Street names: the local, national and international memory of the First World War

Memorials and monuments to the First World War are a familiar part of the urban landscape in former combatant countries but across the cities, towns and villages there is another element of remembrance which sometimes goes unnoticed: street names. In Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States, there are avenues and boulevards which have been given the names of battles, politicians, Generals and individual soldiers. Some of these places have, through the passage of time, been forgotten. However, these names bear testimony to the way in which individuals, groups and societies during the war and in its aftermath sought to remember the war.

Cambrai Avenue, Chichester, United Kingdom.

Cambrai Avenue, Chichester, United Kingdom.

The naming of streets, plazas, squares and stations after military heroes or famous victories has been a feature of the modern world. With the rise of nation states, the valorization of martial achievement through monument building or naming served as a key part in cementing a cultural and political identity for the populace. Indeed, the history of the nineteenth century can be read through the names that were given to the public places across Europe and North America.

This process was continued with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 and was used to mark the cessation of hostilities after November 1918. In the decades that followed, the names associated with the war have been neglected, forgotten of perhaps conjured up such images of waste, pity and disillusionment that this significant local, national and international history and legacy of the conflict has been overlooked. By connecting this geography of remembrance we can consider how the war altered people and places around the world.

One of the first reported sites of street naming was the Canadian city of Montreal. In late 1914 it was already reported that plans were set in place to rename avenues after the heroic figures and places of the conflict:

  • Joffre
  • French
  • Leman
  • Pau
  • Antwerp
  • Poincare

The names reflected the alliance between the British Empire and France as well as served as a patriotic appeal to the metropolis whose linguistic and cultural divisions had historically been a source of tension. In Britain, the outbreak of the war caused some street names to change as the names of German places and people were written out of the urban landscape as an act jingoism:

There are numerous cases in the Metropolitan area of sturdy patriotic British citizens having to live under German direction, so to speak, and the residents of thoroughfares with such pronouncedly Teutonic names as Bismarck, Wiesbaden, Gothenburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, and so on, naturally resent the objectionable denominations.[i]

A similar process occurred in France, where in 1914 it was stated that in Romilly-sur-Seine had been granted permission to alter the name of the Avenue D’Allemagne and Rue de Berlin to Jean Jaurès and Rue de Liège respectively. The former commemorated the socialist leader assassinated a few months earlier who opposed the war but whose death led to domestic political truce within France, L’union sacrée.

In Aberdeen, reports in 1914 that residents voted against changing German names of streets to honour wartime heroes and victims raised comment in the local paper.[ii] In Hull, angry councillors expressed their dissatisfaction that the town still had German street names whilst the nation was at war. However, the meeting was calmed down when it was explained that the street names, Stynberg Street and Rustenberg Street, referred to the South African Wars and thus were more Dutch than German.[iii]

As the street names of the country could reflect hundreds of years of settlement, the initial enthusiasm for altering street names began to dwindle. However, as the conflict progressed, local councils in Britain considered petitions to name new developments or existing infrastructure in sympathy or solidarity with those who had sacrificed. For example, during a local group meeting in the midland town of Walsall in 1915 suggestions were heard over the naming of a new road as frustration were voiced as to how the nation was responding to the crisis:

“…we were engaged in such a terrible war, that there were 600 funerals our own kith and kin every day, they might have thought of giving the street the name of “Jellicoe Road”, or, in complement to our gallant French Allies and our own gallant soldiers, why not “Marne Avenue”?”[iv]

By the close of the war, the desire to remove all German street names was no longer present. This issue of street naming was raised in Parliament in early November 1918. In his response to questions suggesting legislation should be enacted to change all street names with any German associations, the Leader of the House, Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923) pithily replied: ‘We are engaged, I think, in matters more important’.[v]

However, in the aftermath of the conflict, around the world, the names of the battles, generals and soldiers of the war began to be commemorated. With the promise to build more homes in Britain after the war, there was plenty of opportunity for an ‘Arras Avenue, Ypres Street, Foch Road, Haig Place, Plumer Terrace’.[vi] In the United States, from major cities to small towns, the war was commemorated in street names. As such, in Alexandria, Louisiana, an Argonne Boulevard adjoins a Versailles Boulevard. In Norfolk, Virginia, an Argonne Avenue is parallel to a Verdun Avenue and a Marne Avenue.

Whilst in New York, Pershing Square next to Grand Central Station which was named in 1919, is one of many sites in the nation that are named after General John J. Pershing (1860-1948). In Canada, new avenues and old streets were given the name of Vimy whilst the grand but unrealized replanning of Toronto in 1929 was given the title ‘Vimy Circle’. In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Gallipoli, Somme and Delville are attached to roads and streets.

Pershing Square. New York. United States.

Pershing Square. New York. United States.

In Regensburg, Germany, there is a Verdunstraße, a Sommestraße, an Arrasstraße, an Erbprinz-Franz-Joseph-Straße and a Prinz-Rupprecht-Straße. In Liège, Belgium, the war is commemorated with a Rue Joffre. In France, Strasbourg has a Rue d’Ypres, a Rue del’Yser, a Rue de Saint-Quentin, a Rue d’Arras and a Boulevard de la Marne.

In the naming of streets, the grand ideals met the humble acts of remembrance. Whilst national and local authorities suggested names of Generals and battles, individuals and communities requested more personal associations. Across New York, streets were named for soldiers of the United States Army. Henshaw Street, Staff Street, Daniels Street and Dyckman Street in Inwood, Manhattan, were renamed after soldiers from that area. The Manhattan approach to Washington Bridge was renamed McNally Square, after a soldier and son of a policeman of the city who had died in France. Similarly, in West Harlem, a single block from 126th Street from old Manhattan Street to Claremont Avenue was named Moylan Place after Private William Moylan, 42nd Division, who died in 1918 and was buried in France.

By the late 1920s, attitudes to the war had begun to shift and the spate of street naming had begun to reduce. The war had taken on a less victorious air as the realities of the post-war world ensured that the war was looked upon with a sense of tragedy. This can be seen in the case of Hull, where residents apparently petitioned the local authority to have Kemmel Avenue renamed.

In the petition, those who lived in the street stated that they wished to forget the war, despite the presence of Aisne, Mons and Marne Streets nearby:

The years are gradually putting a space between us and the Great War, but the memory lingers sadly over the men who fell there, and many British troops were lost at Kemmel…[vii]

The naming of streets enabled groups to feel connected to the war as the battles were ongoing and to honour the service and sacrifice of the dead in the immediate aftermath. Whilst names may have been chosen by governments and officials there are accounts of individual and personal acts of remembrance. In Chichester, a builder who oversaw the development of new housing in the 1930s was said to have named the street ‘Cambrai Avenue’ after a brother who was killed in the battle.

Street names connect us to the local, national and international history of the war and remind us how the war altered the lives of individuals across the world. There are more names and associations to find in this history and it offers us the chance to connect to places both near and far whose names all recall the First World War.

[i] Streets with German Names, Leeds Mercury, November 11 1915

[ii] War on Teutonic Street Names, Aberdeen Journal, December 15 1914

[iii] Hull Street Names, Hull Daily Mail, October 20 1916

[iv] Why not Marne Avenue? Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, July 24 1915.

[v] Street Names (German). House of Commons Debate, 5 November 1918, vol.110 c1922.

[vi] German Street Names in Leeds. Yorkshire Evening Post, April 1 1919

[vii] Keeping the war out of street names, Yorkshire Evening Post, April 30 1926

Cite : Street names: the local, national and international memory of the First World War (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=3841) by Ross Wilson (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/author/rosswilson/) licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/)

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About Ross Wilson

Ross Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Modern History and Public Heritage, University of Chichester, UK. He is the author of Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums (2011), Landscapes of the Western Front (2012), Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain (2013), New York in the First World War: Shaping an American City (2014) and The Language of the Past (2016). His current research interests include the history and memory of the Great War in Britain and the United States.
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