The year 2024 marks centenaries for the city’s world war memorials.

They are remarkable reminders of human loss, courage, and national resilience, but also look every bit their age, with staining and erosion.

Is it becoming a futile quest to clean them each year? Is it causing more damage? Why do we want them scrubbed to look ‘anew’ – in ways we wouldn’t for other historic monuments?

For some of us, Remembrance Day is our earliest memory of public displays of sorrow.

To a child’s eyes, the normality and safety that adults provide can suddenly shift. People stop in the street, at railway stations, in shops, or gather around a looming stone obelisk; they mark a two-minute silence by seemingly doing nothing; heads lowered, fingers entwined.

Somewhere in the distance – the Museum Gardens in the case of York – the sudden BOOM of a firing cannon marks the return to normalcy, startling many and pigeons alike.

It’s a commemoration experience very much handed down from an age where children should be 'seen and not heard', and can leave a strong impression that ever after frames our attitudes towards the world war dead and remembrance memorials.

Most British war memorials detail the names of those who fought in the two world wars, and are now due centenaries.

York is no exception. The North Eastern Railway War Memorial on Station Rise near the council’s offices – sometimes mistaken for the city’s war memorial – was unveiled on June 14 1924; the actual City War Memorial on Leeman Road followed on June 25, 1925; both were designed by the famous English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

To this end, they are very much part of the city’s historic landscape, part of the collection of ‘heritage assets’; fourteen of the city’s traditional war memorials are listed.

World war memorials can provoke heightened emotions. This is often at odds with other historic structures in the UK.

York hosts other war memorials including Yorkshire’s Second Boer War Memorial on Duncombe Place.

Despite it missing stone finials and a statuette, and frequently being the site of anti-social behaviour, there’s little clamour over this compared to when acts of vandalism or neglect affect our world war memorials.

Many of us will have chanced upon a war memorial that’s been relocated or is now out of its original context, when the former business associate with the plaque has ceased trading, the school the ‘Pals’ went to has closed, the post office or police station has shut down.

Elsewhere, different forms of war memorials in the city – such as Rowntree Park, a gift to the City of York by Rowntree & Co. in 1921 as a memorial to the Cocoa Works workers’ war service - are seemingly far less emotionally charged. Why is this?

Each world war memorial is unique, and yet alike in many ways - located near important civic spaces, built for permanence, designed to impress, and invoke respect.

But given their age and exposure to the elements they are increasingly blackened, with stonework crumbling, and engraved names eroding and increasingly indecipherable.

The city’s two main world war memorials have been cleaned over many decades, usually as a prelude to Remembrance Sundays.

But a combination of misjudged use of abrasive materials, and being simply built of the wrong type of stone and sited where exposed to wind-driven rain or floods, has led to irreversible damage that worsens staining and erosion.

With time, they will inevitably whittle away to an abstract lump of ill-shapen stone and brass.

On purely conservation grounds - as historic material, and, if for a moment, shorn of their emotive and communal importance - is cleaning them the best thing for these structures?

If not, would it be fairer to take this decision collectively, rather than leave it to the council or Network Rail as legal owners? The centenaries would be a suitable time to discuss what their future care might be.

In 2011, and following the near-full erosion of carved names at York’s North Eastern Railway War Memorial, new inscriptions plaques were attached to the nearby retaining wall.

The names are also recorded in a ‘Book of Remembrance’ held by the National Railway Museum.

There’s other examples of war monuments – especially stone, bronze or timber ‘rolls of honour’ – being relocated to controlled internal environments.

Doing this separates two distinct aspects of commemoration: the memorial as a communal gathering point, and elsewhere – safely indoors – a record of those who served.

Perhaps this is the future fate of our world war memorials? If so, aren’t both still forms of respect?

Dr Duncan Marks is York Civic Trust's civic society manager