Sunday 17 January 2021

An English Parish Church - Crucible of Military History

Unable to venture far because of the current pandemic lockdown restrictions, I thought I would take a closer look at the church of Walton St Mary in Clevedon which is a few minutes walk from my home. English parish churches are crucibles of military history, and this one is - I suppose - fairly typical. Armed with a list of the Commonwealth War Graves for St Mary's I set out to see what I could find.

Walton St Mary Church, Clevedon

The first thing I discovered was that not all Commonwealth War Graves have the standard CWGC headstone. I've since learnt that the families of many casualties elected to mark the grave of their loved one with a bespoke memorial or headstone. Indeed, of the four CWGC plots at Walton St Mary, only one has the familiar CWGC headstone - Boatswain Edward James Neville Sawkins, who at the age of 61, was killed whilst serving with the Merchant Navy on the M.V. Robert F. Hand, an oil tanker operating out of Avonmouth.

Edward Sawkins - Merchant Navy

The other three CWGC plots were more difficult to find (I can recognise a CWGC headstone from 100 metres after years of practice!). The first, Horace Sidney Broderick, Army Service Corps, died on 13th March 1917 and was buried in the Broderick family plot after a funeral at St Mary's. His memorial which is almost illegible with the passage of the years records the fact that he was a prominent member of the church choir. The second, Private Willian Hinton Butler, was a Lewis Gunner with the 13th London Fusiliers. He was wounded near Delville Wood and was shipped home from a hospital bed in Rouen having seemingly recovered. He died, aged 21, on 2nd October 1916.  He shares a headstone with other family members where his epitaph tells us he was wounded during the Battle of the Somme 'fighting for King Country'. The headstone is cantilevered over at a crazy angle.

Private Bill Butler - Wounded on The Somme

The fourth grave is that of Private Bertram Noel Coates of the Artist Rifles Officer training Corps. Like the other three burials at St Mary, his funeral was held at the church and according to a contemporary press report his coffin was covered with a Union Jack and bore a wreath in the shape of a harp. Private Coates died at home on 31st March 1917 and left a widow and an infant daughter. He is memoralised on a family headstone which is, unlike the other two, in relatively good shape.

Private Bertram Coates - Artist Rifles

Inside the church is a memorial plaque, with Regimental badges, commemorating parishioners who were killed during the First World War. Of the eight names listed, five are officers - 2nd Lieutenant Edward Anstie of the Rifle Brigade, Captain Henry Boucher M.C. of the SMLI, 2nd Lieutenant Conroy Fair of the Coldstream Guards, 2nd Lieutenant George Fair also of the SMLI (Conroy's younger brother) and Captain Robert Tawney M.C. another man serving with the SMLI. The three 'Other ranks' on the memorial do not match the burials outside. Coates and Broderick are there, but not Private William Butler. 

Walton St Mary War Memorial

As with many other churches there are a couple of smart, and presumably expensive at the time, brass plaques commemorating individuals who were killed whilst an active service. 2nd Lieutenant Lewis Hopkins was killed in action at the Battle of Loos on 26th September 1915 whilst serving with the SMLI. The second plaque commemorates Lieutenant Robert Walter Laurence Edginton, 5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire regiment who was killed on June 13th aged just 19 years. The former has no known grave and is commemorated on the CWGC Loos memorial and the latter was interred in the CWGC Berks Cemetery Extension in Belgium. 

The Anstie Plot - with Memorial

So ... four CWGC burials (one with a CWGC headstone), a memorial showing eight names in the church along with two private memorials. But that's not the full story. It's always worth having a look at other references in cemeteries and in the case of Walton St Mary there is an inscription to Ed. Basil Anstie, aged 19 'killed in France 1918'. Whilst Anstie has no known grave he is commemorated in no fewer than four places - Walton St Mary War Memorial (see above), St Paul's Church - Walton in Gordano War Memorial, the CWGC Pozieres Memorial and on the stone surround of the family plot - again at St Mary Walton. 

Reflecting on this visit, I find myself thinking about the memorialisation of war dead - the decision not to use a CWGC headstone, the choice of names on War Memorials, the gradual decay and disappearance of memorial inscriptions and the fact that having the means to pay for a brass plaque inside a church gives longevity to memory. And of course inscriptions are not confined to those who died in service. At Walton St Mary there are grave references to Colonel William Sturgess of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1936 and also Edward Henry Moore 'sometime Colonel' in the Royal Marines Artillery who died 24th August 1922.