At Boveney church in Buckinghamshire a fine memorial tablet to much-loved local scoutmaster Colonel Frank Church hangs in the church (and his story is told in detail on the website of the local friends). Church died aged 29 on 19th July 1916, just 8 weeks after his Battalion was shipped to Havre.
“His battalion was engaged a mile or two north of the line at the Somme, in an attempt to prevent the enemy sending troops from the sector to re-inforce their comrades in the main battle area. By all accounts he died courageously and at the time, the village scouts would have been very proud of him. He fell at Ferme de Bois and was buried several miles north of where he was killed.”
The Windsor & Eton Express of September 1916 reported: “... He showed great gallantry in repeatedly going out, as a volunteer, to bring in the wounded under heavy shrapnel fire. He again displayed great courage and devotion to duty on the 19th July 1916, bringing in the wounded, but was himself killed...” The family of Frank Church still visit St Mary's, Boveney and cherish their connection.
In another of our churches, at Llandeloy in Pembrokeshire, survives this beautifully carved and intricate rood screen. It dominates and darkens the interior of the church – and was erected as a memorial, paid for by Mrs Thomas of Trehale, Mathry (a nearby farm), in memory of her only son Lionel George Theophilus Thomas, Second Lieutenant, Welsh Regiment, who was killed in action during the 3rd Battle of Ypres on 20 September 1917, aged just 19. The church is now included as part of the West Wales War Memorial Project.
By the mid 19th century, medieval Llandeloy church was ruinous, and in the first two decades of the 20th there was talk of rebuilding it – until the Great War and the absence of most local men in the killing fields of Flanders stopped that ambition in its tracks. Once the guns had ceased, the ambition returned and the church we see today, and the rood screen, were designed by Arts & Crafts architect John Coates Carter in 1925-6. Coates Carter had the screen made in Cheltenham where he supervised it on a day-to-day basis. It was his last commission and one for which he refused to take a fee.
But where the community at Llandeloy was galvanised to great art, at Urishay in Herefordshire the outbreak of war had the very opposite effect. By the end of the 19th century this 12th castle chapel belonging to the ancient De La Hay family of Urishay Castle had fallen into disrepair – and various uses over the years (notably a blacksmith's forge and a dog kennel) had taken their toll. With new resolve from the family early in the 20th century a report prepared by Basil Stallibrass for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the chapel was purchased ‘by a small committee of churchmen’. On 29th July 1914 it was rededicated for worship by the Bishop of Hereford, but the onset of the First World War called a halt to all work and (as at so many hundreds of Britain’s medieval churches) resolve to repair faltered, and by 1923 the chapel was closed again. By 1949 there were gaping holes in the roof, the walls were on the lean and wallpaintings reported in 1914 wore away under exposure to the elements. When we took it into care in 1978 we had to undertake major repairs – rebuilding the much of the walling to prevent collapse.
But our connections to the Great War aren’t just confined to memorials and churches erected (or falling). At Ynyscynhaearn in Gwynedd we witness another harrowing impact – refugee families forced to flee towns bombed, burnt out and under siege (in this case Dinant and Malines in Belgium). Emile de Vynck, his wife and baby, were one of a wave of artist refugees from Belgium who fled to Wales in 1914 and lived in the area for the next decade. They were housed by Lloyd George’s widow in a house she owned in Criccith before moving to Pentrefelin and Emile’s work, including the cross above the altar, survives not only at St Cynhaearn’s but also at St Beuno's, Penmorfa – a stone's throw from there along the drover's road.
Excerpt from The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 16th October 1914
Emile de Vvnck writes: I have the honour to bring to your notice the fact that I left Malines when the Germans bombarded it for the fifth time. Nearly everyone fled the day after the German brutes entered the town. In terror we rushed to another village. A kindly far-mer hid us in his barn and we lay there on the straw. When we woke we escaped to Duffel. and from there to Bruges, where we arrived at midnight and found the town was all in darkness. Two ladies gave us hospitality and the next day, at a very early hour we went on to Ostend. We stayed there only a quarter-of-an-hour and then took the boat for Folkestone. Every-one gave us food and dainties and when we arrived in London we were taken to St. Giles Home where we stayed four days. Then they sent us down to Criccieth where we have been very kindly received. My wife and I and the baby (Pauline) thank from our hearts the ladies of the Committee for all their kindness to us and also the people of Criccieth. I desire to be excused, being a Fleming, for writing such a short account, but I have done all I can to make myself understood Emile de Vynck.
Two of our churches had events to mark the centenary of Armistice Day on 11th November 2018.
At Mundon St Mary in Essex an exhibition was organised by local volunteers and remembered in particular one local man who died and was buried in Belgium in the First World War. David Gentry was baptised at St Mary’s on September 17th 1893, lived in New Hall Lane and was educated at Mundon Board School. He fell in West Flanders on October 21st 1917 aged just 24. Local relatives still tend the grave and place a cross on the family plot — as Mundon has no war memorial — and the body of their great-great uncle, like hundreds and thousands of servicemen, never made it home.
And at 13th century Woodwalton St Andrew in Cambridgeshire the Friends of Wood Walton tolled a single tenor bell for six minutes from 11am on 11th November 2018 to commemorate the six men in the village who died, joining thousands of churches across Britain in ringing out their bells to mark the centenary of Armistice Day. This very moving event is perhaps one of the most poignant of reminders for us today. The church at Woodwalton has clung on through thick and thin; it is chronically unstable but the community there has remained strong; immoveable — the church today is a beacon of hope, a hive of community activity, it lives again.
By looking at our churches through the lens of the First World War we can see all the grief and destruction of war writ large – in the memorials, the mark made by refugees, the graves of the dead and some idea of our heritage lost during those war years. But as buildings preserved in perpetuity they are also places where great art is conserved; they continue to tell their stories and contribute to our history, community and wellbeing today, remaining as sacred spaces for peace and contemplation, for prayer and remembrance, and in memory of the atrocious destruction caused by war. We will remember them.
Updated 10/11/20 to reflect that the centenary events took place in the past.