National Memorial Arboretum revisited

Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum

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.

Armed Forces Memorial, the obelisk
Armed Forces Memorial, the obelisk

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. 

Fairground memorial
The Showmen’s Guild Memorial

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

Gates sculpture, National Memorial Arboretum
The Gates Sculpture, part of the 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.

Armed Forces Memorial, stretcher bearers
Stretcher Bearers sculpture in the Armed Forces Memorial – a wounded serviceman borne by comrades, watched by grieving family.

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

Shot at Dawn
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

Gates of Freedom
Gates of Freedom Memorial

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.

Airborne Memorial

Airborne Memorial
Bellerophon, slayer of the monster Chimera, mounted on Pegasus

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

Blown Away
Blown Away

‘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, evacuee memorial
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

  • Royal British Legion Poppy Field
  • Royal British Legion Poppy Field at the NMA
  • Royal British Legion Poppy Field at the NMA
  • Royal British Legion Poppy Field at the NMA

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.

Read about the Armistice.

RAF 47 Squadron Memorial

47 Squadron memorial
47 Squadron RAF 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

Vera Atkins Memorial Seat
The 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.

Read about the SOE.

BRIXMIS Memorial

BRIXMIS Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum
BRIXMIS – the British Commanders’ in Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany

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

Christmas Truce Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum
The 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.

Read the real story of the Christmas Truce.

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.

Visit the NMA’s website

Read a bit about Britain in the First World War and Britain in the Second World War

Read about the National Service of Remembrance

Visit the Royal British Legion’s website

Remembrance poppy, National Memorial Arboretum

45 thoughts on “National Memorial Arboretum revisited”

  1. I have lived in the UK for a number of years, but sadly never visited the arboretum.
    But now I am visiting Adelaide and have been surprised by the number of statues, shrines and memorial gardens, particularly in honour of the 1914-8 War. Peaceful and full of gratitude.

  2. Wow, Mike. This is really impressive and I’ve never heard of it. The sculptures are mesmerizing and very powerful, very graphic. War is graphic — this is really the way to show it to the best (and sadly, show the worst and the damage.) I’m glad they remembered Vera Atkins.

  3. I find the Arboretum so moving. I visited last Christmas and they had a lovely light show on. It is a beautiful space used as a memorial, a place of calm and remembrance, but also a place to bring people together and mark events which I like.

  4. I am glad that some of the company and institutional memorials have found a home.
    Leo remembers the memorial to the fallen of the London Stock Exchange in the Boer War being smashed with hammers when the LSE was being modernised….it seemed an ill omen.
    That was a wonderful post and very moving.

  5. I haven’t visited this place, although I have heard of it. I think the name does not do it justice. I had no idea how far reaching it is, and how many different peoples are remembered. I kind of assumed it was the usual armed forces memorial.
    The sculptures are beautiful, especially Blown Away.
    I love the poem. It’s one of my favourites. So powerful.
    I’ve posted one of my own on http://aspholessaria.wordpress.com , but was recently told the link doesn’t work, so I need to check that. If you want to check it out, I’d leave it until tomorrow.

  6. Wow! This is overwhelming in the best of ways. Surely it takes multiple visits to see and absorb everything. Blown Away and the Memorial Seat are quite moving.

  7. Thanks so much for your piece about the Memorial Arboretum. It’s so important to remember. Both my parents were WW 2 veterans; my mother survived the London Blitz although her father, a WW 1 veteran, did not.

    1. My parents survived too, otherwise I would not be here. I am sorry to hear about your grandfather. It’s vital to remember, partly in the hope that mistakes won’t be repeated, though I fear that not everyone is brave enough to avoid them.

  8. A marvellous account of a wonderful place, Mike. I think the reference to Leonard Cheshire is that the idea of the NMA was fostered by his ideas and plans prior to his death. In 1990 he founded the charity The World Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief. Commander David Childs wound up this charity after Leonard Cheshire’s death and was responsible for setting up the NMA, using (I believe) some small portion of the original funds. Perhaps the NMA would be grateful if you forwarded a copy of this account to them!

  9. I had never heard of the arboretum until July when we visited a friend in Derbyshire who suggested it as a day out. She no longer drives and wanted to see the tree memorialising her father which she had not been able to visit for 10 years or so. It truly is a wonderful place with lots to think about while also having a pleasant walk through parkland.

  10. What a wonderful place. I would feel the peace waking around it. Thanks for the detailed description. I visited a Canadian War Memorial Cemetery in Holland once and was moved to tears.

  11. Good to see a plan that has come to fruition and because it’s an arboretum will also mature of its own accord. A place that is wonderful for nature and people and doesn’t involve anyone making a profit out of it.

  12. You don’t even have to go to any events here just for a lovely day out. We would take our eldest, when he was just walking, the grounds are spacious and beautiful and the wildlife and landscape is superb. A serene place of peace and nature for any time.

  13. An interesting and thought provoking post Mike, I never knew this place existed. I like the Christmas Truce memorial and the Showman’s Guild one but my favourite is the poppy field, it looks so beautifully calm and peaceful.

  14. Wow. What a poignant and important undertaking — both creating this memorial site AND also visiting — and re-visiting — it. Thanks for sharing a little bit of the beauty as well as the sacrifices honored there. This time of year is when we have Hallowe’en and Day Of The Dead gatherings/celebrations here in the Americas. And this weekend is Veterans’ Day in the USA. I don’t slow down often enough and acknowledge all of the beings who have given their lives so that I can live mine… Your post, Mike, helped me do that a little bit!

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