At the inauguration of a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in 2013, an 83-year-old woman, Joyce Gee, knew something was missing. The Arboretum has about 300 different memorials, the great majority of them military. But while there were memorials to mark all sorts of wars, military organisations and other bodies, there was nothing to commemorate the civilian victims of war.
The Pity of War Memorial addresses that gap. The 10-12 feet tall iconic bronze statue planned for the NMA in Staffordshire will acknowledge those whose stories go unspoken when ordinary people are affected by the destruction of war. It honours those who have died and those who witness and survive the horrors of war: a war not of their making, but whose consequences they have to bear.
Joyce Gee knew the cost of war personally. She was 11 at the time of the Blitz in London in the Second World War. Houses in her street in Croydon were damaged and one destroyed. She remembers the batteries of gunfire to stop German bombers, which emptied their remaining bombs over suburbia. Like many civilians, she experienced stress for many years after the war. Above all, the events left her wondering how human beings could act towards one another like this.
Where once civilian fatalities amounted to just a few percent, now the figure is often 90% or more. Many are children. Amidst the unspeakable atrocities, social structures disappear, health systems are destroyed and cultural and educational facilities are wiped out.
Joyce’s experience coloured her views on life and she became a Quaker, a religious tradition that places great emphasis on nonviolence, forgiveness and reconciliation. This memorial, supported by the Quakers and the Sculpture and Art Foundation CIC, seeks to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who have suffered so much in war, not least in our present day and age.
Joyce Gee has helped inspire the beginning of the project. Her meeting with the artist Peter Walker has been the foundation of the campaign for the ‘Pity of war’ project. Two like minds that both wanted to pursue the creation of the sculpture and raise awareness.
Here is a letter from Joyce’s own words:
“I was ten years old when the second world war started in 1939. I lived not far from the then
existing Croydon Airport. During the winter of 1940 and 1941, I experienced some of the mass bombing of cities during which many civilians were killed. When I was thirteen,I wrote about one incident, a copy of which I still
“That night the family went down to the Anderson air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. As we
settled I caught the sound of a plane and louder gun fire. There were flashes of shell fire nearly
overhead….The large guns on a nearby gun site began to thunder and pound away. Then other
guns took up the crashing refrain. The world became a hell of noise…Then there was the whistle of
a bomb and an explosion. More explosions! Louder! Louder! The agonising whistle of the bombs
grew nearer. An extra loud and long whistle made itself heard above the babble of guns… The
explosion came. Then more explosions. The shelter shuddered….Bottles, boxes of matches and the
emergency candle-stick fell from the shelf. The shelter rocked while the air filled with dust as it
filtered through the cracks. The electric light went out.”
The next day we found that the house next door but one had been bombed and the elderly couple
who lived there had been killed. As civilians, our task was to keep our everyday community alive
and well, and to work toward peace, and to sustain civilian deaths as part of the price.
In this piece of writing, I wrote of my feelings. “Oh, why should there be wars, men fighting
against each other and killing one another? What is it in life which makes it turn on itself? Why
cannot men live in peace together?…God, if there be a God! Is man so full of himself and for power
over others that he cannot be contented with the natural beauties of life and what science and
learning can provide, without war? Is it only through suffering that men begin to question the ways
of war and peace?”