WWI Reflections: War Memorials, Cemeteries, and Digital Archives
- 7 minute read -
Yesterday I spent the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I not at a ceremony at one of York’s grand war memorials, but in the city’s public graveyard. As my mobile phone approached the 11th Hour, I prepared to hold a moment of silence. Alone, I crouched under my umbrella at the grave of Mary Elizabeth Wortley, Elizabeth West, Mary Carter, and Lillian Eva Ellis. These four women, aged 19 to 53, died in a factory explosion while working the night shift at a north England munitions plant, producing arms for World War I. At 11:01, my silence was broken by the tolling of a bell in the city center. But there was not much noise to resume; I was the only person in sight. As I sat beside the mortal remains of these women, I reflected on how the havoc of war permeates every environment—from the battlefield to the home, the city to the countryside.
A Bit About Monuments
The end of World War I marked the first time national and local governments became deeply invested in the creation of large-scale war memorials. Their motivations were varied: first, monuments were a tool for collective emotional reckoning in the aftermath of a devastation that cannot be overemphasized. By the end of the WWI, over 40 million civilians and soldiers were left as casualties; this number is even more staggering when you consider the exponential population growth that has occurred since 1918. In this global conflict, new tools of death like trench and submarine warfare and gas attacks brought the dastardly violence of war and empire to a scale never imagined previously. Memorials asserted onto the landscape what everyone already knew—that everything was now different. On these memorials, the names of the deceased were publicly listed in staccato fashion, echoing the gunfire that rendered the remains of many listed individuals unable to be identified or repatriated.
But the design of memorials was (and always is) also motivated by politics, inextricable from the power structures of the day. As such, these edifices were often monumentally skewed to highlight the contributions of certain favored ethnic, racial, religious, and gendered groups, while glossing over the contributions to others.
The Stories in the Stones
Using these public war memorials as the sole way to understand the weight and extent of WWI does not do commemorative justice to the insidiousness of the damage wrought by war. It is for this reason that I spent the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in York Cemetery. It was not out of resistance; with solemnity we must honor the soldiers (often barely out of boyhood) who were the casualties of this new type of warfare, distinct in its ability to kill collectively, without discretion or recognition of individuality. But I chose to spend the 11th Hour among the graves because cemeteries can add a necessary depth to our understanding of war. The names of these four factory women may not be listed on a monument in a city center. But their story shows how war’s creeping devastation set the tone for everyday existence during the Great War.
I also stopped by the grave of William Merriman. Merriman was a World War I Private who served on the front lines. In 1917, he was brought home to York for medical attention. One secondary source notes that he “bitterly regretted that his arm injury had not been serious enough to ensure his discharge from the army.” The night before he was due to return to battle, Private Merriman took his own life with a revolver. We cannot know for certain the cause of Merriman’s depression, but the timing of his suicide and our knowledge of the unprecedented violence to which he was preparing to return all suggest that Mr. Merriman saw death as a more amenable alternative to war. Tragically, this affect continues to plague veterans to this day. In 2013, the Veteran’s Administration determined that an average of 22 U.S. military veterans die from suicide each day—a number greater than those dying in combat.
The Contributions of Digital Records
Whereas the inscription on Mses. Wortley, West, Carter, and Ellis’ grave summarizes the munitions factory explosion to passersby, Private Merriman’s grave reveals no such backstory. And it is here that digital archives prove an invaluable resource in telling a more complex narrative of history.
In a painstaking demonstration of passion and devotion, members of Friends of York Cemetery have digitized all information stored in the cemetery’s burial records (which often includes name, place of residence, date and cause of death, and monumental inscription) for the nearly 124,000 people interred at the cemetery. Some volunteers have gone on to use other public records to further research certain individuals, including Private Merriman. In doing so they have created a new digital archive: a series of self-guided walking tours, available to the public to download. This new archive picks up where stones leave off, telling the stories behind the names—when inscriptions do not.
But religious, racial, or financial exclusion in cemetery spaces has meant that countless people at cemeteries the world over do not have even a stone of remembrance. By digitizing York Cemetery’s burial records, the Friends learned that nearly two thirds of burials at York Cemetery lack a headstone, likely due to inability to pay.
In my article “Why Cemeteries Tell Us More About the Living Than the Dead,” I mentioned that I have also come across notable discrepancies between cemeteries’ burial records and the visible record presented by the tombstones. While conducting research at a cemetery in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, I came across the burial record for Jesse F. Stevens. Using other public digital records (including census records and a text-searchable digital database of historic newspapers), I learned that Mr. Stevens was a Black American leader of the World War I Home Guard. The Home Guard, which conducted homefront affairs like protecting sites of military production and escorting draftees to train stations, was formed after the National Guard was federalized. With segregation being the law of the land, African Americans in Minneapolis and St. Paul had to petition the Governor of Minnesota to create an all-Black battalion. When the Sixteenth Battalion was finally authorized in the Spring of 1918, local mail carrier and violinist Jesse F. Stevens personally organized the Sixteenth Battalion Orchestra. As a volunteer, he tirelessly promoted local musicianship and rallied support for the war effort.
But at the site where Mr. Stevens in buried, there is no gravestone. This glaring void (especially when considered alongside other instances of Black American leaders lacking headstones) shed light on the implicit exclusionary policies of that cemetery at the time, as well as the broader racial climate of the young city. While the legacy of Mr. Stevens likely lives on among descendants of both his biological and chosen family, there is no public evidence in the city’s built environment—not even a headstone—to suggest his role. In this instance, his story would not have been publicly preserved without these digitized records.
We must also remember, however, that even cemetery ledger books are rife with exclusions. Across nations and eras, many people have been barred entirely from cemetery spaces, their deaths never recorded in any formal or informal public archive. But the future holds enormous potential to broaden our informal archives. Tools like the Internet and social media are creating a massive grassroots database of stories; 88% of American adults under 30 use some type of social media, and access to the Internet is becoming less of a barrier each year. If we can preserve these new digital records, future historians will be able to recount the stories of a much more representative, diverse populace.
Today, I Remember
Of the many names for yesterday’s annual commemoration, I find one most poignant: Remembrance Day. In honor of Remembrance Day, I strove to use a variety of historical records to remember the diversity of those who gave everything, and yet who are often overlooked in our public memory of the Great War.
In 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the U.S.’s entry into the war by stating that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” the irony of the statement was lost perhaps only on the most privileged. Today, as I did yesterday, I remember the 350,000 African American soldiers, the 12,000 Native American soldiers, and the many, many thousands of women of varied ethnic backgrounds who served at home and abroad—all of whom participated in the war despite being denied democratic participation in their own country at the most basic level of the vote. So, too, do I remember those who resisted the war effort because of this stark irony. I remember the thousands of Black American soldiers who, upon returning from service, were driven to keep their military uniforms out of the public eye for fear of violence. Who survived the ravages of war only to be threatened, assaulted, and even murdered by a white populace terrified by the power and potential embodied in a Black serviceman. (At least 13 Black WWI veterans were lynched in the aftermath of the Great War.) I honor those who still today have to fight for the vote—that basic participatory right, the absence of which was glaring even 100 years ago. I honor those who today are disenfranchised for a criminal record determined by a biased legal system. Those whose history on what is now “U.S. soil” extends far, far longer than my ancestors’ and the ancestors’ of my other non-Native peers, and yet whose Tribal IDs were considered dubious at some polling places in last week’s midterm elections.
Today, as I did yesterday, I also permit myself to imagine a different historical trajectory in which World War I truly was “the war to end all wars.” A history in which the damning legacy of WWI’s violence was not so normalized as to become the accepted backdrop through which our everyday global existence is mediated. I remember, too, that war and empire were murderous and disastrous before the Great War. As a means of honoring the pains and sacrifices of the 40 million casualties of WWI—many of them women, children, and people of color—I strive to resist the normalization of extreme violence in the present, from wars to mass shootings to hate crimes.
Today I do what I can to recall the names and stories of a variety of servicepeople, sung and unsung. To do the diligent work of using our informal archives, our oral histories, our graveyards—in addition to the sanctioned historical monuments and their corresponding histories—to remember a more complex, honest narrative of this war and all wars. And I encourage others to do the same.
Katie Thornton is a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow currently in the UK and Singapore to produce “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast and multimedia project about how and where we remember in an urbanized, digitized world. Be sure to follow the project on Instagram, via occasional email updates, or on the project blog!
Friends of York Cemetery, “First World War Military Trail”
Pew Research, “Social Media Use in 2018”
U.S. National Library of Medicine, “1917: American Indians volunteer for WWI”
Equal Justice Initiative: “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans”
Disclaimer: All text and photos by Katie Thornton, 2018. No reuse without permission.