And so the centenary of the Great War, the War to End All Wars comes to its conclusion. This is a companion to my earlier posts, marking the start of hostilities in August 2014 and on the 1st of July 2016.
This blog is about our travels. Lynne and I have seen great religious monuments, like and the , monuments to power, like the , and monuments to love like the . But we have also seen grimmer monuments and visited places that make you stop and think; the bombed-out streets of , the and the industrialised horror of all ask terrible questions about the nature of humanity. So does the cemetery strewn countryside of northern France.
And the Great War, the one that did not quite end all wars, has its monuments, too.
|Canadian Memorial, Vimy Ridge|
|Canadian graveyard, Vimy Ridge|
|Memorial plaque on the council office, Sao Bras|
|Memorial plaque, Sao Bras|
But perhaps this is a day for a traveller to be at home. Swynnerton in Staffordshire is today a one pub, two churches, one post office village (and we are lucky to still have our pub and post office). It has some 750 residents, most of whom (myself included) live on the 1970s housing estate, or the recent additions adjacent to it. In 1918 Swynnerton was far smaller, barely more than a hamlet, but it was an important hamlet as it contained Swynnerton Hall, home to Francis Fitzherbert, the 12th Baron Stafford (and now home to Francis Fitzherbert, the 15th Baron Stafford - economising on names helps when you have a big house to run). It had the same pub and churches but rather more businesses than the present village.
It also has a war memorial, on a patch of grass outside the parish church of St Mary.
Thirteen names are inscribed on the pedestal. A couple of years ago Lynne did some research on these names for a presentation on ‘Swynnerton through the Wars.’ Thanks to that research we can zoom in on two of the names.
|Captain Charles Wood on the Swynnerton War Memorial|
Charles had been a territorial officer since 1909 and was sent to France in 1914 with the First Battalion, Royal Welch (sic) Fusiliers. He was soon mentioned in dispatches and his battalion spent January and February 1915 dug in on the Ypres sector. They then moved just across the French border to participate in General Haig’s spring offensive. The offensive started on the 10th of March with an attack on the French village of Neuve Chappelle.
Although intelligence reports suggested Neuve Chapelle was thinly defended, taking the village required three days and cost 17,000 lives. Captain Wood died on the second day.
The attack gained less than a square mile of territory, but was hailed by banner headlines at home proclaimed it a great step on the road to victory.
Wood and his older brother had been brought up in Meece House. His father had all the trappings of commercial success; a household of loyal servants, tenant farmers on his land and a chauffeur-driven Sunbeam. The car was a familiar sight at St Mary’s where he was churchwarden. He presumably expected Charles to inherit both his pottery and his position in local and county society but any plans they had ended at Neuve Chapelle. Charles’ older brother John, who had always been in poor health, died 8 months later in November 1915.
Their grief-stricken father Edward did not survive much longer, but before he died, he and their mother placed a memorial on the road outside Meece Hall.
|Wood memorial outside Swynnerton Training Camp|
|Inscription on the memorial outside Swynnerton Training Camp|
|Wood Memorial, St Mary's Swynnerton|
|Swynnerton Roses garden and Wood memorial|
George Bennett was born in Swynnerton in the spring of 1889, two doors away from the Fitzherbert Arms.
|George Bennett's birthplace, Swynnerton|
His family had worked on the land for generations but his father had become the local wheelwright. When George was born his mother already had by two young children, Elizabeth and John. Like many old Swynnerton families (including the aristocratic Fitzherberts) the Bennetts were Catholics and worshipped at Our Lady of the Assumption
George trained as a wheelwright with his father…
|Swynnerton's old smithy and wheelwright's shop jsut across the road from the Bennett's cottage.|
Idle for many years they are waiting for someone to find a use for them.
… and became engaged to Beatrice Gosling, eldest daughter of the landlord of the Fitzherbert Arms.
|The Fitzherbert Arms, Swynnerton|
The extention may have come after Gerorge's time, the large windows are a very recent addition
When war came, he joined up and served first with the Royal Horse Artillery and then with the Ammunition Column of the Royal Field Artillery. They were engaged in battles across France, but in 1917 were stationed at Poperinge in Belgium, seven miles from Ypres.
George’s job was to take ammunition to the front line, a difficult enough task without the rains that forced heavily-laden horse-drawn carts to sink to their axles.
On the 8th July 1917 George wrote to his fiancée Beatrice,
My dear lover,
I know you will be looking forward to hearing from me, hoping you are all well enjoying the best of health. Well Darling, the weather is broken here now having a fair amount of rain, & a fine very heavy thunder storme.
Well Darling, I’m wondering how you are getting on with the harvest, I do hope you will have good weather, & be able to get a little assistance. The crops behind the firing line lines are looking well, the heavy storme have battered the corn down badly. The crops are much the same as in Blighty not so much grazing land, a good few hops being grown here, also a little chicory which the French People use for the coffee, they don’t drink much tea, you don’t see the fireplaces like ours they have stoves, which stand out nearly in the centre of the room.
We are well behind the firing line here, but Mr Fritz sends us a few souvenirs over pretty often with his long rangers, however I am have thankful to say, he has not got the right range, I expect I shall be going up with Ammn to night, it is indeed the worst Battle Front that I have had since I been out here, however I live in hope that the one above will guide us safely through.
Well Dear, I wonder what you are doing at this present moment, you are absent in body angel, but never absent in mind, how I am longing to be with you, & to comfort to love and to cherish you, no matter how long we have to be apart, you will always have a good true lover, & God does not grant us, to be united in this world, may we be united in the next.
I could tell you a great deal, but us you know I have not the privilege, however amidst all things, I am, thankful to say I am in good health & spirits, & living in hope of returning to you. Well Darling, I am looking forward to hear from you, & to know that you are all well, also please forward me your dear Brother’s address I have not heard from him again. I don’t think he is very far away from here.
Cigs are cheaper here than in Blighty. I should have written you a few days ago only I have been waiting to get one of these envelops, we are only allowed one once a fortnight, you see dear our business is not so exposed in one of these. I am just going to write my dear Father and Mother a few lines, hoping they are well, & not worrying about me.
Well angel cheer up, I am alright, and having a good life & considering the facilities, when I hope we may all meet together again & live in happy days. In conclusion I desire you to give my kind regards to all at home, & hope to hear from you soon.
Au-soir & God bless you darling
Pray for me
Your Ever loving boy
George x x x x
With Heaps of hugs and kisses
Somewhere in France but near the border of ( )
There are fore of us in the house
One Catholic besides my self
The other are harness cleaning. It does not seem like a Sabbath day.
George was killed the following day at the age of 28
During her research Lynne made contact with Gabrielle, who now lives in Buckinghamshire but is the grand-daughter of Beatrice Gosling and her husband John Bennett, George’s elder brother whom she married in 1922. Gabrielle showed Lynne a copy of the letter and kindly allowed it to be used in 'Swynnerton through the Wars' and has agreed to its use here. The typescript reproduces the spelling, punctuation and little slips of George’s handwritten original.
On the 9th of July 1924, Beatrice Bennett, née Gosling. gave birth to a son – Gabrielle’s father - whom they named George. Sadly, John Bennett died of head injuries in 1926 after a bicycle accident. Beatrice never remarried but she brought up her son, enjoyed her grandchildren and attended mass regularly. She died in 1990 aged 99.
War is not about politicians, generals and armies, it is about people. Without fear or favour it kills the rich and well-connected as easily as the humble wheelwright - and it destroys families.
The Great War killed 10 million soldiers on all sides and 8 million civilians. Each one deserves to be remembered like Charles Wood and George Bennett.
Would it have been worth it had been the War to End All War? Perhaps, but it wasn’t.
One final thought: it is easy to blame politicians for wars, but when war was declared in 1914 people across Europe were out on the streets cheering. The nationalism that caused the wars of 1914 and 1939 is on the rise again, in Russia and the USA, in Hungary, Italy, Germany and other European countries, including here, at home. Never again is up to us, all of us.
WW1 Centenary Posts
Ypres, Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate (1914/2014)
The Somme, One Hundred Years Ago Today (1916/2016)
The Eleventh hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month (1918/2018)