It’s never going to be easy comprehending some 900,000 obscenely young soldiers losing their lives, in atrocious conditions, a long way from home. Not forgetting the two million injured in a war feted to end all wars. On November 11 2018, however, world leaders, royals, the public will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and mourn their dead. But it’s different this year; it feels different.
An entire century has passed since time was called, one hundred years, but somehow it’s not solely about time. It’s about focus. There’s been a shift. A quiet dialogue is crescendoing as the Armistice commemoration draws closer. This year we’re talking about the people. It’s about people. And it’s become a national conversation.
In Worcester, Geoff Hill, church warden of St Stephen’s church in the parish of Barbourne St Stephen writes ‘The death of each soldier was an individual, personal event which should not be undervalued, overlooked or unremembered.’
Geoff has every right to this view. In 2015, mindful of the 86 fading names on the church’s war memorial Geoff, his wife and two friends went to Ypres, Messines, Passchendaele, Langemark, and Poperinge to see first-hand the battlefields and find the people. The dead young men would have been local lads, many attending St Stephen’s church, living in surrounding streets, working in local businesses, playing football for local teams and just old enough to have a beer ‘down the local’. Geoff writes ‘We wanted to see where they had served and where they are now either buried or – where there is no known grave – where they are commemorated.’
Visiting 19 cemeteries they found 31 graves of Barbourne and St Stephen’s men. Finding more amongst the 54,397 names inscribed on The Menin Gate, memorial to the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in Ypres Salient, whose graves are unknown.
Geoff was so moved by this visit he’s compiled a St Stephen’s Book of Remembrance, curating information and pictures on the lives of every soldier of the parish who perished in the Great War. It is kept in the church for anyone to view.
He says “At each remembrance we always see Rudyard Kipling’s poignant words ‘their name liveth for evermore’; but after visiting the war cemeteries we all felt that it’s the life behind the name that is more relevant.”
Geoff’s pilgrimage fired up the congregation. A desire to keep the momentum going is being realised. There’s a call out for 86 poppies, one for each dead soldier, to be crafted by the knitters and crocheters of the parish. The poppies are coming in thick and fast and a weeping window is looking likely.
One poppy in particular pulled the past and present together. It was knitted by Barbara Smith, who lives in Bevere, to remember her uncle Wally.
The family had unearthed a heart-breaking letter from the trenches from Wally to his sister Ada. It’s full of hope and courage; interspersed with family gossip – the state of his mum’s false teeth; his excitement about going for his commission – all jockeying with understated details of brushes with death … ‘he’d just ‘been over the top’.
Within days of sending it, 19 year-old Lance Corporal Walter Davis of the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment was dead. Armistice was to come just weeks later.
The significance of Wally’s short life, his sacrifice, touched Barbara’s 58 year-old son Stephen. He spent two years planning a road trip with his friends Jimmy Currie and David Smith from Kirkconnel in Scotland, where he now lives. This summer the trio got on their Harleys and motored 2000 miles through six countries, choosing to include Germany, to visit the war graves of Stephen and Jimmy’s great uncles.
At Prospect Hill Cemetery, near Gouy in France, they found Wally.
The men laid three poppies.
Stephen says “I just lent over and patted the headstone. It was like it was part of me and part of our whole family.
He explains “There was a real sense of it being right that we were there. It was journey’s end.”
In St Stephen’s church perhaps the most moving tribute to life is the ‘Spreckley Brothers Chalice’. The eminent Worcester brewing family lost three sons in the war: Lieutenant Ralph Lessingham Spreckley aged 21; Captain Arthur Freer Spreckley aged 27and Lieutenant Guy Lessingham Spreckley, aged 27. They were survived by Lieutenant Herbert Malcolm Spreckley, the only naval officer. Their mother Florence commissioned the chalice. It has three rows of sapphires, one row for each dead son, and is used in the church services.
Parishioner Vivien Greenow says “Every time I take Communion I think of those boys; every time.”
The parish has got to know its dead and is taking steps to refresh their memorial so all names are clear for future generations. And in those two minutes of perfect stillness, on November 11 2018, a congregation will laud and remember its 86 lost lives.
As published in Worcester News: November 11, 2018 https://www.worcesternews.co.uk/news/17216052.soldiers-letter-home-unearthed-by-family/