Remembering Bristol’s First World War VCs
This morning I unveiled a memorial stone to Captain Douglas Reynolds, on the hundredth anniversary of the action that led to him being awarded Britain’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.
In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War there will be many events around Britain and the rest of Europe. There will be further anniversaries to mark down to 11 Novemeber 2018, a hundred years after the Armistice on the western front that now sets the date for our annual Remembrance Sunday event for all conflicts.
The government is supporting a wide ranging programme of events over the next four years. These include battlefield tours for schools, where children will also be learning to play the “Last Post”. The Communities Department is providing memorial paving stones to be laid in the communities of origin of the recipients of the Victoria Cross.
There were 628 Victoria Crosses awarded to 627 individuals, as Noel Chavasse was the only man to be awarded twice. Over the next four years memorial stones will be laid across the British Isles, 361 in England, 16 in Wales, 70 in Scotland and 35 in Ireland, which at that time was all within the United Kingdom. The remaining 145 memorials will all be laid at the National Memorial Arboretum on 9 March 2015, Commonwealth Day.
This Commonwealth group reminds us of the fact that the war was the first truly global conflict. It was a clash of European empires, drawing in colonial soldiers from around the world. I have visited the memorials in Ypres in Flanders, where the name Singh is more common than Smith or Williams. There was also combat at sea and on land around the world.
Some people may ask why are we commemorating a war that is now outside the life memory of everyone. I think it is right that we do so. The First World War touched the lives of every community and family in a way not seen before. The wars of the nineteenth century and before were fought in the main by regular soldiers and sailors. The war from 1914 – 18 was a total war, particularly after conscription was introduced in 1916. As so many men were in uniform, the role of women was also changed profoundly, working in the fields and munitions factories. After the end of the war, the British social order was never the same, with the ‘ruling class’ weakened by taxes, the end of deference and the universal franchise.
I hope the paving stones and various events will rekindle an interest in the war in every community. There are war memorials in every town and many workplaces and schools, listing the names that could be brought to life by research. I hope to discover more about my great-grandfather Stephen Davies, who served and survived physically but died in a mental hospital years later.
Today’s event in Castle Park, Bristol, was to commemorate the sixth winner of the VC, the first from Bristol. Captain Reynolds was awarded his VC for an action on 26 August 1914, just three weeks after the war started. He led his men to recapture a gun at Le Cateau, Belgium Mons. He survived this episode but was killed by gas poisoning in February 1916 and is buried at Etaples. His VC is on display at the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich.
The next Bristol memorial stone will be laid on 20th November, the centenary of the VC being awarded to Thomas Rendle. The other six Bristol VCs are Frederick Room (1917), Hardy Falconer Parsons (1917), Daniel Burges (1918), Harry Blansard Wood (1918), Manley Angell James (1918) and Claude Congreve Dobson (1919).
Bristol has one of the very best commemorative programmes in the country over the next four years. See http://www.bristol2014.com for more details.