A war memorial is a building, monument, statue or other edifice to celebrate a war or victory, or (predominating in modern times) to commemorate those who died or were injured in war.
For most of human history war memorials were erected to commemorate great victories. Remembering the dead was a secondary concern. Indeed in Napoleon's day the dead were shoveled into mass, unmarked graves. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Nelson's Column in London contain no names of those killed. By the end of the nineteenth century it was common for regiments in the British Army to erect monuments to their comrades who had died in small Imperial Wars and these memorials would list their names. By the early twentieth century some towns and cities in the United Kingdom raised the funds to commemorate the men from their communities who had fought and died in the Second Anglo-Boer War. However it was after the great losses of the First World War that commemoration took center stage and most communities erected a war memorial listing those men and women who had gone to war and not returned.
In modern times the main intent of war memorials is not to glorify war, but to honour those who have died. Sometimes, as in the case of the Warsaw Genuflection of Willy Brandt, they may also serve as focal points of increasing understanding between previous enemies.
Using modern technology an international project is currently archiving all war graves and memorials to create a virtual memorial (see The British War Memorial Project for further details).
During the First World War, many nations saw massive devastation and loss of life. In response, most cities in the countries involved in the conflict erected memorials, and the memorials in smaller villages and towns often listed the names of each local soldier who had been killed. Massive monuments commemorating thousands of dead with no identified war grave, such as the Menin Gate at Ypres and the Thiepval memorial on the Somme, were also constructed.
In many cases, the World War I memorials were later extended to also show the names of locals who died in the Second World War. Since that time memorials to the dead in other conflicts such as the Second World War and the Vietnam War have also noted individual contributions, at least in the West. In the Soviet Union, China, Japan and other nations, memorials remained communalistic with long lists of names being far rarer.
Many cemeteries tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have an identical war memorial called the Cross of Sacrifice designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield that varies in height from 4.5 m to 9m depending on the size of the cemetery. If there are one thousand or more burials, a Commonwealth cemetery will contain a Stone of Remembrance, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with words from Ecclesiasticus: "Their name liveth for evermore"; all the Stones of Remembrance are 3.5 m long and 1.5 m high with three steps leading up to them.
Arlington National Cemetery has a Canadian Cross of Sacrifice with the names of all the citizens of the USA who lost their lives fighting in the Canadian forces during the Korean War and two World Wars.
Unsurprisingly, war memorials can be politically controversial. A notable example are the controversies surrounding Yasukuni Shrine in Japan, where a number of convicted World War II war criminals are interred. Chinese and Korean representatives have often protested against the visits of Japanese politicians to the shrine. The visits have in the past led to severe diplomatic conflicts between the nations, and Japanese businesses were attacked in China after a visit by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the shrine was widely reported and criticized in Chinese and Korean media.
In a similar case, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl was criticised by writer Günter Grass and Elie Wiesel for visiting the war cemetery at Bitburg (in the company of Ronald Reagan) which also contained the bodies of SS troops. Unlike the case of the Yasukuni Shrine, there was no element of intentional disregard of international opinion involved, as is often claimed for the politician visits to the Japanese shrine.
Soviet WWII memorials included quotes of Joseph Stalin's texts, frequenty replaced after his death. Such memorials were often constructed in city centres and now are sometimes regarded as symbols of Soviet occupation and removed, which in turn may spark protests (see Bronze Soldier of Tallinn).