The National Memorial Arboretum is a year-round centre of remembrance and needs to be revisited. Not only should a first visit be mandatory, but also it is one of those places that gives more each time you go. It changes with the seasons of course, but also as trees mature and new memorials are added. When I first called in, late on a brass monkey January afternoon in 2013, the NMA boasted 250 memorials; when I returned ten years later, it had more than 400. That first visit was a slightly sodden, frustrating, experience. On my way home from a business meeting, one lesson I took away for next time was to dress appropriately and take sensible footwear, or go in dry weather. It is a vast area and you must explore – preferably by foot, though there is a land train for those unable, or too tired, to do so. The trees at the NMA are doing more to justify the name-tag now and I suspect they soak up some of the ground water, making a winter visit easier than before. With more time on the second visit, there was also an opportunity to take in the often unique gardens, some of which contain flowers native to the locations associated with the memorial.
I suppose I had better go back to the beginning. The National Memorial Arboretum sits on some 150 acres of soggy reclaimed gravel pit at the confluence of the rivers Trent and Tame in Staffordshire. Inspired by visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the National Arboretum in the USA, Commander David Childs RN CBE wanted to establish a national focus for remembrance in Britain. An appeal was launched in 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major. The NMA website says the appeal was supported by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, but sadly he died in 1992 so I’m not quite sure how that works. In any event, 40% of the money needed came from the National Lottery, with the remainder donated by individuals, military, and corporate organisations. The land was donated by French building materials firm, Lafarge. Planting began in 1996 and the National Memorial Arboretum was officially opened by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent in 2001. It is an amazing place. It is, of course, primarily a place for remembrance, with its centrepiece being the haunting, emotionally charged, Armed Forces Memorial. However, it is also a place for learning, a place of beauty, a place to be humble and – the paradox of many war memorials, from Tyne Cott and the Menin gate to Vimy Ridge and Kohima – a place of peace. It is not a cemetery, however; no one is buried National Memorial Arboretum.
The diversity of memorials at the NMA, to those who have served their country and community, who gave their lives or who have suffered in some way, is staggering. Inevitably, military monuments predominate, but there are memorials to people from all walks and aspects of life, including a children’s woodland where youngsters are remembered. There is a memorial to the CCF – the Combined Cadet Force, which my older reader may remember from schooldays. There are memorials to particular operations, such as Operation Mincemeat , a deception plan using a dead body carrying fake documents, and Operation Frankton – the Cockleshell Heroes. There is even a fairground carousel horse, commemorating members of the Showmen’s Guild – the trade association of the travelling funfair industry – who died in the two world wars. More obviously, there is a memorial that commemorates National Service – a euphemism for conscription – which ran from 1949 – 1960, during which time all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21 had to serve 18 months in one of the armed forces.
Most memorials have been specially commissioned. But not all. It used to be common to see plaques in head offices commemorating the members of staff who served in, and did not return from, the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Some of these memorials could be quite large, and ornate. As businesses and organisations merge, and relocate, I know from personal experience that there is usually no longer any place for these unwieldy testaments to long-gone employees in modern, light, open plan offices. They rarely feature on architects’ plans and, sadly, discussing what to do with them can be embarrassing. So, on that first visit, I was delighted to see that some of them had found a home at the National Memorial Arboretum, rather than being forgotten and consigned to the scrapheap.
No single article can do justice to the NMA. All I can do here is draw your attention to some of the memorials that caught my eye and hint at the enormous diversity of people and variety of roles commemorated. Many of these pieces are works of art.
Armed Forces Memorial
The Armed Forces Memorial is a living tribute to lives still, sadly, being lost in Britain’s name, or as part of United Nations or NATO forces. It is the largest memorial at the NMA, dominates the skyline and contains the names of members of the UK Armed Forces who have died on duty in over 50 conflicts around the world since 1948, including Palestine (1945–1948), Malaya (1948–1960), Yangtze (1949), Korea (1950–1954), the Canal Zone (1951– 1954), Kenya (1952–1956), Cyprus (1955–1959), Suez (1956), the Arabian Peninsula (Aden) (1957–1960), Congo (1960– 1964), Brunei (1962), Borneo (1962–1966), Cyprus (1964 – date), Radfan (1964), South Arabia (1964–1967), Malay Peninsula (1964–1966), Northern Ireland (1969–2007), Dhofar (1969–1976), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) (1979-1980), South Atlantic (Falkland Islands) 1982, The Gulf (1990–1991), Air Operations Iraq (1991–2003), Cambodia (1991–1993), the Balkans (1992–date), Sierra Leone (2000-2002), Afghanistan (2001–2014), Iraq 2003-2011).
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates the UK’s war dead up until 31 December 1947.
The Armed Forces Memorial was dedicated in 2007 and included almost 16,000 names at that time. More names are added each year. The Obelisk bears the inscription
“They Died Serving their Country – We Will Remember Them”.
The Memorial was inspired by ancient burial mounds and monuments such as Stonehenge. It is aligned so that at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Armistice Day, the sun’s rays stream through a gap in the structure to illuminate the centre of the Memorial.
Shot at Dawn
This shocking memorial commemorates the 306 British soldiers executed by the British Army for cowardice or desertion in the First World War. They were granted posthumous pardons by the Government in 2006. The statue, by Andy DeComyn, depicts 17-year old Private Herbert Burden of the Northumberland Fusiliers, blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back, just before he was shot in Ypres in 1915. The names of all those executed are on the stakes that curve behind Private Burden like a supporting chorus.
Read about Ypres during the First World War.
Gates of Freedom
The evocative half-open gates honour prisoners of war from thirteen nations held in camps Stalag XIB and XID/357 from 1939-45. The memorial is a replica of one built near the sites of the camps in Fallingbostel, Germany, and symbolises the liberation of 17,000 men by the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars on 16th April 1945. Also remembered are those POWs that died, including during forced marches, of disease, malnourishment, and mistreatment as Allied armies closed in on the defeated Nazi regime.
The magnificent National Memorial to the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces was sculpted by Charlie Langton and Mark Jackson. It shows the Greek warrior hero Bellerophon, slayer of the monster Chimera, mounted on Pegasus – the symbol of British Airborne Forces since 1941. Beneath this, a life-size bronze paratrooper pulls his Bergen (rucksack) up the mound toward the statue. The whole thing took two years to create. The Parachute Regiment, formed during World War 2, notably served immediately before D-Day and at Arnhem (Operation Market Garden) in 1944, as well as at the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhine Crossings in 1945. Subsequently, it has seen action all over the world but is perhaps best known for the Falklands and, controversially, Northern Ireland.
‘Blown Away’ is a sculpture by Sioban Coppinger. It is a study of a moment. The young man, his life fleeting as a gust of laurel leaves, sees the whole world in a glance. I think it’s an astonishing image.
Every Which Way
‘Every Which Way’ by Maurice Bilk was commissioned by the British Evacuees Association to remember the evacuation of millions of children separated from their families during the Second World War, as well as all who were involved in the evacuation process – train drivers, teachers, nurses, billeting offices, and of course, foster parents. Operation Pied Piper, initiated on 1 September 1939, days before Britain declared war on Germany, saw the evacuation of more than 1.5 million people, including 800,000 children, from likely bombing target areas all over Britain. By January 1940, many had returned home, but more children were evacuated as the Blitz gathered pace and during the V1 and V2 attacks of 1944. Thousands were dispatched overseas, to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but this practice was abandoned when the threat from U-Boats was deemed too great.
The Royal British Legion Poppy Field
In addition to many memorials associated with World War 1, the National Memorial Arboretum has its own poppy field. The poppy is our national symbol of remembrance, inspired by the bright red poppies that flourished amidst the mad devastation and death of the Western Front during the First World War. A Canadian army doctor, John McCrae, wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ shortly after a friend was killed in the fighting around Ypres in 1915.
In Flanders' fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place: and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders' fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe; To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high, If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders' Fields.
RAF 47 Squadron Memorial
The RAF 47 Squadron Memorial by Peter Naylor really catches the eye. Forged from corten steel, it is designed to integrate into the setting alongside the River Tame. 47 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, was formed in Beverley, Yorkshire on 1 March 1916 and, as 47 Squadron, Royal Air Force, was stood down at a ceremony in June 2023 at RAF Brize Norton. The memorial depicts the squadron’s many campaigns in areas as diverse as Burma, the Falklands and Iraq.
Vera Atkins’ Memorial Seat
This memorial is dedicated to Vera Atkins and the women of ‘F’ Section Special Operations Executive (SOE). ‘F’ Section of the SOE handled agents risking their lives in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. Vera May Atkins CBE was a Romanian-born British intelligence officer responsible for the 37 women agents in ‘F’ Section. By the end of the war, 118 F Section agents had disappeared in enemy territory, 51 of which, including 14 women, were unaccounted for. With the unofficial help of soldiers of the Special Air Service (SAS), Vera traced 117 of the agents, who had died in German captivity. She also established the circumstances of the deaths of all the women, 12 of whom had died in concentration camps.
BRIXMIS, the British Commanders’ in Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany, was a little-known intelligence organisation, which worked throughout the Cold War years from 1946 to 1990. It was formed on 16 September 1946 under the Robertson-Malinin Agreement between the chiefs of staff of the British and Soviet forces in occupied East Germany (the DDR). The agreement called for the reciprocal exchange of liaison missions in order to foster good working relations between the military occupation authorities in the two zones. Similar agreements were made the following year by the Soviets with the other occupying powers, the French and the Americans. For unexplained reasons the agreements differed significantly, as BRIXMIS was allowed to have almost as many liaison staff in the Soviet Zone as the other two missions combined. The Mission’s nominal headquarters was in a villa in Potsdam, inside the Soviet Zone of East Germany. Its primary object was to liaise with the Soviet authorities, but given the advent of the Cold War and unparalleled access behind the Iron Curtain, the primary role became intelligence gathering. The physical link between mission personnel living in West Berlin and their ‘office’ in East Berlin was across the Havel River using the famous Glienicke Bridge – nicknamed the Bridge of Spies. All missions were closed on the eve of Germany’s reunification, 2 October 1990.
Christmas Truce Memorial
The Christmas Truce Memorial commemorates the legendary meeting of German and British troops in no man’s land over Christmas 1914, when the fighting briefly stopped and, so it is said, a game of football was played.
The memorial depicts two hands, one German, one British, shaking hands inside a football. It was designed by ten-year-old Spencer Turner from Farne Primary School in Newcastle, following a competition opened to more than 30,000 schools across the UK. The final selection was made by the then Duke of Cambridge (now Prince William), as President of the Football Association, and Arsenal and England star Theo Walcott. Attending the dedication ceremony with the Duke was the then Chairman of the FA, Greg Dyke, and the manager of the England men’s national team at the time, Roy Hodgson.
Entry to the National Memorial Arboretum is free and it is open all year round. There is a modest charge for parking. It is a good idea to check before making a special trip, because special events often take place. Of course, you would expect particular activity around Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, 11th November. There is a daily service in the chapel near the visitor centre.