Monumental Struggles — Five War Memorials That Sparked Controversy

A War of 1812 monument in Toronto takes an irreverent look at history. (Image source: WIkiCommons)

WAR MEMORIALS ARE supposed to commemorate past conflicts. But what happens when the monument itself sparks a battle in its own right? A number of famous military tributes have done just that.

Consider Toronto’s own novel edifice to the War of 1812, unveiled in November 2008 near the very sport that British and Canadian troops along with their native allies unsuccessfully fought off American invaders 195 years earlier.

Noted Canadian author and pop artist Douglas Coupland created the monument to pay homage to the conflict while taking a lighthearted jab at the U.S. The sculpture consists of two enormous toy soldiers decked out in early 19th Century uniforms. One in a British shako hat and jacket is standing upright, while the figure in Yankee garb is laying on its side as if it had been knocked over. According to Coupland, author of the landmark 1991 novel Generation X, the sculpture was his way of reminding Torontonians that had the war gone differently, Canada might today be a part of the United States.

“The Americans lost the War of 1812, and it turns out there’s this creeping revisionism happening. Americans are saying: ‘Maybe we didn’t lose. Maybe we won it,’” Coupland told The National Post. “I wanted to come up with an elegant and simple way of saying: ‘No, the British won.’”

The $500,000 work of art raised eyebrows when it was unveiled, according to The Post. One prominent Toronto-area historian and expert on the War of 1812 was generally pleased by the piece, but wondered aloud if it might trivialize a significant historical event. Others were less charitable, calling it “hideous public art.”

“Douglas Coupland’s Monument to the War of 1812 is not only gimmicky, childish and banal,” wrote one blogger with the pen name of Diogenes Borealis.  “But it is in astonishingly bad taste for a sculpture meant to commemorate a formative event in our nation’s history that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and the burning of the city of York.”

However, Canada’s own former governor general Adrienne Clarkson called the piece “a wonderful thing”.

Currently, the government of Canada is planning a more solemn monument to officially recognize the country’s contribution to the War of 1812. It’s part of Ottawa’s $30 million campaign to celebrate the conflict’s 200th anniversary.

The “Traitor’s Arch” in Dublin.

Traitor’s Arch

The Fusilier’s Arch in Dublin did more than just raise eyebrows when it was completed. It became a lightning rod for anti-British sentiment in the years leading up to the 1916 Irish rebellion.

The monument, which stands at the Grafton Street entrance to St. Stephens Green was erected in 1907 to commemorate the more than 200 volunteers from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in the Boer War.

Seen at the time by many Irish nationalists as a hateful symbol of British imperialism, some Dubliners famously nicknamed it “Traitor’s Gate”. [2]

Nine years after being dedicated, the monument itself would be damaged in street battles between British troops and Irish nationalists during the Easter Uprising. In subsequent years, a number of colonial era monuments throughout Ireland were defaced or destroyed by nationalists, yet Fusilier’s Arch continued to stand. [3]

An city employee in Tallinn cleans a Soviet-era statue that commemorated the U.S.S.R.’s occupation of the Estonia.

The Bronze Solider

It’s one thing to raise a monument to commemorate citizens who fought in the foreign war of hated colonial power. It’s quite another for a conquering nation to raise a monument to its own troops in the capital city of the small country it conquered.

But that was precisely the humiliation the people of Tallinn, Estonia had to suffer after the Soviets seized the tiny Baltic state in the final months of World War Two.

The monument, known today simply as the Bronze Solider of Tallinn, was erected in 1947 ostensibly to honour Soviet troops who gave their lives liberating Estonia from the Nazis.

Interestingly enough, by the time the Soviet’s arrived at Tallinn, Estonia didn’t need to be ‘liberated’. The Germans had already withdrawn, leaving control of the tiny republic in the hands of the Estonian resistance which was in the process of establishing a working government. The Red Army rolled into the city anyway and took control of the entire country. Soviet police arrested the members of the provisional government along with other nationalists, many of whom were subsequently executed. [4]

Originally named the Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn, the entire edifice became a symbol of Soviet oppression over Estonia. In April 2007, the statue was relocated and the bodies of the Red Army soldiers exhumed and reinterred in a military cemetery nearby. Riots erupted in Tallinn between Estonians who resented the statue and ethnic Russians who felt it was a tribute to those who died fighting the Nazis. The unrest was known as Bronze Night. [5]

Monuments to Pacifism?

A post-World War One monument in France that emphasized peace over war was so controversial that it was not officially dedicated for 70 years after its completion. In fact, French soldiers from a local garrison were under orders to look away from this tribute to pacifism as they walked by. [6] The memorial in Gentioux-Pegerolles in central France features a column bearing the names of the dead along with a statue of a war orphan. An inscription reads ‘Maudite soit la guerre’ or “cursed be war”.

A London monument remembers the conscientious objectors of the world wars.

To Those Who Didn’t Fight

A stone monument placed in London’s Tavistock Square in 1994 does more than just celebrate pacifism, it commemorates Britain’s conscientious objectors of the World Wars – people who for moral or spiritual reasons abstained from taking up arms. According to the British newspaper The Independent, there were 16,000 conscientious objectors in the U.K. in World War One; that number rose to 61,000 in the Second World War. [7] Many of these individuals were jailed or sent to forced labour camps for refusing to fight, others volunteered for non-combat related duties. “A lot of those men suffered terribly or even died for refusing to fight. They shouldn’t be forgotten,” Bill Hetherington, a historian who has compiled a data base of objectors, told The Independent.


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2 comments for “Monumental Struggles — Five War Memorials That Sparked Controversy

  1. 25 September, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I enjoyed the bit on the War of 1812. Cracked me up. I think Canada won and the British behaved badly to start it (impressment) and the US behaved badly by coveting Canada.Yep, Canada won.

  2. 25 September, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    It’s a tricky one. I think America can claim to have won — Britain suspended the orders in council and impressment that so angered the U.S., although America’s war aim of annexing Canada was thwarted. Canada wasn’t annexed (thanks to the red coats and their native allies) and its citizens for the first time felt a certain measure of national identity because of the shared experience. Britain probably ended up being the biggest lower of the war. While it stopped the American invasion of Canada and managed to humiliate the United States by raiding Washington D.C. in 1814, the war for Britain was a total waste of time and resources that never should have happened in the first place.

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