12 November 2022

The war that changed families
but never put an end to all wars

The War Memorial on Horsefair Green in Stony Stratford, designed by the architect Cecil Greenwood Hare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday (13 November 2022), yesterday was Armistice Day (11 November 2022), and I hope to be at the memorial service at the war memorial in Stony Stratford on Sunday afternoon.

The War Memorial in Stony Stratford is at the east end Horsefair Green, where Calverton Road meets Silver Street. The striking yet simple memorial is six metres tall and built of Doulting stone. It takes the form of a foliated cross a on top of a tall column, with a bronze sword of sacrifice, a square plinth and a five-stepped circular base.

The people of Stony Stratford had considered a number of options for a memorial, including a library and clock chimes. A proposal for a cross was agreed, the foundation stone was laid in May 1920, and the memorial was unveiled by Thomas Francis Fremantle (1862-1956), 3rd Lord Cottesloe, on 21 June 1920.

The architect of the memorial was Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875-1932). He was a pupil of the Gothic Revival architect George Frederick Bodley and later went into partnership with him. When Bodley died in 1907, Hare took over the practice of Bodley and Hare.

Hare designed many war memorials after World War I, including those in Castle Donington, Walford, Tutbury and Ampthill. His work as an architect in this area also includes the chancel in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford (1928).

The builders were Woodbridge & Simpson of Oxford, and the memorial was built at a cost of £360, met by public subscription. The war memorial garden was completed in 1922.

The memorial has 92 names for World War I and 18 for World War II. The additional plaque naming 18 men who died in World War II, was unveiled in 1950 by Major W Scott-Evans.

Names from World War I on the war memorial in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Any time I look at the memorial I am struck by how young many of these men were, by the names of brothers who died within weeks of each other, by the names of those lived on High Street where I live too, by those who died on Thessaloniki where my grandfather had been stationed until he was sent home with malaria in 1916, by those who have no known grave, and by the poignancy of the names of at least two men who died weeks after the war had come to an end.

Herbert Church of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, died of his wounds in Thessaloniki on 22 May 1917. He was 30, and he is buried in the Lembet Road Military Cemetery in Thessaloniki. Two weeks later, his younger brother, George Church, a private in the Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire Regiment), died of his wounds in Flanders on 8 June 1917, aged 27. Their parents, Thomas and Ada Church, lived at 129 High Street.

Alfred [John] Mackerness was a private in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and his parents, William and Jane Mackerness, had lived at 50 High Street, Stony Stratford. Shortly after volunteering in February 1915, he was sent to the Western Front, where he fought at the Battles of Ypres, Loos, Albert and the Somme. He was 31 when he died at Cambrai on 21 March 1918 during the allies’ retreat.

RP Parker from 146 High Street, Stony Stratford was an RAF air mechanic at Thessaloniki Aircraft Park. Although the war ended on 11 November 1918, he died on 10 December 1918, aged 21. He is buried in Mikra British Cemetery in Kalamaria, 8 km south of Thessaloniki.

William Arthur Tombs, a private in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was 20 when he died in Thessaloniki on 15 October 1918. He is buried in Doiran Military Cemetery in northern Greece, and sometimes I think of his name when I go for a walk in Tombs Meadows by the banks of the River Ouse.

The brothers James John Arles and William Arles were from York Road. William was 29 when he died of wounds during the Gallipoli landings on the hospital ship HMHS Soudan on 22 August 1915. James died on 30 January 1916 after being sent home to England with his wounds.

Joseph J Sprittles, a sergeant in the Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire regiment), was killed in action at the Somme on 7 October 1918. His brother Frederick James Sprittles was a sergeant in the Canadian Infantry. He was 25 when he died on 20 February 1919. He is buried in France. When he died, World War I had ended more three months earlier.

The ‘Salonika Campaign’ was fought in northern Greece, Serbia and Albania from 1915 to 1918. The campaign began on 5 October 1915 with the landing of the 10th (Irish) Division and French 156th Division at the port of Thessaloniki from Gallipoli and France.

British and Irish, French, Greek, Italian, Russian and Serbian contingents fought alongside colonial troops from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Indochina.

By 1917, a multinational allied force that was 500,000-strong faced the Bulgarian army and German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish units, totalling 300,000. The front line stretched from Albania to the mouth of the River Struma in Greece.

As well as battle casualties, the force suffered severely from malaria, with about 160,000 hospital admissions in three years, almost equal to the fighting strength of the force. The health of many men was permanently ruined, and many the emotional and economic fabric of innumerable families had been torn apart.

As I was poring over the list of the 92 names of men from Stony Stratford who died in World War I, I counted at least 12 who had been killed in Thessaloniki – a large proportion from what was then a small market town in north Buckinghamshire.

I wondered how many would recognise Stony Stratford today, with growth and changes it has experienced since the development of Milton Keynes. I thought of how the lives of many families – parents, wives, siblings, children, girlfriends, even former schoolfriends and work colleagues – had been damaged irreversibly. And I wondered how many of them may have come across my grandfather, Stephen Comerford (1867-1921), who was in Thessaloniki at the same time.

Did they share the same billets, sit at the same tables, travel in the same units, fight in the same battles, catch malaria at the same time, share coffee or a cigarette, share their fears or share their anxieties about those back home?

The ’Salonika Campaign’ also transformed political life in Greece and contributed to shaping the modern Greek state. Pro-Venizelist army officers, with the support of the allies, launched an uprising in Thessaloniki in 1916. This led to a pro-allied temporary government, the Provisional Government of National Defence, headed by Eleftherios Venizelos. It controlled northern Greece and the Aegean, against the official government of the King in Athens. Ever since, Thessaloniki has been known to Greeks as η Συμπρωτεύουσα (i symprotévousa, the ‘co-capital’.

Most of the city was destroyed on 18 August 1917 by a single fire accidentally sparked by French soldiers. The fire left 72,000 people homeless out of a population of about 270,000. The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 destroyed almost half of the city’s Jewish homes and livelihoods. Later, With the city expanded enormously with the arrival of Greek refugees from Asia Minor in unexpectedly large numbers.

The ‘Salonika Campaign’ remains one of the least studied and explored parts of World War I, yet it totally transformed Greece’s second city, the life of my grandfather and the future of his family. On Sunday afternoon, I shall also think on how it irreversibly changed the life of countless families in Stony Stratford – and how the ‘war to end all wars’ never put an end to all wars.

Names from World War II on the war memorial in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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