World War One remembered

To the Brave

Sarah Wearne writes about memorials of the Great War in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

Abingdon War Memorial

Abingdon War Memorial

It is the casualties that dominate our thinking on the Great War, the dead – 10 million soldiers worldwide, one million from the British Empire, 19,240 of these killed on one day alone, 1 July 1916; an unimaginable period of strain and distress, which can be read in the memorials that can be found in virtually every community in Britain.

Many felt the cross, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, to be the most appropriate form of memorial. Families equated the sacrifice made by their sons with that made by the Son of God; both had “died to save mankind”. The life-sized crucifixes outside St Margaret’s in North Oxford and St Mark’s in Cold Ash speak powerfully of Christ’s agony. Calvary crosses, like the one in Clanfield, tell the same story but less graphically. Eric Gill’s wayside crucifix in Bisham portrays a Christ who has conquered death and now reigns in heaven.

Marcham’s crucifix has weepers but the witnesses of Christ’s death are a soldier and a sailor rather than the traditional biblical figures. Celtic crosses refer to the early days of Christianity in this country. The one at Cookley Green stands on a pile of glacial boulders taking it back to a period “before the hills in order stood”.

Westwell’s huge monolith, reminiscent of a henge monument, is dedicated ‘To the Brave’ and inset with a brass numeral from the face of the clock on the ruined Cloth Hall in Ypres. The numeral is one of many fragments of the war that can be found in the diocese. At St Andrew’s East Hagbourne there is a pair of candlesticks made from the wood of a gun wagon, and at All Saints, High Wycombe the sword and spurs of Lord Wendover, the only son of the Marquis of Lincolnshire.

Several churches possess wooden crosses, original grave markers from the battlefield cemeteries returned to next-of-kin once the permanent war cemeteries were constructed. At St Peter and St Paul’s, Chaddleworth, Major Philip Wroughton’s was returned from Gaza, where he had been killed on 19 April 1917. Major Stuart Rickman’s hangs in St Mary’s, Childrey. Killed at the battle of Le Cateau, twenty-three days after the outbreak of war, he was buried by the Germans who incorrectly described him on the cross as ‘Engl Kapitaine’.

Whilst overt triumphalism is rare in British memorials, St George, whether portrayed in stone, as at Bampton, or stained glass, as at Clifton Hampden, represents the triumph of good over evil. So does St Michael, who can easily be confused with St George but for the fact that Michael as an archangel has wings – beautiful ruby wings in a stained glass window in St Martin’s East Woodhay, vivid blue ones in St James’ Barton Hartshorn.

Abingdon’s bronze soldier, (pictured right) head bowed arms reversed, depicts mourning; Buckland’s stone flame represents eternal life, and the laurel wreaths on memorials like the one ‘To the Men of Bracknell’ symbolise victory.

There is just one village in the diocese, Stoke Hammond, where everyone who served returned safely home, one of only 53 civil parishes in the whole of Britain where this was the case. Everywhere else communities commemorated their dead with a mixture of grief and pride. One hundred years later, the words carved on the memorial lych gate in East Challow still carry a resonance, ‘Ye that live on mid English pastures green; remember us and think what might have been’.

Sarah Wearne is the Archivist at Abingdon School.

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