Remembrance and renewal at the Great War Memorial

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Remembrance and renewal at the Great War Memorial

350 servicemen remembered at the Memorial

Approximately 900 WW1 casualties are buried in Bristol cemeteries and graveyards.  There are over 350 at Arnos Vale cemetery and 240 of these men are buried in in front of the memorial at ’Soldiers’ Corner’ in front of the Great War Memorial. This small part of the cemetery contains the largest concentration of Great War dead in the city.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Last resting place and War memorial

The triangle of sloping turf known as ‘Soldiers’ Corner’ contains the graves of about 240 WW1 servicemen who died in the United Kingdom.  Sadly they mostly died in Bristol hospitals, of accident, sickness, disease or of wounds suffered in the conflict. The details of these soldiers are inscribed on the memorial’s bronze panels. The memorial also contains the names of the servicemen and women buried in the adjoining Holy Souls Catholic Cemetery. Each soldiers corner grave is covered with squares of Portland Stone. These personalised stones were put on the graves between 1914 and 1919and this type of stone is unique to Arnos Vale Cemetery. Each Serviceman’s grave is inscribed with his name on the stone and the grave plot number.  Many of the graves contain the remains of up to four men, however the Australian, Canadian and New Zealander graves plots contain only one serviceman.

The creation of the memorial

The war memorial is found near the front gates of the cemetery by the Bath Road.  It was commissioned and funded by the Bristol branch of the British Red Cross Society in the early 20th Century.  On Friday 21 October 1921 the memorial was unveiled by Emily, Duchess of Beaufort.  It was dedicated by the Right Reverend George Nickson, the Bishop of Bristol . The Bristol Times and Mirror  estimated that two to three thousand attended the ceremony..

The great and the good of Bristol were very much in attendance.  The Lord Mayor and the Sheriff and their wives were present. Representatives of the Australian High Commission, the US Consul, the Gloucestershire Regiment and other military units also attended.  The Red Cross Society, the Voluntary Aid Detachment and other nursing and hospital representatives, the British Legion, the Bristol Crimea and Indian Mutiny Veterans’ Association, and other bodies were also present.

A musical dedication

The music for the dedication ceremony was provided by the brass band and buglers of the Gloucestershire Regiment. The choir of Holy Nativity Church, Knowle  led the singing of the hymns. This was followed by the sounding of the Last Post. Following a procession from the cemetery gates, the monument was unveiled by removing a large Union Jack flag covering the memorial.  Wreaths were laid by the attending dignitaries, after which the Bishop dedicated the memorial:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we dedicate this memorial to the glory of God in memory of those who have fallen in the Great War. May their example inspire in us to courage in the greater war against all evil. May their memory ever burn brightly in those who here or elsewhere remember their deeds, and, strengthened by their fellowship, look forward to reunion with them in the inheritance of the saints in light.

Following the ceremony a yew hedge was planted around Soldiers’ Corner, but this no longer survives.

An important moment for the City of Bristol and the world

The Bristol Times and Mirror  reported the following day:

The memorial is erected in the Soldiers’ Corner at Arno’s Vale Cemetery, where many of the brave warriors who died in the hospitals of the Bristol district from 1914 to 1919,  sleep their long, last sleep – comrades in arms, in life, and now companions in God’s hallowed acre. Two hundred and forty of those who died that England might live – Britishers, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, and South Africans, are buried in the Soldiers’ Corner. And this permanent memorial to them is worthy of Bristol, and will remind future generations of the sacrifices readily made in those fateful years 1914-1918.

Ceremony to mark the restoration of soldiers corner by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol, 8th December 2018.

A Spartan dedication

The war memorial was designed by the architect W.H. Watkins.  Watkins was responsible for the design of a number of prominent Bristol buildings and memorials.  The Great War memorial was built by Cowlin and Sons, from Bath stone quarried at Monks’ Park. The design is of a loggia (open corridor with arches) with flanking walls. It features four bronze panels on which are inscribed the names of the dead. On one of the walls is carved the inscription: “The glorious dead AD 1914-1918”.  On the other wall there is  a loose translation of Parmenides’s epitaph to the 300 Spartans killed at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE :

 “Proclaim throughout the realm,

Ye who pass this monument;

That we who died serving her,

Rest here content”.

Controversy and tragedy

10 plots for 50 men in 1914.

We like to think of the remembrance of war casualties as being activities of unity and togetherness.  However there has been some controversy around Soldiers’ Corner and Great War Memorial.

The controversy involved the Red Cross Society (Bristol Branch) and the Bristol General Cemetery Company, who owned Arnos Vale Cemetery. In 1914 the Bristol Royal Infirmary Charity approached the cemetery company to purchase burial plots for soldiers who had died in Bristol hospitals. Subsequently the Red Cross took over these negotiations from the charity.  An agreement was reached on a price of £100 (roughly £10,000 today)  for 10 plots (five bodies per plot). This was offered at a 50% discount on the market price, and the company was congratulated for the ‘the liberal and patriotic sprit shewn by your directors’ by the Red Cross.

More space required in 1915.

As the war continued the Red Cross went back to the company in January 1915.  They were quoted £550 (nearly £45,000 today) for a further 50 plots.  This was again a heavily discounted price. However the treasurer, Sir George White concluded that the company were seeking unreasonable profit. The relationship rapidly declined after this complaint. Sir George decided to buy a number of shares in the company and was going to make a direct appeal to his fellow shareholders.  He planned to tell the directors of the cemetery to donate the land and refund the money paid.  Sadly Sir George died unexpectedly in November 1916 and never had the chance to try out his plan. Eventually the rest of the land was  purchased by the for 500 by the Red Cross. Clearly the society did manage to bargain the price down a little.

Angry Letters in the newspaper

After the opening of the memorial there was a minor flurry of controversy.  A catholic clerical reader of the Bristol Times and Mirror wrote complaining about the wording on the memorial that suggested that Holy Souls Catholic Cemetery was part of Arnos Vale.  He suggested that the Red Cross had not ignored the sacrifice of catholic soldiers or the grief of catholic families.  This angry letter received a stinging reply from an anonymous Anglican churchman who cast doubt on the catholic gentleman’s patriotism!

Rededication and renewal

At some point in the last 40 years,  the original marker stones were unfortunately removed or damaged. Sadly These stones were left hidden in the landscape for a long time, thankfully they were eventually recovered. As part of an ongoing project many of the surviving stones were carefully reinstated by the cemetery.  By 2018  all the stones were correctly returned to Soldier Corner.  Many of them were cleaned and some restored. Where necessary, a few were replaced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as they had been seriously damage . Originally there was also a ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ at the bottom corner of the memorial which was sadly destroyed at some point.

Changing hands.

For a number of years the ground and memorial was maintained by the Red Cross followed by Bristol Charities. More recently the responsibility was take on by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the monument was restored by the Commission in 2006.  There was a re-dedication ceremony in December 2018, undertaken to mark the reinstatement of the grave markers.

Armistice Day 2020

Normally we hold an Armistice Day Ceremony at the memorial on the 11th November at 11am.  Sadly, it is not possible this year.  We welcome individual visitors to the cemetery between 9 and 4pm Monday to Saturday, for quiet reflection and remembrance.

This blog post is adapted and developed from an article written for the Bristol Evening Post to mark the 90th anniversary of the Great War memorial.

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