There was a bite in the chill wind as it cut round the corners on Sunday afternoon, January 4, 1920, and there was icy grief, too, in the hearts of many who walked to Christ Church, Lee Park. For a service of solemn and reverent memory was to be held, and the brave men connected with the parish, who had given their lives for Freedom’s sake, were to be honoured and remembered.
In the large congregation which assembled in the nave of the church were many relatives and friends of the fallen heroes, and to these the service made a special appeal. But even to those whose presence betokened rather a neighbourly than a personal grief and remembrance, there were moments when it seemed that a lump rose in the throat and the eyes smarted with tears that almost were shed.
Outside the church, along the trim path, bordered with its plots of green sward, stood a section of men belonging to the 508th Battery R.F.A. from Woolwich. Smartly they sprang to attention and presented arms as Major-General Sir Desmond O’Callaghan, K.C.V.O., entered the gate, and the bugles of the Irish Guards sounded a general salute. The General was accompanied by Captain Levick, Inspector Dent of the Special Constabulary, Major Eric Ball, Officer Commanding 20th Battalion the London Regiment, and Lieutenant Ainsworth, in charge of the firing party.
These were accommodated in seats near the chancel, and upon their entry, the service commenced. “Land of Hope and Glory” the people sang as the choir, headed by the Rev. W. P. McDonald (Vicar) and the Rev. W. Hume Campbell, slowly walked to their places, and this was followed by the National Anthem—a prayer in which all joined. Then, clear and distinct, was heard the voice of the Vicar, uttering those impressive sentences which open that sublime service: the burial of the dead, “I
am the resurrection and the life …………whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die”—words of Divine consolation and comfort to sore hearts…….“The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
How many bereaved parents have uttered those words of pious resignation as the years of cruel war dragged their weary length along! On this solemn occasion it seemed they acquired a deeper, more intimate meaning, and tears stood close to many eyes as they trembled to silence in the lofty arches of the nave. An involuntary silence followed, broken by the strains of the organ, the signal for the singing of the noble Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Verily this voiced the confidence so often expressed, that even in the valley of the dark shadow, loved ones were in safe keeping; even though the body was too weak for the trial, the immortal soul was secure and assured of eternal rest and peace.
The inspiring words written in Wisdom iii., 1—10, were read by the Rev. W. Hume Campbell; then the Vicar, whilst the congregation stood, said, “Let us remember with thanksgiving, and with all honour before God and men, those men whose names are inscribed on the tablet, erected in this church, who have died, giving their lives In the service of their country.”
Reverently and silently the people sank to their knees, and for a space nothing was heard save the sound of breath sharply indrawn as the sense of loss became too great for some members of family circles now so unhappily broken. Again standing, the people listened whilst Major Ball read out the names of the 41 men who had made the great sacrifice, and when he had finished, the thanksgiving hymn, “The Saints of God,” was sung. Prayers, specially suitable for the occasion, were offered by the Vicar.
General O’Callaghan, standing near the chancel, opened his address by a sincere and sympathetic reference to “our brothers who are dead.” It was difficult to say, he went on, what would have happened had it not been for the spirit of patriotism and sacrifice which filled them during the days of war. Those who had not been to the battle-zone could not imagine the horrors which they experienced, although those who had read Lord Bryce’s report could gain some dim idea of the conditions under which the inhabitants lived. He instanced the case of the village of Souchy, which the French people were leaving as a permanent memento of what the Huns did. Not a single roof was left in the whole of the village; wanton destruction committed by the Germans in order that the inhabitants might not be able to return. And they never would. The men were taken away or killed; the women deported—some lost for ever. Such a fate, these men who laid down their lives, defended us from.
Even those who, having been out there, had come back safe and sound, still had to be thankful for the state of peace which reigns over our country. War was described in phrases of pomp and grandeur, but what of the misery of the aftermath?
On June 28, 1917, the General continued, he stood on Vimy Ridge to see the attack which was to be launched at 7 p.m. At 6.59 there was a sudden and absolute silence— not a movement could be observed on the whole of the vast plain which lay before him. But at 7 o’clock, as with one report, 800 or 900 guns opened fire. Words could not describe that scene and sound; they were too weak vehicles to convey any impression of that awaking from deathly silence into the awful roar of battle. The troops went forward, won ground, and consolidated their gains.
That was one side of the picture. The other: the stretcher-bearers staggering under their loads, on the way to the casualty clearing stations, and then to hospitals. Men maimed, bleeding…. dying. There were times when the line was almost broken, concluded the General, but they won through in the end.
Whilst the congregation sang “Jesus lives,” the Churchwardens Messrs. A. L. Speechly and C. C. Zorhorst the clergy and the officers walked down the aisle to the west end of the church, where, covered with Union Jacks, the memorial was fixed on the wall. In the hush following the hymn, General O’Callaghan pulled a cord which revealed the memorial, and sharply came to attention. Thus he stood for a few moments, then the little party returned to the chancel steps.
In dead silence the people waited. Suddenly a crash of musketry rattled out, followed by two others, as the Artillerymen fulfilled their allotted tasks of firing a salute to the gallant dead. Then, from the south west corner of the church, came the heart-stirring roll of drums, played by master hands. Three times they rolled the sound swelling and dying. Then, ringing sweet and clear, came the notes of the Last Post telling of duty nobly done and rest well earned. Another pause, then, from another corner of the church again rose the sound of the drums.
Outside, subdued by distance, the Reveille rang out, the call to rise again. The loving words of the Benediction were uttered, then the organist, Mr. A. C. Hawkins, played the Hallelujah Chorus, that noble work of thanksgiving and praise which has stirred so many hearts with its splendid phrases. And the people dispersed, those who entered in sorrow leaving, if not in joy, at least in greater comfort and resignation, inspired by the beautiful service in which they had taken part.
Reference: Gregory, R.R.C & Nunn, F.W. The Story of Lee, London, 1923 pp 352-354. Illustration facing page 337
Do you have more information on the people named on this memorial or the memorial? If so click here to contribute information.