As Remembrance Sunday is being marked this morning [8 November 2015] throughout these islands, I remember my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), who suffered through Gallipoli and Suvla Bay with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers 100 years ago in 1915-1916, who was sent to the Balkan front from Greece, and who then picked up malaria in Thessaloniki.
After my grandfather was sent back to Dublin, my father was conceived and was born in 1918. But my grandfather’s health continued to decline until he died a pitiable, sad and lonely death on 21 January 1921. He was only 53. He is buried in Saint Catherine’s Old Churchyard in Portrane, Co Dublin.
He came to mind again two weeks ago [23 October 2014] as I spent some quiet time in reflection in the War Memorial Garden in Lichfield.
I am always impressed that this garden, a peaceful oasis in the shadow of Lichfield Cathedral, is a reminder of war and its consequences, and never a glorification of war – instead, over its gates in large letters the inscription reads: ‘PAX 1919’.
After World War I, the people of Lichfield were anxious to create a memorial to local people who had died during the war. The site was chosen because of its picturesque setting between Minster Pool and the Cathedral Close, with the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral in the background.
From the early 1300s until the mid-18th century, a crenellated wall surrounded the Cathedral Close and formed part of the cathedral’s fortifications, and this wall passed through the centre of the site of the Garden of Remembrance.
Over time, as parts of Minster Pool silted up, the f land where the garden now stands doubled in size and by 1738 it was leased out for cattle grazing.
Three projects were proposed at the time: peace celebrations, a permanent war memorial, and an assembly room for concerts. A public appeal was launched to raise money to build a permanent war memorial.
The War Memorial was designed by the architect, Charles Edward Bateman (1863-1947), who was born in Castle Bromwich, about 15 miles south of Lichfield. He was an early pioneer of the Arts and Crafts style in Birmingham and the surrounding area. He built a series of large suburban properties, with particular concentrations in King’s Heath, Four Oaks and his native Castle Bromwich, along with more urban offices, factories and townhouses in Birmingham City Centre.
The memorial is the work of the Lichfield stonemasons, Bridgeman and Sons of Quonian’s Lane, and work on laying out the garden began in 1919.
The stone lions on the gate piers reputedly came from Moxhull Hall in Wishaw, Warwickshire. The 18th century stone balustrades and plinth came from Shenstone Court, south of Lichfield.
Kate Gomez of Lichfield Discovered and Joss Musgrove Knibb, Deputy Editor of the Lichfield Gazette, have pointed me to a sandstone block carved with a cross and embedded in one of the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance which they have identified this as a surviving boundary stone.
At the far end of the garden, the war memorial is built in the classical style with Ionic pilasters flanking the statue of Saint George and the Dragon in the central niche. To either side of this central section are panels with swept parapets carved with wreaths topped with crowns.
The life-size figure of Saint George is carved in Portland stone, the monument is of Ashlar stone, and the plaques are of Westmorland slate.
Saint George, who stands astride the dragon he has slain, holds the cross in his right hand and with his left hand he supports a shield emblazoned with the cross.
There is a long tradition, dating back to the beginning of the crusades in the 12th century, of depicting Saint George as a knight slaying a dragon.
The statue in Lichfield shows Saint George as a proud, youthful and alert warrior encased in armour. This depiction is influenced by Donatello’s standing figure of Saint George for the Orsanmichele or Oratory of Saint Michael in Florence (1416-1417). The design is also influenced by the 16th century statue on the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice by the sculptor Giulio dal Moro, where Saint George stands with a staff in his right hand and a shield in his left, and with the slain dragon at his feet.
An inscription on the slate plaque beneath the statue of Saint George in Lichfield says:
‘Remember with thanksgiving the men of this city who in their country’s hour of need went forth endured hardness faced danger and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of sacrifice and the gate of death. Let all who come after see to it that these dead shall not have died in vain that their name be not forgotten and what they strove for perish not.’
There are lions’ heads on either side of the statue. The lower panels were added later and are dedicated to those who had died in the World War II and later struggles. These words are found in the centre of the lower panels:
‘These lower panels are dedicated to those who died in the cause of freedom during the World War 1939-1945 and the struggles which followed.’
The Garden of Remembrance is owned and managed by Lichfield City Council. It forms part of the Grade II-registered Cathedral Close and Linear Park. The garden was restored in 2011/2012 as part of the Historic Parks restoration project.
The foxglove tree in in the garden is a magnificent, ornamental flowering tree. The foxglove tree is a native to China and was introduced into Britain around the 1830s. The fragrant, mauve, bell-shaped flowers open in late Spring if the buds have not been damaged by winter cold in the previous months. The tree grows rapidly in its younger years and thrives best when it has a large amount of light and good shelter.
At present, the largest foxglove tree in Britain is over 15 metres tall and is growing in Cardiff. A note pinned to the tree in Lichfield wonders whether this may yet grow to be the tallest foxglove tree in Britain.
Another memorial to the employees of Lichfield Brewery who took part in World War I can still be seen on the old brewery buildings in Upper Saint John Street, Lichfield.
Outside Lichfield, the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas is on the edge of the National Forest, and is a year-round centre of Remembrance. The maturing woodland landscape is home to over 300 memorials.
This morning, let us pray that we may find the ways needed to put all wars behind us, to put aside all hatred and violence, and when we remember that we remember with sorrow, with gratitude and with forgiveness, but without bitterness or anger, that the call of nationalist ideologies may never twist us, may never distort the love we should have for others, nor ever allow us to deny our shared humanity.
May God grant to the living Grace,
to the departed Rest,
to the Church and the world peace and concord,
and to all us sinners Eternal Life, Amen.