Remembering The Great War

London - Part One

I'm with fellow First World War researcher Alan Seymour, and the only plan marked out in the sand today is to visit the several war memorials that can be seen on the Victoria Embankment. Whatever else fills our notebooks and cameras this chilly, but dry end of May day, will be purely on an 'as it comes' basis.

Situated as it is next door, it is sometimes difficult to get into St Margaret's (the parish church of the House of Commons since 1614) due to the endless queues formed up outside prior to opening time at Westminster Abbey. But never miss this splendid church when in London. Here in one form or another since the middle of the twelfth century and with us still - thanks to the irate parishioners, armed to the teeth with clubs and bows that, in around 1549 drove off workmen sent by Protector Somerset to demolish the building. Its stone required for the construction of Somerset House.

On the south side of the organ we see the first of three brass plaques commemorating former choristers killed in the Great War. Here is Private Frederick Henry McNally of the London Scottish, who 'fell severely wounded near Cambrai' on 21st November 1917. He had served, according to one source, with the Red Cross Society and had only been with his regiment for less than a year.

And now let's look at another church member. Rifleman Frederick Henry Ramsay who from 1907-1917 was regularly seen at St Margaret's. Not only as a chorister, but as sidesman and clerk. He was to be killed near Gentelles, France on 31st March 1918.

Seven other choir members are commemorated on a separate brass. Here is Leslie Henry of the Queen Victoria Rifles, killed on the Somme in October 1916, and Reg Still, a Royal Fusilier who was one of the many lost when the 9th Battalion attacked Bayonet Trench in that same month and campaign; Stanley Syms, another 1916 loss and a gunner this time; winner of the Military Medal Henry Hayward, a young Company Sergeant Major who fell at Bapaume with the 8th Rifle Brigade in April 1917; Arthur Hider of the South Staffordshire, killed a month later on 27th May; Eric Newman of the 2nd Suffolk Regiment at Crevecourt during the Battle of Cambrai on 8th October 1918 and Cyril Cozens who served with 'C' Company of the London Rifle Brigade. Killed three days later in the same battle. Younger than the forty-year-old Fred McNally or his friend Henry Ramsay who was thirty-five, the ages of these seven young men range from nineteen to twenty-three. But now to the Victoria Embankment.

It looked across the Thames to the Festival of Britain site once, that wondrous show that in the early 1950s was to lift us all out of the gloomy war years, but now Sir Reginald Bloomfield's (designer) and William Reid Dick's (sculptor) memorial to the Air Forces of the Great War watches as people from all over the world take a look at London from the air again. This time via the London Eye. 'In memory of all ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force and those Air Forces from every part of the British Empire who gave their lives in winning victory for their King and Country, 1914-1918' - so says the inscription. But that great golden eagle, there since 1923, now also remembers those of another war.

More of Sir Reginald Bloomfield's work (sculptures by Victor Rousseau this time) can be seen just along the Victoria Embankment and across from Cleopatra's Needle. Set back from the pavement and in its own Portland Stone surround, the subject this time is a Belgian women accompanied by a boy and girl carrying garlands. And the commemoration, well once again the inscription tells all: 'To the British Nation from the grateful people of Belgium, 1914-1918'.

Unveiled in 1920, and the work of Major Cecil Brown, just along the road in Victoria Embankment Gardens a member of the Imperial Camel Corps sits astride his mount. And there too are the names of the 346 members of the corps that died. Set out in columns and according to which battalion they served. There are men from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Indian troops and others from the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery. We can also see the places in which they died: Romani, Baharia, Mazar and El Arish from 1916, the two Gaza battles of 1917 and action at Hill 265 in the same year, and in the final year of the war, Amman and the Jordan Valley. These are just some of them.

There is more to see on the Victoria Embankment, but the sight of Covent Garden and St Paul's Church is well worth a detour. Through Carting Lane, where a plaque set into the wall of the Savoy Theatre tells us that this was the first public building to be lighted with electricity, then into Southampton Street where for many years night became day as the fruit and vegetable market did its work. St Paul's. Here since 1631 and the burial place of the first know victim of the Great Plague, is the 'Actors Church'. Its walls reading like a who's who of stage and screen. But it also has connections with the Royal Naval Division whose survivors held their annual memorial service there from 1920 onwards. A polished wood tablet close to the altar reminds us of this fact.

Over on the south wall a stone tablet sets out the names of those connected with the church and area that lost their lives in the Great War. First we see the name of the Rector of St Paul's, the Revd. E.H. Mosse who was killed during an air raid. The parishioners come next and there are thirty-seven of those. One, the memorial notes, being killed 'on war work' while two others perished in an air raid. And the men that worked in the market are not forgotten. First see their names, there are seventy-one in total, then look back to the top of the memorial where neatly carved is a basket of mixed fruit. Before leaving St Paul's, note, on the stairs leading down to the crypt, the thirty-eight names (there are some for the Second World War too) of those from the old Holy Trinity Church, Kingsway that fell 1914-1918.

We really are making our way towards the Embankment now, but sidetracked once again, we find ourselves heading first towards Somerset House where I expect to find in the courtyard that wonderful memorial (complete with regimental flags in full colour) commemorating the 1,240 dead of the 15th London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles). Here at Somerset House the regiment was formed in 1860, its early companies-'A' (Audit Office), 'B' and 'C' (Post Office), 'D' and 'E' (Inland Revenue), etc. all occupying offices in this fine building of 1776. But where is the memorial?

The courtyard today giving room to what looks like a series of burst water pipes - but are called fountains and, if you go there in a January, turn into a ice skating rink. Moved for these 'improvements', this fine column-Pevsner describes it as 'a characteristic Lutyens design of 1922' - can now be seen on the Thames side of the building where it was rededicated in July 2002.

Set into the Thames embankment wall, and placed there originally to the memory of the officers and men of the British Navy who lost their lives serving in submarines during the First World War-inscriptions now cover those of 1939-1945 - a circular bronze bas-relief sculpture is featured showing the interior of an early submarine. The artists, F. Brook Hatch and A.H. Ryan, doing much to illustrate the cramped conditions of such vessels. And all around there are Nereids (those daughters of Nereus and sea nymphs of Greek mythology) which are flanked by the figures of Truth and Justice and lists of those submarines that were lost. And what better to hang wreaths on than those bronze anchors set into the wall either side of the memorial. A memorial that, on the seventieth anniversary of its unveiling in 1922, was itself commemorated with the addition of the small plaque seen below the main one.

We head north again and to the Strand where those two island churches sit encircle by a sea of busy London traffic. St Mary-le-Strand, and just before Fleet Street, St Clement Danes.

Its foundation stone laid on 25th February, 1715, here at St Mary's can be seen the names of the fourteen parishioners that were killed in the Great War. Among them, and not to die in some foreign field, is a young Boy Scout. Edward Howard, who was killed in an air raid on 13th October 1915. Further down the church we see tucked away in a corner and almost missed a small brass plaque to Guardsman Frederick Harry Keyte. Survivor of the 3rd Coldstream attack outside Ginchy, France on 15th September 1916 in which some 361 of the battalion became casualties from machine guns located in the Sunken Road, but only to lose his life on the 23rd as the Coldstream awaited the next attack.

At St Clement Danes now (the Central Church of the Royal Air Force) there is much in memory of the part played by the British and Commonwealth Air Forces during World War Two. Including that most impressive display, set into the floor, of some 750 squadron badges carved from Welsh Slate. But there is something for the First World War and this in the form of a parish memorial listing the names of all those from the area that served. Those that lost their lives being identified by a cross. See it on the staircase leading down to the crypt.

At the Temple Church, where they talk of nothing else now but The Da Vinci Code - filmed in part here, and where Langdon and Neveu's search for the teacher begins - carved grotesque heads look down on the names of those from the Inner Temple that were killed. Over 300 of them, there down at the west end of the church and in the part called 'The Round' column after column are recorded in a cavern of Purbeck marble.

We return to Fleet Street, where the presses are now all silent, and from there two former postmen make their way up to St. Martin's Le Grand (home of the General Post Office, and for many years HQ of the old Post Office Rifles) and the 'Postman's Park' for a well earned sit down. Never miss this delightful place when in the City. Opened in 1880 and developed out of the graveyards of three old churches, it was here in 1887 that painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts conceived the idea of a national memorial to heroic men and women. Ordinary people who may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Their names and deeds to be set out in hand-lettered tiles.

Here we see Mary Rogers who was lost at sea after voluntarily giving up her lifebelt to save another, and thirteen-year-old Herbert Maconoghu who also drowned, this time in North Devon and while trying to save the lives of two of his school mates. Here are the savers of children from burning buildings, ladies from stampeding horses and someone who died of exhaustion having saved many from the freezing ice of Highgate Ponds. Here are heroic policemen, firemen, factory workers and railwaymen. But we must take note of those connected with the First World War of which there are two. Both policemen, we have Edward Greenoff who on 10th January 1917 died having saved many after an explosion in Silvertown. Then, just over five months later on 13th June, P.C. Alfred Smith lost his life while trying to save women and girls during an air raid. Never miss this beautiful place.

The old postmen on their feet again, we walk now to our last port of call for the day before signing out and going home. The ancient church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. The largest parish church in the City of London - Sir John Betjeman described it as 'high, wide and handsome' - and well know, perhaps, from the nursery rhyme. For here at St Sepulchre's are the 'Bells of Old Bailey'. We are in the 'Musicians' Church' where Sir Henry Wood as a young boy of fourteen learnt to play the organ. His ashes are here now and, in the Musicians' Chapel they are in good company with fine windows dedicated to Dame Nellie Melba and English composer John Ireland. But this church is also the Royal Fusiliers Church and there all along the south aisle are its old Colours. Laid up and allowed to fade away as intended. There are books of Remembrance here too and a general memorial tablet to parishioners killed during the Great War.

Another regiment to be remembered at St Sepulchre's is the 6th London Regiment. Formed in the City of London in 1860 and for many years known, due to its association with the newspaper and printing industry, as the 'Printers Battalion'. At the west end of the church wood panelling serves as its memorial and close by a battered wooden cross is another reminder of fine service. For this relic once stood, until it was replaced in February 1919 by a more permanent memorial, on the battlefield at Loos where it marked the graves of almost one hundred officers and men from the regiment that fell there on 25th September 1915.

Copyright © Ray Westlake June, 2006

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