From the Temple of Athena in the Acropolis to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Trafalgar Square in London, war memorials have been central to the history of European architecture and public sculpture and public space. They have also been important symbols of national pride and identity and confirmation of national leaders' prowess or a general’s or admiral's valour. Leaders of the most recent section of the military in Britain - the air force - have not fared as well.

Following the mass slaughter of the First World War, the ordinary soldier made his first significant appearance on war memorials; this was also the major period of war memorial building as the ignored victims of war - the grieving parents, wives and girlfriends, relatives and friends - sought consolation and meaning in the events that shattered their lives.

A major reason for so many memorials around the country was the decision taken by the government early in the war not to return the bodies of dead soldiers to Britain. Many objected but, as the number of dead grew, the enormous cost of moving them to Britain ensured that the government resisted all pressure. In the absence of a grave, to grieve at the name on a memorial of a son, husband or brother was the next best thing.

Most war memorials were essentially independent local initiatives; every locality wanted its own and sometimes competition as to where it should be and what its main features should be was fierce. Sometimes this led to several memorials. The style of previous war memorials - statues of generals and admirals, victory arches and so on - felt inappropriate, too patriotic and insufficiently sensitive to the desolation and loss of millions of ordinary people. For this reason other forms of commemoration emerged during and after the war; these tended to express sadness rather than exhilaration and addressed directly the experience of bereavement.

Statue of Douglas Haig, who commanded part of the British army in World War One, overlooking the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.
Widely criticised as inappropriate in view of what many see as Haig's disregard for the lives of the men he sent out to be killed and by others for lacking a hat and inaccurate depiction of the horse's legs.

  Two motifs emerged - war as both noble and uplifting, and tragic and unendurably sad. These are present in virtually all post-war memorials, but differ in the balance struck between them - a balance that was never fixed. No enduring formulae emerged, though traditional religious images were used repeatedly to try and give meaning to the carnage of the war.
  War memorials became places where people grieved, both individually and collectively and the resulting monuments, still to be seen in virtually every town and village throughout Europe, provided a focus for ceremonies of public mourning as well as justification of the war from the decade following Armistice Day and continue to this day.