02 May 2023
The general who chose
the ‘Unknown Warrior’ and
links with an architectural
dynasty from Staffordshire
I have spent some time in recent weeks working on a paper on the era of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War in Co Limerick. During my research, I once again came across the story of Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt, who was commanding British troops in Limerick and who unveiled the War Memorial in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, at a service 101 years ago on 2 May 1922.
The Cathedral War Memorial in Limerick is dedicated to the ‘men from Thomond.’ General Wyatt was chosen to unveil the memorial not just because of his senior army role in Limerick, but because he had become a popular public figure in the aftermath of World War I because of his role in creating the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in 1920.
This story about General Wyatt creates an interesting link between Limerick and Lichfield, for he was descended from the Wyatt family, an important architectural dynasty from Lichfield. The Wyatt family originated in Weeford, south of Lichfield and west of Tamworth. I spoke on the Wyatt family in Lichfield at the invitation of the Lichfield Civic Society five years ago (24 April 2018), and there is an open invitation to give a similar talk to the Tamworth and District Civic Society.
http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2018/04/the-wyatt-family-of-weeford-lichfield.html Brigadier General Louis John Wyatt (1874-1950) was a senior officer in the North Staffordshire Regiment for many years, and in recent years his story has been researched by Danielle Crozier, formerly of the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Cannock historian Richard Pursehouse.
Louis Wyatt was born in Islington, London, on 14 September 1874, the youngest of five children of James Matthew George Wyatt (1835-1889), a civil engineer, and Eliza Pinta (Hearn). Louis Wyatt’s grandfather, James Wyatt II (1808-1893), an architect, was a son of the painter and sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862), and a grandson of the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who was born in Weeford and whose great works include the Radcliffe Observatory and many college buildings in Oxford.
Louis Wyatt’s parents lived in Kingston-on-Thames, and he was sent to Aldenham Grammar School in Elstree, Hertfordshire. From there he joined the army. He was a second lieutenant in the King’s Liverpool Regiment by the age of 20, and transferred to the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1895. He took part in the Dongola Expedition in the Upper Nile in 1896, fought in the Boer War in 1899-1902, and was injured at Jackfontein in 1900.
He married Marion Jessie Sloane in All Saints’ Church, Daresbury, Cheshire, in 1904. She was known in her family as ‘Gypsy’, and was a daughter of William Sloane, who owned the Mersey White Lead Company in Warrington.
Wyatt was an officer in the North Staffordshire Regiment throughout World War I. He was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) in the king’s birthday honours in 1916. At the time, he was the commanding officer of the 4th York and Lancaster Regiment. The President of Portugal also decorated him as a Grand Officer the Military Order of Aviz after a battle in April 1918 in which many Portuguese soldiers suffered badly. By the end of World War I, he was a brigadier general, commanding forces in France and Flanders.
There were over 850,000 British military deaths in World War I. Many were buried in unidentified war graves, their headstones inscribed simply: ‘A soldier of the Great War known unto God.’ An Anglican army chaplain, the Revd David Railton, came up with the idea of burying an unknown soldier. King George V disliked the idea, but the prime minister, Lloyd George, intervened and arrangements were put in place for the ceremony.
As General Office Commanding the British forces in France and Flanders, Wyatt was entrusted with the task of choosing the body of the ‘Unknown Warrior’ to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Four or six bodies were exhumed from each of the battle areas – the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres – and taken to a makeshift chapel in St Pol, covered and concealed. There Wyatt chose one of them to represent all the soldiers, pilots and sailors who died in that war, and all wars.
The body was guarded and honoured and taken to Boulogne, where it was put into a coffin made of oak from Hampton Court. The coffin arrived in Dover on the morning of Armistice Day, 11 November 1920. The quayside was lined with people as it was taken by train to London, before being placed on a gun carriage drawn by black horses. The coffin passed through hushed crowds of thousands of people, some weeping. At the Cenotaph, George V placed a wreath on the coffin. It was brought to Westminster Abbey on the 11th hour of the 11th month, for a short funeral service and the soldier’s body was entombed inside the west entrance.
In the following days, more than a million people came to Westminster Abbey to pay their respects.
After leaving the army, Louis Wyatt took up various directorships and moved to Kirby Lonsdale with his family. In 1939, he was chair of John Hare (colours), Bristol, Director of the Mersey White Lead Company, Warrington and Director of the Moore Management Trust Ltd. In 1945. During World War II, he was also an honorary colonel of the North Staffordshire Regiment.
He became Sheriff of Westmorland in 1945. He died in Kirby Lonsdale on 28 April 1955, aged 80. Louis and Marion Wyatt were the parents of two daughters, Patricia (Boumphrey) and Laetitia (Hardie).
Wyatt rarely spoke about the Unknown Warrior, apart from one occasion in 1939 when he wrote an open letter to several newspapers, setting the record straight about how the process was undertaken. His daughter Laetitia Hardie thinks she understands why. ‘My view is that he regarded it as a sacred trust that had been committed to him, and that some things are just too sacred to ever be discussed.’
Laetitia Hardie, who was born on 21 August 1918, just a few months before the armistice on 11 November 1918, gave an interview with the Guardian at the age of 100. She recalled her childhood near the North Staffordshire barracks, growing up with her sister Patricia, their mother Marion, and her ‘quiet and high principled’ military father.
During World War, II Laetitia Hardie was a voluntary aid detachment nurse with the Red Cross and became an expert in anti-gas treatment. ‘Though my father rarely talked about the war,’ she recalled, ‘I do remember him abhorring the use of gas because of the horrific injuries it caused, and this inspired me to do anti-gas training.’
Her husband, Dr Patrick John Hardie, was an army doctor during World War II, and treated some of the emancipated prisoners when the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated.
Laetitia Hardie contacted the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield in 2018, asking for photographs of her father’s medals. The curator Danielle Crozier began looking into Wyatt’s story and realised he had left behind an extraordinary legacy by choosing the Unknown Warrior.
Danielle Crozier believes that the symbolic significance of the Unknown Warrior cannot be overstated. ‘It was an inspirational idea – the idea of bringing back someone who could have been anybody – to allow those families, the daughters, sisters, the wives, to think, ‘you never know, he could be mine’. I think the Unknown Warrior gave so much hope to people. It allowed them to grieve.’
We are still in the season of Easter, and this is the Fourth Week of Easter. Today, the Church Calendar also celebrates Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Teacher of the Faith (373).
Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following our visit to Prague earlier this month, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:
1, Short reflections on a synagogue in Prague;
2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
The Maisel Synagogue, Prague:
During our visit to Prague last month, I visited about half-a-dozen or so of the surviving synagogues in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town in the Czech capital.
Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, and they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.
The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery.
The 16th-century Maisel Synagogue on Maiselova Street has survived fires, the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, the Holocaust and post-war neglect, and is now a modern museum.
The Maisel Synagogue was built at the end of the 16th century, which is seen as the golden age of the ghetto in Prague. Since then, its appearance has changed several times and its appearance today is neo-gothic in style.
The synagogue was built in 1590-1592 on the initiative of the Mayor of the Jewish town, Mordechai Maisel (1528-1601), the renowned businessman and benefactor of the ghetto. He acquired the site in 1590, and a year later the Emperor Rudolf II granted him permission to build his own synagogue. Maisel’s important position at the emperor’s court probably helped him to gain this imperial permission.
The Maisel Synagogue was designed by the architect Judah Tzoref de Herz and built in the Renaissance style by Josef Wahl in 1592. It was consecrated on Simchat Torah, 29 September 1592, and over the next century it became the largest and most impressive building in the ghetto.
Mordechai Maisel left the synagogue to Prague’s Jewish community in his will. But after his death in 1601 all his possessions, including the synagogue, were confiscated, despite an imperial privilege allowing him to make bequests in his will. His wishes were only fulfilled after a number of court cases that lasted several decades.
The Maisel Synagogue was severely damaged in the great fire in 1689 that destroyed much of the ghetto. It was rebuilt hurriedly, and as a consequence lost one third of its length.
The synagogue was rebuilt in 1862-1864 to plans by the architect JW Wertmüller, and again in 1892-1907, at a time when all the Jewish Quarter went through a major urban renewal according to the design of the architects Alfred Grotte and Emil Kralicek. The synagogue acquired two narrow side wings and its neo-Gothic portico extension, with a central layout and three entrances with pointed vaults.
The main nave of the synagogue and all the interior details, including the Aron haKodesh or holy ark holding the Torah scrolls, were redesigned in neo-Gothic style too. However, the south side façade, part of the aisles and the women’s galleries on the ground floor and first floor were untouched in these adaptations.
During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, possessions confiscated from members of the Czech Jewish communities were stored in Maisel Synagogue.
After the World War II, the synagogue became a depository of the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was restored in the 1960s, and an exhibition of silver Judaica was located there from 1965 to 1988.
The synagogue was forced to close because conditions could not be improved due to financial problems. However, the ‘Velvet Revolution’ made the restoration possible. The synagogue underwent total restoration in 1994-1995 and was opened to the public in 1996.
The Maisel Synagogue was restored once again in 2014-2015. It belongs to the Jewish Community of Prague and is administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague as a part of its exhibitions.
Today it houses an exhibition, ‘Jews in the Bohemian Lands, 10th to 18th Century.’ The exhibits include the tombstone of Avigdor Kara, a rabbinical judge who died in 1439. This was the oldest tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Avigdor Kara was the author of the elegy Et Kol ha-Tela’ah, ‘All the Adversities,’ that tells of the Prague pogrom in 1389. It is still recited on Yom Kippur in the Old-New Synagogue.
The synagogue also serves as a venue for cultural events, including concerts, readings and one-man theatre.
John 10: 22-30 (NRSVA):
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ 25 Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.’
The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by USPG’s Regional Manager for Asia and the Middle East, Davidson Solanki, who reflected on the work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital, Bangladesh, for International Midwives’ Day this week.
The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning Tuesday 2 May 2023):
Let us pray for those in training at Bollobhpur Mission Hospital. May they be equipped to serve their communities as nurses, midwives and technicians.
whose servant Athanasius testified
to the mystery of the Word made flesh for our salvation:
help us, with all your saints,
to contend for the truth
and to grow into the likeness of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
God of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with Athanasius to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org