two crosses

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly”

John McCrae

Hanging on the wall inside All Souls Church, Haliburton Road in north St Margarets, are two plain wooden crosses. They once stood in the mud of Flanders, over the makeshift graves of 2nd Lt Geoffrey Wilkins and Corporal Lawrence Richards, local men killed in the First World War. Following the Armistice, when the dead were gathered into formal cemeteries under uniform headstones, the two wooden crosses were sent back to the church that both men had attended. Now they stand like sentries on either side of a hand lettered Roll of Honour listing all the men from the parish who were killed in the Great War. Underneath the names is this carved caption:-

“In the year 1914 England waged war against Germany that faith should be kept between nations and life might be ordered by right and not by violence. For this end Englishmen left their homes and fought and suffered for 4 years. Amongst them men of this parish of whom 86 lost their lives in helping to gain the victory. Wherefore their names are enshrined above in grateful and loving memory and in hope that their deeds and sacrifice may inspire Englishmen for all time.”

Who were these 86 men from St Margarets? What do we know about them? There were the two Cope brothers, Robert and Henry, who lived in Northcote Road. They died within 2 months of each other. Robert, a private with the London Regiment, was 23 when he was killed in action in October 1916 at Thiepval. His older brother Henry died from wounds in December 1916 at Etaples the main British depot in France and location of the notorious “Bullring” training camps. He was 29 and a rifleman with the 29th Rifle Brigade.

Reginald Frederick lived in Haliburton Road. He was a private in the Middlesex Regiment and only 18 years old when he was killed at Thiepval in June 1916. Living almost directly opposite him was A.E Long, a lance corporal in the 2nd Dragoon Guards. He was 32 years old with a wife called Rose. If there was any comfort to be found in his death in May 1915 it is that he most probably died from wounds not on the Western Front but at the West Middlesex Hospital where his family could visit him. He is now buried in Isleworth Cemetery, just one of the 28 soldiers of the Great War buried there. Keeping him eternal company is Cyril Cuthbert Keene who lived in St Margarets Road. Cyril was 28 years old and a private in the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. He died just 16 days from the end of the war – on 27th October 1918, again most probably from wounds.

Another resident of Haliburton Road was James Hoare who was killed in the first few months of the war in December 1914. He was 19 years old and a private with the East Surreys. Because his body was never recovered James’ name is now recorded on the Menin Gate in Ypres, where every evening the local volunteer fire brigade continue the tradition established in July 1928 of playing the Last Post.

Alfred Richardson lived in Newry Road. He was the son of Alfred, a house painter and his wife Elizabeth. Alfred was a private with the Prince of Wales own Civil Service Rifles and was killed in September 1916. He is now buried in Rouen.

Then there were two men who lived almost door to each other in Northcote Road. Augustus Aubrey was a private with the Buffs (East Kent Regiment). He died in October 1917 and is now buried in the Tyne Cot Cemetery on the Ypres Salient. He was 19 years old. His neighbour and friend was Hugh Eva, the son of Charles Eva, a commercial clerk and his wife Emily. Hugh was a lance corporal in the Manchester Regiment. He was 26 when he was killed in May 1917. He is buried in Achiet-Le-Grand Communal Cemetery.

They were all ordinary working men, tradesmen and shopkeepers, clerks and and labourers, common soldiers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s Harry and Jack who “slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack”. They were husbands and lovers and brothers and mates. They had grown up together and together they had died. In spite of the economic recession that the country was experiencing in the years before the War, these men were fortunate. Living in smart new houses in the new and reasonably affluent suburb of St Margarets they weren’t driven into the Army because of financial necessity. They signed up because they felt it was their duty to do so.

Dying for your country doesn’t make you a hero and as war poet Wilfred Owen observed, it doesn’t offer glory or honour either – but who can imagine what courage it must have taken to face death every day in the horror of the trenches? Whatever else we may say about them it is undeniable that they were all remarkably brave men. So, when we walk the same streets that they once walked, past the houses that they once lived in, let us remember them.

“Here dead lie we because we did not choose To live and shame the land from which we sprung. Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; But young men think it is, and we were young.”

AE Housman

If you would like to see the two wooden crosses and the Roll of Honour All Souls Church will be open on Armistice Day, Tuesday 11th November, from 10.30am. At 11.00am Richard Frank, the minister at All Souls will conduct a short Act of Remembrance.

Records of the 1st World War are often inconsistent and contradictory but if you would like to know more about the 86 men whose names are on the All Souls Roll of Honour and their full addresses Laurence Mann has prepared a list of all the names with what information there is to be found in the 1901 census, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission databank, The Great War Forum and the Index of Birth Marriage and Death.

– Martyn Day