The end of an era

On Monday 18th January, Wymeswold said goodbye to Miss Elsie Hubbard. She was a village treasure.

In her 96 years, she had never travelled more than a few miles from Wymeswold. Yet she was respected, admired and loved for her knowledge and experience.

She had worked in agriculture and associated trades all her life, and would speak with authority about beasts, crops, cheese and dogs. She had seen generations of village children grow up, marry, and sometimes die. She knew all the old families, and who was related to whom, and how.

She was the daughter of Eustace Hubbard and the niece of Albert Hubbard, who both survived the Great War. Her uncle Ernest is remembered on the Menin Gate. She was incredibly helpful when I was researching ‘Bringing Them Home’, and also put me in touch with Albert’s son in Australia. I will always be grateful to her.

She will be very much missed.

Loughborough’s religion, 1919

Part of the ongoing Ph.D. project is to write up a series of case studies, looking at the religion of ‘ordinary’ people through their headstone inscriptions and newspaper ‘In Memoriam’ notices.

This one represents a sample of the Loughborough Echo 1918-1919. Around 148 notices were picked up (courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive – not cheap, but worth it to me). With the details (name, initial, date of death, regiment etc) I got hold of the CWGC records, which produced 96 Personal Inscriptions.

Here comes the subjective bit. I went through the inscriptions and notices, analysing where there was any form of religious content. For example, a reference to an afterlife constitutes religion. This is not an attempt to assess the nature of the theology of ordinary people. In fact, I am possibly extending the notion of ‘diffusive’ religion as perceived by Mike Snape further into the realm of the kind of ‘folk religion’ that people like Jay Winter, or a religious anthropologist like Douglas Davies, would identify.

Therefore, ‘RIP’, or ‘Rest in Peace’ becomes a religious statement. It does not imply a full-blown Christian belief, grounded in generally accepted doctrine, still less an identification with any denominational interpretation of doctrine or liturgy. It implies however a belief in something that continues, and a need to reach out to tried and tested expressions of that belief.

A lot came out of this study, but here are a few things.

  1. We are very far removed from the social and spiritual milieu of a hundred years ago. We may think we speak the same language, use the same metaphors, but the depth to which religion was embedded in the lives of people at the time is something we just do not understand.
  2. All the headstones carry the incised cross – the default religious emblem provided by the IWGC. True, families who did not want the cross had to delete it on their Final Verification form, and to request a substitute – the Star of David was readily accepted, though the Salvation Army badge was not. (That’s another story). The fact that all the families agreed to have the cross is in itself significant. You can argue I suppose that some just didn’t read the form carefully, but I think it speaks to a general desire to use a religious symbol to express remembrance and respect. We need symbols, and in 1919 those symbols were religious, and would inevitably carry religious overtones with them.
  3. By the way, it is wrong to think that an absence of the cross means the family were atheist or even agnostic. Plenty of Protestants objected to using the cross on religious grounds – see my study on the Moon brothers.
  4. The language of memorialisation at the time was peppered with religious allusions that we have no connection with. Phrases like ‘Peace, perfect peace’, ‘Not lost, but gone before’, ‘The circle of our home is broken’ may evoke some emotion in us, but in 1919 they would have been recognised as lines from well-know hymns, evoking the music and the whole message of the hymn, and the social setting of church or chapel, as well.
  5. Bear in mind that the vast majority of children would’ve attended Sunday School, and that although adults did not necessarily attend services, they would all have memories of learning scripture, hymns or catechism by rote.
  6. The interesting thing, from my point of view, was that the majority of the In Memoriam notices had no religious references. There were many references to heroism, loss, and grief, of course, and these were the majority. It also seems that a large number of verses, or lines, were borrowed from a single, or just a few sources, as though there was a ‘pattern book’ to draw on. If there was, I haven’t found it yet.
  7. On the other hand, when people came to write the headstone inscriptions (and granted this would have been a year or two later), they seem to have reached for their bibles, or hymn books. The balance now is in favour of religious expression – rarely chapter and verse,  though the ‘Greater love hath no man…’ (John 15:13) and its variants are fairly common.
  8. While some of these expressions (e.g. ‘Rest in Peace’) may still occur on gravestones (though very rarely – modern inscriptions are more likely to record the attributes of the deceased – ‘much loved’ etc.
  9. Overall, the significance of religion in the memorialising of the WW1 dead needs to be tackled head-on. Religion, though not necessarily churchmanship, played a fundamental role in shaping the consciousness of our grandparents and great-grandparents. At times of crisis, it was to the ‘words of power’ and to the traditions of their childhood that they turned.

The photograph features the grave of Frederick Robinson (died of wounds in hospital 1918) in Loughborough Cemetery.

The Moon Brothers


John Headstone IMG_3677

I’m just finishing a case study on the four Moon Brothers, of Southborough,near Tunbridge Wells. Harry died of wounds on 2nd June 1916, followed by Walter on 4th July, and Charles and John (Jack) on 14th August. So their parents lost all of them within 10 weeks or so. Unbelievable sadness. Four other children remained at home; Ethel, Nellie, Ruth and Herbert (the youngest, aged 7).

Apart from the personal tragedy of the story, and the kind invitation of the family to look at their archive, the story intrigued me because they were all Strict and Particular Baptists. Further, all of them (unusually, statistically,) had identifiable graves, and the parents had chosen texts for the headstone inscriptions.

I am greatly indebted to the fine book ‘With Mercy and With Judgement’ about the Strict Baptists in WW1 by Dr Matthew Hyde. Also to the Ph.D. thesis of the late Dr Kenneth Dix, and to the recent book ‘Amid This Gigantic Sorrow’ by Dr Dix and his daughter Judith James. It deals with the same subject, but using many different sources, and/or in different ways.

Unlike the major denominations, the Strict Baptists have no hierarchy, so there is no authoritative Strict Baptist ‘view’ of the war. On the other hand, of course, other churches held widely differing internal views of the conflict. Nevertheless, in practical terms, the Strict Baptists overwhelmingly felt that it was right to prosecute the war to a conclusion.

However, some published letters of three of the boys, and the headstone texts, reveal a deep level of thought and prayer about not only the war, but the individual’s place in it, and most of all their relationship with Christ in the turmoil and slaughter.

It’ll go off to my supervisor when I’ve tidied up the notes and references. I hope he thinks it’s useful!


Amport Conference 2018

Just returned from the conference at the Royal Army Chaplains Dept. at Amport House.

A provocative theme this year: Lessons Never Learned? Western Military Power on Religious Terrain. Yes, there was discussion about Iraq and Afghanistan, but also talks on methodist chaplains in the late nineteenth century, the influence of the Sunday Schools on the soldiers of WW1, and the negotiations with German bishops in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Jonathan Lewis gave a particularly humbling account of the work of several Jewish chaplains in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

In philosophical and reflective discussions, David Richardson discussed the view that neo-liberal economic thought had pervaded the moral and ethical dimension of people’s lives, with individual notions of self-worth and self-identification becoming marketed items that can change with the next round of selfies on social media. Mark Davidson looked at shame theory in international relations, and offered the view that, far from only applying to eastern cultures, as the West often thinks, the concept of shame (and ‘honour’, which is often the reverse of the same coin) is very much alive and operative in the West.

A great opportunity to consider the history of armed interventions – and implications for the future – in the presence of Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers, both chaplains and academics.

York University’s Cemetery Research Group: Colloquium 2018

My thanks to Dr Julie Rugg at the Cemetery Research Group, York University, for allowing me to present at the Group’s Colloquium in York on Friday 18th May 2018. Her encouragement and support made all the difference between ‘having a go’ and keeping all this to myself.

The presentation was entitled ‘The Kopje-crest and the Uniform Headstone’. It explored the links between the experience of the South African War (1899-1902) and the Imperial War Graves Commission after 1917. There is more about this in a separate article.

Here are some photos from the presentation. They are all cemeteries in France: Tranchee de Mecknes, Heilly and Warloy-Baillon. They were selected to show the similarities between IWGC war cemeteries (even though smaller ones do not have Lutyens’ Stone of Remembrance, and Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice may be smaller too). The other reason is that they each contain one of the Moon brothers. Four of them, in total, died in a 10-week period in 1916. But that’s another story.

Tranchee de MecknesHeillyWarloy Baillon

The Imperial War Graves Commission and the shadow of South Africa

Well, it’s taken a long time to get going. A lot of reading about secularisation in the 20th century, and more recently trying to understand the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the construction of a modern phenomenon – the Commonwealth War Cemetery. It is now so easy to assume ‘that’s how a war cemetery is done’ that we forget that it dates back just to 1917 and the formation of the Commission.

Or does it? Well, going back to the Crimean War and earlier, Other Ranks mostly do not get headstones, and often the war graves are communal ones – the journalist Russell describes a vast trench after the battle of Inkerman (1854) where the piles of British, French and Russian dead were just dumped.

Things really started to change with the second South African War (Boer War) of 1899-1902. Better communications, and the presence of large numbers of part-time soldiers (Territorials as we now call them) who would have been in close touch with families back home, probably created the climate for more interest in the burial of British troops. However, the major influence was the Guild of Loyal Women of South Africa. A passionately Imperialist organisation, run by upper class British ladies including the redoubtable Violet Cecil, it tried to provide a grave marker for as many soldiers as possible, regardless of rank or station in life. The cast iron crosses, with the soldier’s name and the Guild’s motto, ‘For King and Empire’ still exist in many instances. My thanks to Mike Tucker for this example.

LWG cross

But the South African influence doesn’t end there. Violet Cecil was a good friend (later the lover of) Lord Milner, another passionate Imperialist and High Commissioner to South Africa, in charge of reconstruction after the war. He gathered a group of talented and loyal young men around him, amongst whom was Fabian Ware, later the driving force behind the IWGC. Milner’s influence ran deep, both before and after WW1.

Meanwhile, Ware began his great Imperial project of establishing war cemeteries where every casualty would have the same recognition – ‘equality of sacrifice, equality of treatment’. As early as 1914, he approached Frederick Nevil Macready, then Adjutant-General of the British Army in France – but an ex-Boer War commander, who had once been offered a job by Milner (he turned it down). In 1917, Ware brought in Sir Herbert Baker, the leading architect who had spent 20 years in South Africa and had designed the memorial to the dead at Kimberley. Ware invited Rudyard Kipling to be a member of the IWGC, and he became its wordsmith and very effective publicist. Kipling had been a journalist in South Africa and knew all the key players there. When the IWGC project was threatened in 1920/21 by Violet Cecil’s sister-in-law Florence Cecil (wife of the Bishop of Exeter), Ware turned to another South Africa hand – the M.P. Burdett-Coutts who had been a Times journalist there. The Cecils (not Violet, she maintained a low profile in this) used their influence as sons of Lord Salisbury and cousins of Arthur Balfour to publicise Florence’s petition to the Prince of Wales for crosses, not headstones, for those who wished to pay for them.

The matter came to the Commons for debate, and Ware ensured that the Labour M.P. Harry Gosling (a member of the Commission) and Burdett-Coutts (Conservative) lobbied for the IWGC. It was Burdett-Coutts’ speech that finally saw off the challenge and ensured that equality of treatment would be carried through.

Fabian Ware’s powers of organisation, persuasion and lobbying were legendary and well documented. What is less well known is the profound experience of the South African War that he was able to draw on and mobilise through his contacts.

How it started….

How did I get into studying war and its effect on religion?


In 2014 I wrote a book about the 30 men from my village – Wymeswold –  who died in the Great War. Bringing Them Home is available from Amazon, or you can contact me via this website or message me on the Facebook page at @BTH.Wymeswold

I was looking through the vicar’s papers from just after the war, and he remarked that people seemed not to be so interested in religion as before.

There is also a widely held belief that the soldiers returned home in 1919 and decided that there was no God – how could a loving Creator have allowed so much carnage?

So I started looking into this.

Now, I’m engaged on a part time Ph.D. and I’ve learned a lot. For example, that religion – in terms of church or chapel attendance – probably peaked somewhere in the 1880s – well before the Great War. Also, that religion in the UK (Christianity, that is) didn’t nosedive until the 1960s. Again, the figures are largely about attendance, rather than belief.

There’s a lot more to discover, though. Like what ordinary people actually thought about religion. That’s proving difficult, because on the whole, ordinary people don’t write memoirs, or reflective accounts of their philosophy and theology.

This blog is going to be about the process of finding out.

It is not going to be a vehicle for discussing the existence of God – there are plenty of places on the web for both sides of that argument.

I was going to study the experience of ordinary people in a selection of villages in the UK. Part of that was to be a survey of headstones – an area where ordinary people (literally) left their mark. The more I thought about it, though, the more I became interested in the words that people used to express their grief and loss. So the project changed direction.

I was going to start with the Great War, and to end around 1950, after WW2. Four years later, I’ve still got far too much to write up just about the period from 1914-1929, so I guess WW2 will have to wait.

That’s the theory, anyway. It may well change again.

If you want to dip in and out of the journey, you’re very welcome.