At precisely 2.30pm on Christmas Eve 100 years ago, seasonal festivities in Crookham village paused while the Liberal MP for Berwick, Sir Francis Blake, performed a solemn and important duty at the council school .
On that cold Saturday afternoon in 1921, little more than three years after Armistice Day, Sir Francis unveiled a simple oak-framed zinc plaque listing the names of the little Northumberland village’s thirty-nine former pupils who had served in the so-called ‘war to end wars’. And a community paid tribute to those sons who did not survive the war: John Archbold, William Aynsley, James Brown, Arnold Kirkup, James Porteous and Walter Wilkinson.
The memorial hangs today in Crookham village hall, its home since the school closed in the late 1950s. The plaque is easy to miss until the annual poppy wreath is hung alongside each November but this modest memorial, one of thousands erected across the UK, is a poignant piece of social history: Crookham’s link with the cataclysmic conflict that changed the world for ever.
To remember the six young lads who perished in the hell of the Western Front and the 33 who made it safe home, the good folk of Crookham raised £15 4s 6d (about £760 in today’s values, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator). The memorial cost £17 15s 0d, which would be about £890 today. Further expenses of 16 shillings (about £40) meant the kitty was light by £3 6s 6d, around £165 in today’s money.
Northumberland County Education Committee had pledged to make good the shortfall but according to a report in The Berwickshire News of 3 January 1922 those at the unveiling – “a good attendance, including many of the schoolchildren and a number of ex-Servicemen” – were encouraged by local Presbyterian minister Rev M. Forsyth to stump up the money.
The report stated that ” . . .(Forsyth) thought it would be much more satisfactory if they could clear the deficit themselves. He made bold to propose that those who were willing to contribute to clear this deficit might deposit their contribution in a box which he had left at the door. It was gratifying to know that a much larger sum had been collected than they had anticipated.” There is an implication that the education committee might still have had to contribute something to clear the account with the memorial makers, but the villagers’ fundraising efforts remain impressive to this day.
As early as spring 1915, only eight months into the war, the British government had decided to prohibit the repatriation of bodies to avoid the unsanitary transportation of the huge numbers of dead from the front. The fallen were to be buried where they perished, a decision which led to the formation of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, which oversaw the creation of the many war cemeteries and memorials in northern France, Flanders and across the world.
The repatriation restrictions applied to all ranks and all social classes, so there were virtually no funerals at home at which families, friends and comrades could grieve. Consequently, the nation’s war memorials reflected the massive impact on communities of the loss of about 750,000 British service personnel.
Complementing and compensating for the official policy of not bringing home the dead, these memorials, usually paid for by local fundraising, provided a vital focus for the grief felt at the colossal loss of life.
In the post-WWI era, memorials like Crookham’s were viewed as having three main purposes: they would be a comfort to the bereaved; they would honour the fallen; and they would be something to leave behind as evidence to future generations of the fearfulness of ‘the war to end wars’.
Creating memorials became a boom industry after 1918, as ads from Country Life in 1920 illustrate. Several expressions of remembrance were often to be found in even the smallest communities. The Presbyterian Church in Crookham had unveiled a tablet on Sunday 15 August 1920 in memory of 13 men of the wider congregation who had not survived the war.
Sir Francis Blake, the local MP from 1916 until 1922, lived at Tillmouth House near Cornhill. Among his many civic positions, he was chairman of the board of management of Crookham School. In his address on Christmas Eve a century ago he said the assembly had come together “to do honour to all the brave and true men of the district, who leaving all that was dearest and beloved to the went forth to take their part in freeing Europe from the domination of an arrogant and ambitious despot.”
Of these fatalities, Blake said: “What a wonderful revelation of firm determination and steadfast courage these simple, quiet, unassuming lads gave them. Many of them had never been previously further than their native village or the neighbouring town of Berwick.”
Lest, indeed, we DO forget.
DID YOU KNOW?
THE Royal British Legion also celebrates its centenary this year.Founded in May, 1921 from the amalgamation of four veterans’ associations and a century later continues to aid ex-service personnel and their families, receiving the Royal appellation in 1971.
CROOKHAM had its own RBL branch until six years ago when it merged with Berwick to form the North Northumberlandbranch (which would be delighted to welcome new members). see
AND DO YOU KNOW?
- Where Crookham Council School stood?
- Exactly when it closed? From research I am guessing at the 1950s