Remembering the fallen yesterday and today

Over 700,000 British servicemen fell in the field of battle in the First World War. It has been estimated that around 3 million people across Britain lost a close relative. By 1915 it became apparent that repatriating all the bodies of the men – husbands, fathers, brothers – who had been killed in battle would be impossible, and so cemeteries were created and carefully tended across the sea. However in the difficult years of grieving and reconstruction directly after the war, visiting the sites where loved ones lay buried would remain beyond the means of the vast majority of relatives.

The call in the years following the war therefore was for a means by which the sacrifice made could be recognised on home soil. Throughout the 1920s community after community worked together to choose ways of ensuring that the names of their loved ones were not forgotten. Whatever form this took, making sure that each casualty of war was named, and was therefore acknowledged, was always at the heart of the act of remembrance.

Wales recognised this sacrifice on a national level through the creation of the Welsh National War Memorial in Cathays Park, unveiled by the prince of Wales in 1928. According to the Western Mail at the time: ‘the act of a whole race; reserved to that race; meaning more to that race than anything else’. Unlike on a lot of other memorials, the names of the fallen were not listed, and the National Book of Remembrance acted as a ‘roll of honour’ in conjunction with the monument. Listed according to regiment, on 1,100 pages of vellum, the names of 35,000 service personnel (including some women) who died in the field of battle are written in beautiful calligraphy, and illuminated with intricate patterns. To be included, people either had to have served in a Welsh regiment or be of Welsh birth or parentage serving in an English unit.

Held originally at the National Museum of Wales, in 1938 the book was transferred to a specially built crypt under the new Temple of Peace and Health in Cathays Park. Funded largely by Lord David Davies of Llandinam, this building was the home of two organisations: The King Edward VII Memorial Association, which worked towards the elimination of tuberculosis in Wales, and the League of Nations Union in Wales. On the morning of November 23, 1938 Mrs Minnie James of Dowlais, representing the war-bereaved mothers of Wales (she had lost three sons in the war) turned the key to open the door of the Temple, built as ‘a memorial to those gallant men from all nations who gave their lives in the war that was to end all wars’. The National Book of Remembrance was placed in the crypt that was purpose-built in the foundations of the Temple. The crypt was – and remains today - a place for quiet contemplation, and the symbolism is clear: this is the reason why we should strive for peace, this is the ‘foundation’ of our work.

In 2015, the building is occupied by Public Health Wales and the Welsh Centre for International Affairs: a registered charity whose vision is that everyone in Wales contributes? to creating a fair and peaceful world. In 2014, the WCIA secured Heritage Lottery Funding for the ‘Wales for Peace’ project – which over the next four years will ask the question: ‘in the 100 years since the First World War, how has Wales contributed the search for peace?’.

One of the first stages of this project is to look at the impact of war, and so over the next 6 months we are digitising the Book of Remembrance, to make it accessible to all online in a way that for conservation reasons the book itself cannot be. The National Library of Wales have already created a digital copy, which means that a photo of each page is available. However, so that researchers, historians and ancestors of the 35,000 men listed can successfully search for individual names, the next step is transcription. This means typing each name into a database and ‘tagging’ each name with information (such as regiment) that means that future generations will be able to find the information that they need.

It is a simple but enormous task, and that’s why we’re asking communities to help us. Up and down the country we hope that there are community groups and societies that we can support to take part in this ‘Digital act of Remembrance’ – all you need is a laptop and internet access, and an hour of your time to type the information you can see in the digital photograph.

In launching our project across Wales on Armistice Day 2015, we hope to fulfil our obligation to the servicemen and the women listed in the Book: to ensure that their names are not forgotten for another hundred years to come.

If you are part of a group or society that would like to take part in this exciting project, please contact the ‘Wales for Peace’ team at the Temple: walesforpeace@wcia.org.uk, or telephone 029 2082 1051.

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