100 years of remembrance in Saffron Walden
Robert E Pike, World War One historian
- Credit: Archant
Robert E Pike reflects on 100 years of remembrance.
On Saturday May 7, 1921 some 400 people gathered silently at the top of the High Street in Saffron Walden to see the unveiling of the town’s war memorial.
On it were inscribed the names of 158 (later 159) men who fought in the so-called Great War and who died in the different theatres of that terrible struggle, and some of wounds, in England itself.
Although the war was over, the deaths caused by it were not.
With a population of something over 6,000, the town sent over 1,000 men to the war, one in six of the population.
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And one of every six of those men ended up with his name inscribed upon the memorial.
Many a soldier posted missing was not confirmed dead for some considerable time afterwards and many lingered on, ill in mind and body for months or even years.
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Because of this it was decreed that the official date of the ending of the Great War was to be August 31, 1921.
Indeed in Saffron Walden on November 11, 1918 the roll of honour had five more names to be added to it.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the town struggled to come to terms with the grief brought about by the huge loss of life.
For most people the establishment of a suitable memorial to the fallen was paramount.
In the minutes of the council meeting dated November 27, 1919 various suggestions were mooted, including 'a monument at the top of the High Street arranging for the reception of a captured German gun'.
Among other ideas were the 'building of houses for the Working Classes', and 'the utilisation of Fry's Gardens and neighbouring fields as a cricket, tennis and sports ground'.
Eventually it was decided to build the war memorial we see today at the top of the High Street, 'a monument that shall stand from generation to generation as a token of grateful remembrance and a symbol of the devotion of those who died for their country', the probable cost to be £800 or £900.
When the concept of a memorial first became a fact, relatives and friends were encouraged to examine a list on three framed parchments in the parish church to see if their loved ones’ names were included.
The roll of honour was to embrace Saffron Walden and the hamlets of Sewards End, Little Walden and Audley End and to comprise of men whose home was in Saffron Walden when they joined His Majesty’s Forces and men whose parents resided here and who had gone away to work, but had not established a home for themselves elsewhere. In August 1919 the names numbered 134.
The war memorial was the last and most splendid of a number of memorials created to remember these men in Saffron Walden.
There had been the painted board which once stood in the market square on the Victorian fountain, the names being added as news of a death arrived.
It was seen in the parish church until November 1996 and is now in the museum, with the names of 132 officers and men in seemingly random order.
There was and is the illuminated Roll of Honour in the Town Hall council chamber and there was an Odd fellows of Roll of Honour in their Lodge Room.
The Boys’ British School Roll was unveiled on November 11 1919 with 75 names on it - this disappeared on the school’s closure and the Comrades Club opened.
There is also a memorial in the Friends School but this contains the names of only one man from the town.
But it was the town's war memorial that focused people’s grief and remembrance.
Designed by the architect TJ Weatherall of Loughton it was unveiled by General Lord Horne, G.C.G, K.C.M.G, G.O.C. Eastern Command. Standing 30 feet high, it is octagonal in construction, erected upon a platform 10 ft 16 inches across.
The platform is surmounted with three steps, upon which is a tapering pedestal. Upon this are eight sunk panels fitted with bronze tablets upon which are the names of the 159 fallen in raised lettering. Interestingly, on its unveiling there were only 158 names.
If you look at the bottom of one of the panels now you will see the addition of an extra name - George King. He may have originally been omitted because of some confusion with Alfred George King.
There are carvings on four sides:
1. On the side facing down the High Street, a wreath of a wild rose, surrounding shield with St. George in relief.
2. On the side reverse to No.1, a wreath of English oak, surrounding shield with the arms of the County of Essex.
3. On the side towards London Road, a wreath of Saffron crocus, and a shield with embattled walls, enclosing three Saffron crocus flowers.
4. On the side towards Audley Road, a wreath of bay leaves, enclosing the old town seal of a lion rampant and fleur-de-lys in relief, in a sunk panel enclosed by a septfoil.
There are drip labels over the panels and carving. The base stone, on the top of the pedestal is carved with a large bay wreath. The shaft is tapering, with a moulded cap, mounted with a cross. The whole is worked in the finest brown whitened Portland stone.
The inscription says, “For perpetual remembrance of the men of Saffron Walden who laid down their lives for their country in the Great War, 1914 - 1919”.
There are 159 names on the memorial, but there is no other information.
Each of these names has a poignant story behind it.
One is that of the Whitehead family who as part of the firm Whitehead and Day, built the memorial on which are inscribed the names of two of the sons of the late Mr Osborne Whitehead. Osborne was killed at Loos in 1915, Archibald three years later, in 1918 in Belgium - casualties of war.
This poem is dedicated to all three of them.
“I lied to the vicar today,“ he blurted out suddenly.
She stopped eating, fork poised twixt plate and mouth.
It was so out of character, she could only gasp, “Why?”
Shocked at the enormity of the confession, she waited.
“I lied to him about my work on the memorial.
He asked me what was the most difficult part to carve
…and I lied.
It was easy to lie, I said the wreath of saffron crocuses,
But it was untrue.”
She sat in silence, waiting, intrigued, but worried.
The wood on the fire crackled;
After what seemed an eternity, he slowly looked up,
“It was their names, Osborne and Archie,” his voice broke,
“I finished them today and the emptiness of it hit me,
That’s all that’s left us, photos, memories and
Their names, just random letters carved in Portland stone.”
She drew him to her and holding him close,
Together they wept silent tears.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert E Pike, a retired schoolmaster who has lived in Saffron Walden for nearly 40 years, has written several books, and one of them is available through Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre, with a foreword by Sir Alan Haselhurst MP.
His interest in the Great War has led him to visit war graves in France and Belgium, Gallipoli, Salonica, Malta, Gibraltar, Italy, Germany and Israel.
Before the pandemic Mr Pike spent a lot of time in France on the Somme.
A member of the Somme branch of the Royal British Legion, he was the longest serving editor of ‘If You Want the Old Battalion’ newsletter of the Essex Western Front Association.
‘The Victor Heroes’ by Robert Pike. The Great War story of the 159 men of Saffron Walden, Essex who marched away never to return. Published by Ancre Books 2000. ISBN 0-9539507-O-O
'For Still We Hear Them Singing’ by Robert E Pike. A book of poetry inspired by the lives and deaths of real people, many based on true stories of men from Saffron Walden in rural Essex. Published by Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd 2018. ISBN 978-1-78148-910-9
'The Company Of These Fellows' by Robert E Pike. A personal miscellany exploring the theme through poetry, many accompanied by photographs, many based on true stories of men from the small market-town of Saffron Walden in rural Essex. They also examine different theatres such as Gallipoli and Palestine and different participants, French, Indian, Italian, Turkish, all who shared a common experience. Published 2018. ISBN 978-1-78623-338-7