Written by Laura May Bailey
Last Sunday at 11 o’clock, as people across the UK and Commonwealth grew silent, they also gathered in distanced groups at the Arch of Remembrance in Victoria Park to pay tribute and remember all those who have lost their lives in war.
The 11th of November 2020 marked 102 years since the end of the First World War, a milestone that felt even more poignant this year. Many of the men and women who lived through the Second World War are forced to stay at home, and perhaps, not even see family or friends, for their own safety. With many Armistice Day events migrating online, people feel more disconnected than ever. Looking to the past can provide comfort and inspiration.
Before it was the large open park we know today, Victoria Park was a racecourse, a football field, and even one of the first roller skating rinks in Britain. During the Second World War, the park was a vital war resource, used for allotments by the people of Leicester. The railings were taken for munitions, and rocket launchers. Barrage balloons were located in the park to prevent German air landings. In 1940, the park was bombed by a German land mine creating a 30-foot (9 metre) crater. Wounded soldiers gathered in the park in the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1944.
The Arch of Remembrance and Peace Walk
The Arch of Remembrance, one of the key landmarks in the park, was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. Lutyens also designed the Cenotaph in London where the Queen and politicians gathered to pay their respects last Sunday. The arch was unveiled in 1925, by two war widows to commemorate those lost in the First World War. It cost £25,000 to build. The gates at the bottom of the Peace Walk – which offers a striking of the Arch – were donated in 1931, by Sir Jonathon North in memory of his wife who played a crucial role in the voluntary war effort. The Peace Walk itself was opened in 1981. The Walk is lined by memorials in honour of many different groups and individuals who gave their lives, in the hope of peace.
The Peace Walk Memorials
If you enter the Peace Walk from University Road, the first plaque that you will encounter is in honour of the 250 known, and many more unknown, Conscientious Objectors of WW1. Conscientious Objectors are those who refused to fight in the war, even after compulsory conscription was introduced. Their objection was commonly based on religious belief, but some were political activists and pacifistic. Some agreed to contribute to the war effort indirectly through farming or manual labour. Others refused to contribute at all. Across the country there were 16,000 Conscientious Objectors, over a third of which were sent to prison at least once as a result of their stance.
There follows a plaque commemorating three Leicestershire men, Fred Sykes, Jack Watson and Roy Watts, who died as members of the International Brigade fighting against fascism in Spain, prior to the Second World War.
Two plaques draw attention to and protest nuclear technology. One, currently adorned with a wreath of pacifist white poppies, commemorates the veterans who have died as result of British nuclear tests. The second plaque, a tree at the top of the walk, was originally planted for the 40th Anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945. In 1995, the tree was rededicated to the theme of ‘Peace and Reconciliation’ by the Leicester Peace Action Group, in the resolve that “never again will mass destruction be perpetrated in the name of peace.”
Another draws attention to the men and women who died as prisoners of war in the Far East. The campaign in the Far East lasted from 1941 to 1945. This war is often called the ‘Forgotten War’ as popular memory focuses primarily on the war in Europe, rather than the struggle against Japanese forces in Asia. Prisoners of war were held in appalling conditions and thousands died from starvation and from diseases such as malaria. The jungles gruelling climate and the building of the Death Railway also took lives.
Opposite a stone laid in remembrance of those who died in the First World War from Leicester and across the Commonwealth, there is another, similar piece. This is dedicated to the people of India, Africa, and the Caribbean who died in both world wars, fighting as part of the British Empire. During the First World War, the British West Indies Regiment was formed with an army of over 15,000 soldiers. An additional 55,000 African men fought for the British Empire, playing a pivotal role, winning over 160 awards for bravery. Of those fighting in Burma in the Far East campaign, 80% of soldiers were non-white.
At the top of the Peace Walk is a plaque commemorating the role women played in the Second World War. The men and women fighting on the home front played a vital role in the war effort; from growing food as part of the Land Army, to constructing munitions in factories, driving ambulances and acting as Air Raid Wardens. Over 80,000 women became Land Girls to help with food production. The Women’s Voluntary Service provided much needed support for those bombed out of their homes.
Having Victoria Park on the university’s doorstep is a wonderful resource. While you’re taking a walk or going for a jog around the park this week, it can be worthwhile to pause and take notice of the memorials and their history. To remember the sacrifices of the past.
Laura May Bailey is a master’s student of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. As well as having a passion for museums, she is also interested in traveling, history, and literature. You can find her on Instagram here: @laura_may_bee.