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No End of Forgotten Lesson[s]:

A Study of Two Anglo-Boer War Memorials in England

My study focused on two memorials in England dedicated to the Second Anglo-
Boer War (1899-1902): The South African War Memorial in Duncombe Place, York by G. F. Bodley, and the Royal Artillery Boer War Memorial near the Mall, London
by Aston Webb. The two memorials, which took very different shapes and forms stylistically, commemorate the same conflict, and were conceived during a period of social, political as well as architectural, change. Through a comparative analysis of the decision-making processes behind their respective conceptions as well as the design philosophies applied by their architects, this study aimed to shed new light on the meanings of two very different manifestations of the practice of commemorating the same conflict. This is further viewed against the broader background of practices of war commemoration, and the rise of contestations against public memorials and statues in recent years prompted by social movements.

In 1901, the acclaimed imperial poet Rudyard Kipling summarised the Boer War with the powerful words ‘we have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good’ in ‘The Lesson’. What seemed to be a deep reflection of Britain’s failings turned out
to be still too optimistic, as the war would eventually drag on and only end in 1902. The war, a colonial and imperial conflict declared in October 1899 proved to be the longest, bloodiest, most expensive, and humiliating war for Britain within the span

of a century, between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. The sheer
scale and material cost of the war created significant tensions within society and resulted in widespread political, social, and economic consequences. Yet, the Boer War is a conflict largely ignored by the existing literature. Although the 2000s saw a relative resurgence in literature in time for the centenary of the conflict, it marked the inevitable fact that the generations directly involved in the war have passed and that the conflict, already obscured by decades of warfare that followed, is further fading from public memory. When mentioned, it tends to be isolated and overshadowed by other major conflicts in the twentieth century; the continuum between the Boer War and the later World Wars is often unaddressed.

What has been further neglected is the importance of commemorational activities and acts of remembrance that came with the war. In many ways, the memorial building, and processes of memorialisation became precursors to what would happen in the aftermath of WWI, when for the first time systematic building of war memorials truly became common practice in the nation.

Consequently, it would be difficult to walk through any English town today without noticing a war memorial of some sort. Architecturally, the construction of Boer War memorials coincided with a distinct shift in architectural style and taste from the Gothic-dominated Victorian architecture, towards Edwardian architecture, dominated by Baroque and Classicism.

This study revolves around two memorials, largely ignored by the existing historiography, especially in terms of their meanings in relation to the wider
physical spaces around them, as well as their place in relation to the careers of
their creators/architects. Today, they both occupy a space at the leafy heart of
their respective cities, their steps used as temporary resting places by tourists and passers-by, with very few that stop to look at the somewhat lengthy inscriptions intended to remind future generations of what occurred in what is now a distant past. Yet, the legacy of the war is still very much alive, and the memorials, especially when taking into consideration their wider surroundings and spatial context, are very much part of the contemporary public memory. Throughout the period of preparation and especially the finalisation of this report, the two locales continue to be woven into the fabric of history. For example, earlier this year, to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a statue of the Queen had been commissioned to be placed on the West end of York Minster as part of the wider developments scheme that would also incorporate Duncombe Place. The Mall and the Victoria Memorial, which had been the main stage of celebrations for the Jubilee, also became the key stage of the late Queen’s ‘final journey’, as it was through the Mall and, of course, past the Royal Artillery Memorial that the Queen’s flag-draped coffin took its final procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster.


The memorials that served as the main foci of this study marked an interesting
point in history, as Britain indulged in multifaceted projects of imperial image- making, while fiscal, social and military reforms that came as a result of the war actively progressed. The lengthy processes of decision-making for these memorials suggest an important, though gradual, change in practices of war remembrance
and commemoration. The nature of memorials from the First World War onwards would emphasise more the trauma, destruction, and death as a result of the conflicts and, with the aid of Modernism, became increasingly abstract. More traditional portrayals of victory and glory based on symbolism and allegory, on the other hand, became less favourable. Architecturally, they helped to mark a significant stylistic shift from Victorian Gothic to Edwardian Classicism, with the latter being deemed suitable for Britain’s Imperial image and powerful position on the world stage. Since their conception, the meanings did not extend and develop like other memorials to commemorate further conflicts. Furthermore, they did not become subjects of contestation in recent years.

However, it is important to highlight that, when viewed on their own, the two memorials only provide a brief snapshot of a complicated, extensive conflict that had profound consequences. As memories of war gradually fade, further conflicts often arise due to how differently they are remembered, and the Boer War is no exception to this. When viewed against their counterparts in South Africa, it is clear that the English memorials only tell a partial and limited story of the war. Though the conflict has largely faded from British public memory, it remains very much alive in South Africa, as the nation still grapples with the destructive effects of its colonial past and history of Apartheid. With these in mind, as the memorials continue to occupy a permanent place in spaces of public significance, it is important for their meanings to be consistently questioned and reviewed.















































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Yorkshire Boer War Memorial, York. Author’s Image, 2022.

The Royal Artillery Boer War Memorial, London. Author’s Image, 2022.

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