St. Aldate's War Memorial, Oxford

Every day when I leave college I pass a small white plaque on the side of St. Aldate's Church. It would be easy to pass it without noticing, yet its white limestone makes it instantly recognisable as a First World War memorial, complete as it is with a cross in the centre and names on either side.

It's an odd location for a memorial. While it is visible to anyone coming in and out of Pembroke College (or recently anyone waiting in line at McCoy's kebab van), it is on the back side of the church itself and wouldn't be seen by anyone going into the church through its front door.

I'm not sure if the memorial is in its original location, but can't find any information about it having been moved. However, its inscription is an interesting one. It reads 'The reredos is dedicated to God with praise and thanksgiving in memory of all St. Aldates men who gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-19.' The oak reredos it refers to was unveiled alongside the plaque on 7th June 1920, so it makes sense that they would have been located together within the church.

Unfortunately, the reredos is no longer in the church and the Imperial War Museum's listing of the memorial states that it was for sale on ebay in 2007, its current location unknown. This is a great shame, especially as its description sounds very ornate as a 'painted reredos made of oak with canopied and tracery niches. Carved figures of St. Aldate, St. Patrick, St. George, St. Andrew, St. David and St. Frideswide [Oxford's patron saint] stand within the niches'.

It's sad that such a piece of local heritage has been lost, its significance evidently lost on those who renovated St. Aldate's in the late 1990s. I'm sure that in the 1920s it was a far more powerful representation of the sacrifice made by the men of the parish, particularly in the years from 1922 when the rector was the Rev. Christopher Chavasse MC, twin brother of double Victoria Cross winner Noel, and himself an ex-Army chaplain.

Still, at least the stone plaque bearing the names of the parish's lost sons remains and with it, their service can be remembered.

Among the 38 names is Pte Henry Grace, a pre-war regular soldier with the 3rd battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Having previously worked as a chimney sweep, he enlisted on 18th November 1911, aged 22. His battalion was one of the first to arrive in France after the outbreak of war, landing at Le Havre on 13th August 1914. They were immediately engaged at the Battle of Mons and the following retreat, as well as the First Battles of the Marne and the Aisne in little over their first month. From late October they were in battle again during the First Battle of Ypres. It was here that Grace was injured, dying on 19th November in Abbeville from his wounds. He was the first of St. Aldates' army deaths.

There are four pairs of brothers listed on the memorial, including Frank and Nelson Hounslow, who were two of twelve children born to William and Harriet of Friars Wharf, St. Ebbes. The youngest of the brothers, the 21 year old Nelson enlisted in November 1914 and served with 1/4th battalion of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the local territorial unit. Having fought throughout the Battle of the Somme, they were stationed in Le Sars, on the captured ground near Warlencourt, in early December 1916 when Hounslow was wounded. There's nothing noted in the war diary that could suggest the nature of the injury, but he died on 11th December and was buried at the nearby Contalmaison Chateau Cemetery.

Meanwhile, his brother Frank, four years his senior, was conscripted into the army at the start of 1916 and posted to the Royal West Kent Regiment. He didn't arrive in France until the Spring of 1917, by which time his brother had been killed. He was likely a replacement in the Division for one of the men killed at the Battle of Arras and he went on to fight at the Third Battle of Ypres. It was here that Frank was killed while his battalion held the front line on the final official day of the Battle of Passchendaele. He's buried at Cement House Cemetery near Langemark.

Interestingly, none of the army men on the memorial rank above Frank Hounslow, who was a Lance Sergeant, meaning that there are no officers remembered here. It is also interesting to note the number of deaths from illness, rather than from wounds or in action. These include Pte Ernest Wright who died eleven days after the Armistice on 22nd November 1918 from smallpox. He had been serving with the Army Service Corps in Mesopotamia when he contracted the disease. He was hospitalised near Baghdad, but as there is no treatment he died within weeks. He is buried at Baghdad North Gate Cemetery, a cemetery restored in 2012 after much more recent conflict.

The St. Aldate's memorial may not be anything unusual, nor contain the names of anyone particularly notable, yet it is nonetheless noteworthy. All lives lost in the First World War are significant and worth remembering, especially within their local area where both their lives and their loss made a direct impact.



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