A response to the proposed resting place of Captain Herbert Meakin’s Memorial
At this time of year, remembrance is at the forefront of our thoughts. Indeed, for many of us transfixed by the chasm in the human story that is the Great War, remembrance plays an almost permanent part in our lives. It is striking that even though we are now nearly a century on from that spate of memorialisation that occurred in the months and years after the war finished, we still recognise the importance of place in how we remember. We make associations with a spot in a cemetery or on the battlefields or before a memorial. This connection with the remembrance, memory and place is one of the most powerful reasons that so many of us return to the old Western Front. We wish to experience the place. Of course, we cannot physically experience any of the events that took place over that ground, but we can link ourselves to the actions by that continuity of perspective in the landscape.
In September, it was announced that the memorial to Captain Herbert Meakin, near to Lesboeufs, was to be restored.
Part of this restoration would include the removal of the marker stone to the roadside for ‘ease of access’. The memorial marker is currently located, as it has been for around ninety years, at the location that Captain Meakin was last seen. His mother, father and sister erected the monument on the spot for the very same reasons we return; the specific emotional and personal connection with place.
I do not disagree at all with the intention to restore the marker stone, in fact, I think it a worthwhile and admirable venture. However, the decision to remove the marker from the place of memory is something I, and many others, object to in the strongest terms.
Firstly, concerning the contention of the project that the memorial will be lost if it is left where it is; if the memorial is moved it will already have been lost. The location is the most important aspect of the memorial. The site was specifically chosen by the family and for the family. The very deliberate location and choice of site was, for the immediate family, akin to holy ground and served as a marker of Captain Meakin’s courage and sacrifice. This is not a memorial to communal sacrifice, as with the CWGC memorials to the missing, but an attempt at placing in perpetuity the actions of one man into the landscape of his endeavour. The location and access represent an important – possibly the most important – layer of complexity into how the family and we as pilgrims understand and interact with the site. To move the marker purely on the grounds of ease of access or to allow the farmer to get a few more square feet of a crop is to undermine the legitimacy of the site and sets a dangerous precedent for other private (or otherwise) memorials to be moved to placate local landowners.
Secondly, on the issue of the landowners of such memorials; the parcel of land and the access path have already been purchased. The ownership of the land is important in the case of the Meakin Memorial where it is the specific plot of land that is the memorial. The restoration is required due to a combination of the passing of time and repetitive damage caused by agricultural vehicles hitting it. It would not be acceptable to ignore ownership boundaries and damage property in this way and, as such, it should not be condoned by association at a memorial site. Access to the memorial plot, for anyone who wishes to visit the site, was purchased in perpetuity by the Meakin family. The access path that was purchased would remain had it not been ploughed through. It must surely be the role of an organisation such as the Western Front Association to lobby the Marie and the farmer that this aspect is reinstated. Also, in the case of the proposal to move the marker, there is no evidence to suggest that the marker would not be damaged again by traffic in the proposed new location. If the Western Front Association does not take on this protective role of the spaces and places of the Western Front, we accept that whoever commits the damage be absolved from all blame and the subsequent costs be paid for by public subscription and ignored by the local government officials. This concern is not about finger-pointing, but about establishing protective measures for the land and memorial to Captain Meakin and other such sites.
Finally, I do not doubt that a great deal of thought and time has been put into the restoration proposal. I equally do not doubt the intent behind it. However, it is my firm belief and that of other visitors to the battlefields, that the intention to move the stone marker from the memorial site is misguided and risks distorting the memory of Captain Meakin far more than the prospect of the stone marker crumbling does. I do not believe this proposal has strong enough support to go ahead.
It is good news that a distant relative has been identified, but, there are some issues to attaching a distant relative’s point of view with such importance, in disregard of the wishes of Captain Meakin’s immediate family. For example, what if another relative emerges who is against it? Nobody alive has the right to intervene on the level that this proposal is suggesting. There are many people who would sooner the stonework crumble and the memorial site remain rather than saving some stonework at the cost of losing the significance and relevance of the place. Consultation on such a project would have raised these concerns far sooner. One only need to look at the related Western Front Association Facebook comment thread to see the level of unease and opposition to the proposal.
The concern of myself and others, as outlined above, is that the proposed move could set a worrying trend that gives precedence to an individual’s quest over the wishes of many others who have informed and legitimately opposing views. This in turn will irrevocably alter the understanding and relationship of every future pilgrim’s interpretation of the memorial landscape of the Great War.
Before continuing with the proposal, I would urge considerably wider consultation with those who visit the battlefields regularly and for whom this and other similar sites have a personal relevance and resonance.