Monuments of War: Defining England's 20th-Century Defence Heritage

By Dobinson, C. S.; Lake, J. et al. | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Monuments of War: Defining England's 20th-Century Defence Heritage


Dobinson, C. S., Lake, J., Schofield, A. J., Antiquity


In England, forts of the Roman occupation and defences of the 17th-century Civil War have generally been well researched: much is understood and recorded nationally as a result. Yet for recent periods - arguably after AD 1660 but especially the 20th century - our understanding of the monuments of war is generally poor; the remains have never been the subject of systematic review (but see Saunders 1989 for an overview), and there has been reluctance to admit them to archaeology's mainstream. Field information, gathered on selected classes of 20th-century site, is held largely in the records and heads of amateur groups and individuals, only some of whom have published their findings in an accessible form. A current initiative by English Heritage's Monuments Protection Programme (MPP) and Listing Team (Schofield & Lake 1995), building on earlier work, aims to provide a first full overview of England's 20th-century defence heritage.

Background

Although the archaeology of modern warfare has been included within the broader definition of heritage for some time, beyond local and specialist journals surviving monuments are discussed only fleetingly in print, and seldom at conferences. Where 'defence heritage' makes an appearance in scholarly literature, the focus is generally upon the difficulties of presentation and interpretation: examples include Baker's (1987 & 1993) and Meyer's (1992) work in Berlin, Chippindale's ANTIQUITY editorial on the Normandy beaches (1994), and Uzzell's (1989) assessment of the merits and drawbacks of 'hot/emotional' and 'cool/dispassionate' interpretations of war. In such descriptive material as does appear, such as Johnson & Beck's account of Cold War remains in the Nevada Desert (1995), a sub-text frequently relates to management, in this case to the 'acceptability' of the vestiges of nuclear bomb experiments as archaeology.

If recent writing on defence heritage management includes remarkably little on site layouts and distributions, this is truer still of the body of conventional military history to issue from the two World Wars. The historiography of the Second World War for instance is conditioned by the politico-military preoccupations of documentary historians, where war as a process is addressed through the psychology of commanders, the industrial economies of nations and the deeds of heroes. The appearance of anything so basic as a distribution map in a conventional volume of Second World War history is a rare event indeed, whilst the typologies of defence sites - anti-aircraft positions, coastal batteries, bombing decoys, pillboxes, radar stations and a host of others - are simply not discussed in mainstream histories. Many historians are still reluctant to think in spatial terms, or to bother with fabric.

Yet in parallel with the work of professional historians there has developed a lively popular interest in the physical remains of recent warfare, which are widely viewed as more immediate, local and accessible than the machinations of politicians and higher command. For some, these monuments are identified with the everyday experiences of the 'ordinary people' who built and manned them, and - to judge from the number of enquiries received by English Heritage - interest in them has expanded markedly in recent years. The first and, perhaps, most significant reason is the 50-year thresholds recently passed for the landmark events of the Second World War, and their attendant commemorations. These raised the profile of the war, its history and personalities, following a period of tired nostalgia in the 1960s and '70s. Increased numbers visiting the Mulberry harbour construction site and D-Day embarkation point at Lepe, Hampshire, and the Cabinet War Rooms in London remind curatorial staff of the management implications for archaeological manifestations of the war, whether recording, research, presentation or preservation. A related issue is the current reorganization within the armed forces, following the policy review Options for Change in the early 1990s. …

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