Centenary

King George attends the burial of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey, 1920. Artist Frank O. Salisbury

For some reason, the image moved me to tears. The ninety-four year old monarch standing, black-clad, alone and in silent respect, beside the tomb of a man buried six years before her birth on the centenary of his committal to this final resting place. One woman, alone. The grave, outlined in the red of remembrance poppies, is lit by a cascade of white orchids and myrtle… a replica of her wedding bouquet, first placed there over seventy years before, and following a tradition begun by her own mother, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in 1923, on her marriage to the man who would become King George VI.

Lady Elizabeth’s elder brother, Fergus, had been killed during the Battle of Loos in 1915, his body had been buried in the nearby quarry and the details of his grave lost. As she walked down the aisle, the young bride paused to lay her bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Warrior in a personal act of remembrance that has been upheld and continued by royal brides ever since.

The story of the Unknown Warrior goes back to 1916 when the Reverend David Railton, an Army Chaplain on the Western Front, saw a grave marked by a rough wooden cross, upon which was written simply, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. An idea formed and he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, suggesting that an unknown soldier be buried amongst kings at the Abbey, to represent the countless dead of the Great War, across Britain and her territories. The idea found favour with both the Dean and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and a plan was made to so honour the nameless and faceless soldiers who had given all.

On the night of 7th  November 1920, the remains of several unidentified soldiers were carried, from a number of battlefields, to a chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, near Arras in France. He remains were placed in unmarked coffins beneath the Union Flag, making them impossible to distinguish one from the other. Brigadier Wyatt, with closed eyes, placed his hand on one of the coffins…the rest were taken away for reburial with all honours. The remains thus randomly chosen became the Unknown Warrior… the representative of hundreds of thousands of lives cut short by war.

There was no indication of rank, nor class, nor social status. Neither colour nor creed defines the Warrior. He is every mother’s son, every brother who did not return, every husband whose wife waited in vain, every father who did not see his children grow. There is a kinship in loss that defies any artificial border or barrier.

With great ceremony, the body of the Warrior was transported to England, laying one night in state in the great library of the castle of Boulogne, which had become a chapelle ardente, lit with myriad candles for the vigil held by the French 8th Infantry Regiment, who, as a company, had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

The coffin was then placed within a casket made of timbers from the oak trees at Hampton Court Palace. The casket was bound with iron before a medieval crusader’s sword, personally chosen by King George V from the Royal Collection, was fixed in place and a shield installed upon which is inscribed ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

The Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, November 1920 : IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The slow and dignified journey continued, crossing the Channel and finally reaching home… one man representing so many who would never reach home again. On the 11th November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery drawn by six horses. Crowds lined the strets in silent respect as it passed through London’s streets to the cenotaph… the symbolic empty tomb… where it was joined by the King, the Royal Family and ministers, who followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey.

The casket was interred within the Abbey, in earth carried from each of the main battlefields in France. Later, the grave would be covered with a marble lid from Belgium, engraved with brass made from melted wartime munitions.

First, though, thousands waited to file past and pay their respects in a huge outpouring of national mourning.

But the guests of honour were the women…  around a hundred of them. All in their situation were invited.

Each one of them had lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

A hundred years… a mere handful of generations. I knew my great grandparents. They were there. It is not ancient history… it is our story and we continue to write it in blood.

File:Tomb of the Unknown Warrior - Westminster Abbey - London, England - 9 Nov. 2010.jpg
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior
Image: Mike cc-by-sa-2.0

As Her Majesty stood in that private ceremony to mark the centenary of the Unknown Warrior’s presence in the Abbey, was she thinking of her part in the history of this country, or simply as a woman, remembering her wedding day and grateful that the Warrior need not stand in place of her father, husband, sons or grandsons.

I have stood at the foot of the Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. It is the only tomb there upon which no foot may be set.  I have stood at the foot of his counterpart, buried simultaneously beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And at both, I have wept. The tears of a wife, a daughter, a mother and a sister… tears I give thanks I never had to shed for my own sons and family. Tears I have shed for the mothers who weep still as wars and conflict continue to ravage our world and leave behind empty arms and hearts.

Three faces

For  November, it was a surprisingly pleasant morning. In need of somewhere to go to stretch our lockdown-cramped legs, we wandered to a neighbouring village to explore its history. Whilst personal preference may direct our attention to the ancient face of the land, it was because of more recent memory that we had landed in Whitchurch… this sleepy little backwater, like every other town, village and hamlet, has played its part and paid its price in time of war.

To most of us, the fallen from long ended wars are simply names inscribed upon the Rolls of Honour or cenotaph.  It is their families who feel the loss of life, love and presence most keenly. They may not even know what happened, how or where their loved ones died. There may be no grave at which to stand in mourning, no chance to say goodbye.

There are others who do return home from conflict, broken, scarred, both physically and mentally, to families who may be equally traumatised by separation and fear. Theirs are the forgotten stories… and sometimes it needs a name or a face better known to highlight and illustrate the tragedy.

Bolebec House: Image: Stuart France

Whitchurch is typical of so many of our Buckinghamshire villages, built along the course of the major road out of town. It has the almost obligatory Norman church, the remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, a handful of holy wells, its fair share of half-timbered buildings and far more than its fair share of thatched cottages. Today it is home to around a thousand souls. Some, amongst the many who lived and served here, stand out.

Rex Whistler, self-portrait, circa 1934

Once, in the years of peace between the First and Second World Wars, Whitchurch was home to a young artist named Rex Whistler. He lived at Bolebec House, a beautiful old building whose back lawn nestles in the shadow of the old Norman castle, looking out across the valley. In 1933, Rex painted that scene, a painting now known as The Vale of Aylesbury, and famously used it as part of the advertising campaign for Shell.

One of the “Bright Young Things” of the 20s, Rex, a man of great charm, had made a name for himself as an artist, designer and illustrator as well as painting the portraits of the rich and famous and accepting commissions for murals. When war broke out, he was a successful artist and thirty five years old. He joined the army, and, in June 1940, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the  Welsh Guards.  On the 18th July 1944, he left his tank to go to the aid of other men in his unit, he was killed by a mortar bomb and lies in the military cemetery of Banneville-la-Campagne. He never came home.

At the far end of the chocolate-box village of Whitchurch, they played with bombs and explosives at The Firs. The house had been built in 1897 for Charles Gray who had served as an officer with the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa.

By the outbreak of WWII, The Firs was owned by Major Arthur Abrahams, from whom it was requisitioned to serve as a part of Ministry of Defence 1 (MD1), also known as “Churchill’s Toyshop”. Housing around two hundred and fifty people, the Firs was part of a British weapon research and development project, responsible for dreaming up weapons like the limpet mine and anti-tank weapons… such as the one that killed Whistler. There could be no clearer indication of how humankind brings tragedy upon itself…

Joyce Anstruther, better known as Jan Struther

Just a few doors away from Whistler’s residence is Whitchurch House. This was the childhood home of Joyce Anstruther, a name unknown to most. She is better known as Jan Struther, who not only wrote some of our best-loved childhood hymns, such as “Lord of All Hopefullness”,”When a Knight Won His Spurs” and “Daisies are Our Silver”… songs which take me straight back to Assembly at school… she also created the character Mrs Miniver as a newspaper column for The Times.

Mrs Miniver was supposed to be an ordinary suburban housewife, but when the war began, her remit subtly changed, reflecting the changing world. The columns were eventually released as a book which became a real success, particularly in the US, which was still maintaining its neutrality at that time. Winston Churchill is credited with saying that the book had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships and that the book (and later the film) was worth “six divisions of war effort.”

I have to wonder whether Jan Struther would have been glad about bringing the United States into the war, placing so many more at risk…or simply glad to see some end in sight?

Whitchurch House: Image: Stuart France

Then the movie rights were acquired by M.G.M who went on to make Mrs Miniver.

The movie, released in 1942 and rushed into theatres at the behest of President Roosevelt, touched hearts, especially across America, by showing how the war was affecting every corner of every family, in every village and street in Britain. The war was no longer some distant and hungry beast, growling in the night, but a persistent predator, taking away all that was most loved and cherished.

Even Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, wrote of the film that  while saying not one word against Germany, the film managed to become a powerful weapon against his regime.

Jan Struther, born Joyce Anstruther, later became Joyce Maxtone Graham and finally Joyce Placzek. She died of cancer in New York, in 1953 at the age of fifty two. She did come home and her ashes are interred beside those of her father in the family grave in Whitchurch.

Three stories… three different faces of war from one sleepy village. And yet, there is one thing they all share…they would all have recognised and agreed with the sermon a local vicar gives at the end of the film… and it has a relevance and resonance still today, though our wars are fought as much in the corridors of power as they are on the battlefield… and our search for discernment and truth remains our most urgent necessity.

“The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely, you must have asked yourselves this question? Why, in all conscience, should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

“I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead, they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down.“

Lest we forget…

&nbsp

Voices in the Mist (1)

We had never been to the First World War monuments and graves in northern France. As a young man, I considered them part of a national mindset that glorified war. But, over the decades, that view was moderated and I realised that such places are the result of something much deeper in the national psyche.

And not just national. Like a vast whirlpool, WW1 drew in polarising forces from across the world as the British Commonwealth and its allies faced the might of the armies of Wilhelm, the last Kaiser and Emperor of Prussia. The opening picture is from the deeply moving Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge – to which the second post in this series will be dedicated.

But the first part of our journey was the road up the hill from the small town of Amblain St. Nazaire to the French monument of Notre Dame de Lorette. As we climbed the hill the mist thickened. It was fitting weather to come face to face with a part of France that has been the focus of such intense emotion and international remembrance.

(Above: Notre Dame de Lorette Basilica with its lines of war graves is only part of this hilltop cemetery)

Notre Dame de Lorette is the name of the French Military Cemetery on top of the ridge which was the scene of so much conflict and death in the ‘Great War’. The name applies to the ridge, the basilica and the French national cemetery building. The hump-backed ridge stands nearly 170 metres above the surrounding land and the nearby town of Arras, which I wrote about in the last blog. This hill and Vimy ridge are the most dominant features of this otherwise flat part of northern France.

(Above: It would be hard to describe how cold the freezing mist was…but the sense of ‘rightness’ was complete – the cold horror of what happened along this ridge, and what happens when mankind forgets the power of the dark side of our nature)

Two buildings appear on the left-hand side of the road as you approach the cemetery. First the basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette, then, behind it, a tall tower, known as the Lantern Tower. They form an odd pair… until you stand in the space between them and something dramatic happens.

This part of the ridge has long been consecrated ground. Centuries ago, it was the site of a miraculous cure and gained the name of Notre Dame de Lorette because of the association of the miracle with the Virgin Mary. The present building is really a basilica built in the Romano-Byzantine style but retained the name of ‘chapel’ to honour the older tradition. It is unusual in that the small altar of the chapel is located outside the building at the entrance to the east door. The Notre Dame de Lorette statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus stands next to the main altar inside the chapel.

Sadly, the basilica was closed for maintenance during our visit, so we had to be content with a tour of the exterior and the space between chapel and tower. But this did give us time to consider several of the beautiful inscriptions on the walls of both buildings.

(Above: the twin stone date markers flank the approach to the ‘chapel’ (really Basilica) of Notre Dame de Lorette)
(Above: up close, the Basilica is much larger than it looks on the approach. Sadly, it was closed for maintenance on the day we visited..)

Between the Chapel/Basilica and its associated tower is what can only be described as vast ‘plain’ paved in the same sandstone as the entrance walkway. Nearer the chapel, but dividing the two structures is what appears to be mausoleum which draws the eye from both in a way reminiscent of Egyptian temples..

(Above: the proximity of chapel to ‘mausoleum’ belies the relationship to the lantern tower, which is only appreciated when you look the other way…)

The ‘red plain’ – whose symbolism is later obvious, but not immediately grasped, is a completely flat surface and draws the eye outside of a human frame of reference and into the ‘spiritual’ world, beyond. Before turning to look at the tower, a larger context needs to be held in the mind and heart: that given on the side of the basilica in the photo below. Bearing in mind its religious link with the Virgin Mary; no stranger, herself, to suffering…

(Above: the engraved message from the eternal self fighting to stay sane in a world of seemingly endless violence)

My French is limited, but Sue has lent a hand: “To thee who from the heart of pain gave birth to Holy Hope, to thee this temple born of tears… Offered by the women of France…”

It just gets to you… In the freezing fog, with tears in my eyes, having grasped some of the import of the inscription and with my un-gloved hands hurting with cold while I held the camera, I turned, in order to look across the ‘red plain’ to grasp the importance of the Lantern Tower. But my eyes were captured by the ‘mausoleum’ building next to where I was standing.

(The ‘mausoleum’ reveals itself as something more…)

The significance of the supposed mausoleum becomes apparent at this point. The sheathed crossed-swords of valour are stationed outside this portico, whose purpose is solely to house the external altar of the ‘Mother Mary’. The relationship is to the words written on the facing walls of the ‘chapel’.

(Above: the twin swords of valour are sheathed in the stone)
(Above: Finally, the eyes are drawn to the Lantern Tower in the near-distance)

The Lantern Tower has, as its name suggests, a light at the top. Louis Cordonnier designed it to revolve five times each minute, once darkness falls… It’s a very poignant monument, and sits 150 feet high, above what is already the highest point on the ridge. The Lantern Tower was inaugurated in August 1925. Until recently, the 200 internal steps could be climbed by visitors, but the viewing gallery at the top has been closed for security reasons.

(Above: the Lantern Tower – light from a dramatic structure…)

The light from the Lantern Tower can be seen for 45 miles – encompassing all the local battlefields at the time of WW1. The base of the tower is a 25 metre square which frames a crypt containing the remains of 6,000 soldiers and a chapel of rest.

A container for relics was placed in the tower in April 1955. It contains soil and ashes from the concentration camps of World War II.

But the left-hand side of the road does not encompass the whole of the monument. Across the way, and only opened in 2014, is a vivid reminder of the horrors of war, and a moving memorial to all those who died in WW1. The French government decided that a monument of total inclusion was appropriate. This means that the names of the fallen among the ‘enemy’ were included in the monument’s role to the casualties of WW1.

(Above: the first of the alphabetic panels in the ‘Round Monument’ : L’Anneau de la Memoire

Such an inclusive approach may be our only hope to prevent such catastrophes in the future: to regard all people involved in wars as victims, and thereby point back along the chain of causality to the real causes… ego, power and bullying in human nature.

The name of Wilfred Owen, one of the most celebrated of the ‘war poets’, who died one week before the end of WW1.

Written on the entrance to the circular monument is written this:

“The 580,000 names are listed in alphabetical order, without distinction between rank or nationality, former enemies and friends side by side……. This memorial was erected in a peaceful Europe in memory of a terrible tragedy which devastated a generation of young men, who for the most part could read and write.

L’Anneau de la Memoire”

“Who for the most part could read and write…” a poignant and telling end to the dedication to an entire generation.

Our time had run out. We were due in Calais in a few hours. But we had found out that, nearby, was another major memorial site: that of the Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge – the site of one of the major battles of WW1. We decided to steal some time and make the short journey.

It was to be one of the best decisions we could have made… and brought us face to face with what I’ve come to think of as one of the most dramatic of monumental sculptures in the world.

The Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge. See Part Two of this series.

To be concluded in Part Two.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.