miles to the west of Hyde Park Corner, atop a somewhat grander triumphal arch in Berlin, stands another chariot of war. It bears another goddess of peace, whose power, given the circumstances, is seriously in doubt. It only took a few years after its erection for peace to be shattered, when Napoleon marched through the Brandenburg Gate and took the war chariot and its passenger away with him to Paris. However, it was a short absence, thanks to the Iron Duke whose magnificent equestrian statue now languishes in obscurity: his feats at Waterloo enabled the Kaiser to recover the war chariot and return it to its place. A lesson had been learned: the goddess was renamed 'Victory'. Once she looked defiantly towards France; later, perhaps enviously, she stared into West Berlin. One might fancy that today, newly polished and again surrounded with institutions of power, Victory can see past the tanks of the Soviet war memorial and, on a clear day, catch a distant glimpse of our own goddess of peace. On top of her restored arch, in the middle of a London traffic island, Peace on the Chariot of War gazes nowhere in particular as the hired German submarines patrol Britain's coast.

Jan Melichar


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