This website began in the depths of time, before Leicester Cathedral was a pilgrimage destination for people who really, really like King Richard III. Whilst the argument was still going on (in public and behind certain very expensive closed doors) as to where the said king was going to be buried, a small team of people in Leicester were already drawing up the necessary plans to make the cathedral building ‘fit for a king.’ Part of this involved recording and assessing the historical importance of the various fittings, furnishing and monuments that were in the parts of the building that would be affected by the reordering. As a former museum curator then working on a small fundraising project for the cathedral, I took on the task of converting the printed version of the cathedral inventory into a database containing as much historical information as possible about each artefact. With the help of a Museum Studies MA student from the University of Leicester we achieved this in just two months.
One of the memorials that needed cataloguing was something right near the very spot where Richard III would be buried. It was a smallish plaque which reads “To the Glory of God the east window and reredos of this church of St Martin Leicester are erected by parishioners and worshippers in grateful memory of those connected with the church and parish who fell in the Great War 1914-1919.” Then follows a list of 35 names in alphabetical order – Forename, initials, surname. Being a detail person, I could not just leave the catalogue entry as a list of names with initials where there should have been a full name so I set about finding out the full names and their dates of birth and death, for completeness.
At the same time, I happened to be cataloguing the most beautiful item in the cathedral archive. In 1909 the then vicar, Canon Sanders, retired from St Martin’s and his parishioners organised a kind of illuminated manuscript on parchment, thanking him for his devotion to the parish and listing the names of all the people of the congregation. Again, this list was mainly in the form of “Mr and Mrs so and so” or “Miss E something or other” and I wanted to know the full names of all of them. Let’s call it a kind of obsession. So I created a database of their full names and their births and deaths for completeness, and I matched up the surnames of the men on the war memorial with those on the testimonial. Not all of them matched but a fair proportion did and I started thinking – this is quite unusual, to have a pretty accurate list of the members of the congregation at any one point in time. That’s not something that’s usually written down. And this was a snapshot of the church community just on the eve of the outbreak of war. The community in 1909 consisted of at least 162 separate households – some consisting of couples, some families with children, some single people. It’s likely that some of the less well heeled, less frequent attenders were missed off this list and it’s also likely that some of the grander folk on the list gave more in money or cachet to the church than they did to regular prayer and worship (Plus ça change…). But still, 162 households, give or take.
I started to look at the war memorial and the community list and think – how were they affected by the war? Not just by losing a family member, but how about those whose son or husband or father went to war and was injured but came back? How many daughters and sisters left Leicester to nurse close to the front line? And what happened to all their lives? A war memorial only tells you a tiny bit about how a community like St Martins was affected. The ones who died get their names immortalised but there is nothing to remember those who got a gunshot wound and were made deaf, or who were traumatised and came home to live the rest of their life in fear, or whose hand was injured so he couldn’t return to his job as a jeweller. And no one immortalises the parents who lose a son or two or three, or the young girl whose brothers went away and never came back, or the wives who lost their partner or the children who never met their father. Or whose father came back but became an alcoholic and made their life a misery.
Just finding out about the war service of men who died wouldn’t answer these questions, wouldn’t tell me what it was like to be a member of the community of St Martin’s church who lived through those war years. And so I started the enormous piece of work of finding out every man and woman who was a member of one of those 162 households, plus a few others who came along after 1909, who had any involvement in war service. And researching the lives of those men and women in the context of their families.
So after several years of work, I can tell you that of the congregation and community of St Martin’s church in Leicester, 97 men and women ‘went to war’ from 61 households. And of those 97, 34 were killed in action. Most of those who fought were wounded in some way. Several died not long after the war including a few who died in the Spanish Flu pandemic and a couple who died of gas inflicted lung damage a few years later. One man committed suicide. I have been able to discover the details of a handful nurses who served at the front but as you can imagine, it’s much harder to find out about this than to find out about the men who served in the armed forces.
I have tried hard to research everyone to the same degree, paying no attention to their supposed importance in the social, military or community hierarchy. I’m not interested in medals or ‘bravery’ or whether someone was the son of a bankrupt or the vicar. The level of detail I have been able to find out about each person depends on a number of factors – mostly, it’s about social class. People who have money leave a lot more historical record behind them than people who don’t. In 1914 if you were a middle class young man enlisting for the first time you were much more likely than a working class man to be made a junior officer than a private soldier, which means that more records were created about you. You were more likely to write a will. Your family were more likely to be involved in local politics and events that were written about in the newspapers. These are all factors. But the most significant record for finding out the details of someone’s actual war service is their service record and these were fire and water damaged during a bombing raid in the second world war and only up to a third of them survived. So the level of detail I have been able to find out about each person depends on a number of things including luck, but I have done my best to gather whatever I can.
Ultimately of course, I can’t tell you what it was like to be a soldier or a member of this community during the First World War. Many of the people I have written about wouldn’t have recognised themselves as part of the community anyway, having emigrated to Australia or Canada or perhaps never having been very interested in church in the first place. I certainly can’t tell you what it was like for a few hundred people to lose their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles, cousins, friends, colleagues, fellow worshippers, acquaintances and enemies for the duration of the war or permanently. Or to live with the fear that they might. There isn’t a person alive who can answer that question for him or herself, let alone on behalf of a ‘community’. But we can imagine what it might be like, and we can relate the experiences of the past to the tragic events taking place all over the world in our own time. So I have tried to describe as many facts and events as I can, and leave it to you to form your own conclusions about what the experiences of 1914-1918 might have meant to people like us.
It’s also important not to read too much into the significance of the war. I realise that sounds like a strange statement but when you’ve researched a lot of people’s lives you read a lot of tragic stories and not all of them relate to the war. Disease, death, misery, tragedy and misfortune are part of the human condition. For example Corporal Arthur Nixon Woodcock killed himself by burying his head in blankets around a gas tap in 1929. He was an alcoholic and had lost his job – it would be easy to blame the war, and I’m sure it didn’t help, but Arthur’s drinking was out of control long before 1914. Similarly, when Frederick Burton Stevenson’s older brother Captain George shot himself through the head in 1912 it was for other reasons unknown. There are six divorces in the St Martin’s mix but not all of them were of couples who married in haste during the war. Edward Dare Evans and Alice de Legh divorced before the war even started and two of the others seem to be as a result of common adultery. People are people, in and out of war time.
However, the war was undoubtedly the cause of appalling suffering, physical and mental. Some stories, like the miserable life and even more miserable death of Private Horace Riley, are particularly haunting. The eye witness accounts of the battalion war diarists are almost too real to bear, especially the gifted author of the 2nd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps war diary in August and September 1914, describing a rifleman who had been brought in after three days lying out, “He looked more like a mummy than a man; the skin of his face was drawn and yellow, his limbs limp and powerless…from a wound in his side the blood had stained the webbing of his belt and his clothing; one amongst many who must have been in similar agony, slowly dying from loss of blood, and starvation in this so-called civilized warfare.” I wonder what happened to that diarist. I’m also extremely touched by the inability of Corporal John Alfred Kirby’s mother, Jane, to open the parcel containing his identification discs when they were sent to her in 1924. These are real people.
In researching the lives and in particular the wartime writings and experiences of the leaders of St Martin’s Church, Canons Nugee and Macnutt, I have experienced a range of emotions. I have felt anger at the hypocrisy and self satisfaction of Nugee. I have been enraged at his use of Christianity to justify and glorify what now, in 2018, looks like senseless slaughter. I have been disgusted by the failure to mention, let alone commemorate, the life or death of one single young soldier between 1914 and 1919, when pages of the parish magazine were devoted to commemorating the lives of old men who died peacefully in their own beds. I have also felt sorrow and sympathy as Nugee and his wife experienced the terrible, life-changing injuries of their son. I was inspired by the action Macnutt took to serve the young men at the front as chaplain to the armed forces, including taking care of the spiritual needs of German prisoners of war. I was deeply touched by his experience of being present at the death of a fellow clergyman who was hit by a shell while on his way to bury a soldier. I found it confusing to read his “call to arms” recruiting sermons and his views on a premature end to the war. But ultimately, Nugee and Macnutt were people of their time and, like today, part of a very imperfect church in an imperfect world, and I have somewhat made peace with all four during the time it has taken to create this website.
If I had intended to write a book when I started this research I would have diligently referenced everything, but as it grew organically and got somewhat out of control I haven’t. I must say now that there will be many errors and omissions in what I have written. I am truly sorry for each and every one of them, because I feel a sense of responsibility for telling the true, full story of everyone I encountered – but I am only human and this book has been squeezed in around work and family. Thank you for reading it and helping to make sure that these men, women, wives, parents, children are not forgotten.