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St. George's Memorial Church, Ypres

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St. George's Memorial Church
St. George's Memorial Church, Ypres

The building of this church was the result of an appeal by Lord French of Ypres (the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the Great War). Ten years after the declaration of the war, at a meeting of the Ypres League, he stated that a memorial church should be built, and the best and most appropriate place for this would be at Ypres. This call was immediately taken up by other voices, including Lord Plumer and Herbert Bury, the Anglican Bishop for North and Central Europe. They wanted to see an English church, where the pilgrims visiting the battlefields, the grieving relatives of those who had fallen as well as brother soldiers who survied could come for prayer and remembrance. A committee was formed, originally consisting of Bury himself, the Bishop of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Plumer, Sir William Pulteney and Colnel Poole.

Bishop Bury laid out his views: he felt that those visiting the cemeteries had no means to express their "nobler impulses". He wanted to keep a sanctuary lamp always buring in the church, and even at that early stage planned that the church would be furnished gradually with memorials from regiments and other army units. The church was also to serve the British community in Ypres, by this time some 600 strong. The Committee did not originally intend to make a general public appeal for funds, but in October 1925, with 2000 so far promised mainly from military sources, they had to appeal for further funds to make up the 10,000 required. One suggestion was that each parish should contribute five shillings for each man from that parish who had been killed in the war, and one shilling for each man wounded. The Ypres Memorial Church Fund helpfully pointed out that if parishes did not have a list of the wounded, then the usual ratio was seven men wounded to each two killed! How great the response was to this appeal is not recorded.

One original plan was that the church stand on the ramparts of Ypres, near the Lille Gate. After Lord French died in 1925 it was further planned that the church should also be a national memorial to him, and indeed there are several specific memorials within the church dedicated to him.

The location eventually chosen was nearer to the heart of Ypres, and it was Lord Plumer who laid the foundation stone in July 1927. The church was originally to be dedicated on Armistice Day 1928, but work on the interior was not completed in time. In the end, a further appeal for money was made, to support a Chaplain to be resident in Ypres.

The foundation stone
The foundation stone, laid by Lord Plumer

Eventually, on June the 24th, 1929, the Bishop of Fulham came to the door of the church at 10.15 a.m., and knocked three times upon it. After entering in ceremonial fashion, he consecrated the church from the altar. Field-Marshal Lord Plumer was in the 300 strong congregation, as was Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of the church. Also present was the British Ambassador to Belgium and a representative of the Burgomaster of Ypres. During his service the Bishop of Fulham appealed for further contributions, which were needed to maintain both the building and the ministry.

Interior of St. George's Memorial Church
Interior view of St. George's Memorial Church

The King donated a Bible which he had signed and which bore the inscription Mortem Oppetentes Vitam Meruerunt.

Visiting St George's Church is very worthwhile indeed, and it deserves to have quite some time spent on it as there is a lot to see. Upon enetering from the street, inside the porch are stained glass windows, such as the one shown below, which is in memory of Lieutenant Cyril Knapp-Fisher of the 6th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who was aged just 21 when he died of wounds on the 31st of July, 1915.

Stained glass window in the porch
Stained glass window in the porch in memory of Lieutenant Cyril Knapp-Fisher

Brass plaques are also in the porch, and more are all around the door inside the church itself. In fact these are found throughout the church, on both sides along the nave below the stained glass windows for example.

Commemorative brass plaques surround the doorway
Commemorative brass plaques surround the doorway and more are found throughout the church

Each plaque commemorates an individual, a unit, regiment or an organisation. Just a few examples are plaques to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, the Hampshire Regiment, the 21st London Battalion and the Fifth Cinque Ports Battalion of the Royal Sussex. There are also plaques commemorating the Artists Rifles, the war service of nurses, and of course individual soldiers. One example of the latter, shown below, is to to Captain William Megaw. Megaw was aged 29, and Adjutant of the 1st Norfolks, when he was killed on the 31st of March, 1915. He is buried in Ramparts Cemetery by the Lille Gate, a short walk from here (see the Ypres page).

Commemorative brass plaque to Captain William Megaw
Commemorative brass plaque to Captain William Megaw

In addition to the larger plaques which can be found throughout the church, there are two wooden boards on either side of the main door which have many smaller brass plaques on. Again, these are commemorative, for example one is fairly recent (for a 101 year old veteran), and there is one to the Chinese Labour Corps. There is another of these boards, which is not yet full with plaques, as you enter the small circular area to the right of the main doors which houses the font.

In this small area around the font (which is dedicated to Sir John French) are more stained glass windows and also a small stone below the central window in memory of the poet, Hedd Wyn. Below that is a large brass plaque to the Machine Gun Corps. Also in this area is a picture and information on the double VC winner Captain Noel Chavasse can be found.

One of the stained glass windows here is in memory of Captain George O'Donel Frederick Thomas-O'Donel from County Mayo. He was the Adjutant of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, and died aged 30 on the 16th of June 1915 at Bellewarde Ridge. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

Stained glass window commemorating Captain George O'Donel Frederick Thomas-O'Donel
Stained glass window commemorating Captain George Thomas-O'Donel

Back in the main part of the church, a display cabinet on the wall to the right of the entrance doors contains various items, including an ornate memorial scroll to Charles Dean Prangley, who served in the 1/Lincolns and is buried on the Somme. He died, aged 19, on the 25th of September 1916, and was the son of Reverend Charles Wilton Prnagley of Bexwell. The scroll reads that he "in the hour of England's need, fell for his country, leading his men in the advance on Gueudecourt". Also on display is a Union Jack flag which was used as an altar cloth by the Reverend D E Cousins. In another display cabinet is a list of the donors of those chairs which could not be found when the chairs were returned tp the church after World War Two.

Many of the commemorative chairs can be seen however, filling the main body of the church. On the backs of these chairs are brass plates, again some to individuals of all ranks, some on behalf of associations (the OTC, the Girl Guides and the Brownies) and some to regiments.

There are chairs dedicated to Captains Bowlby and Skrine, each of whom is commemorated also by private memorials which can be found in the Salient, not far from Railway Wood. Today the memorials are next to one another, although that was not always the case.

Brass plaque on chair in memory of Captain BowlbyBrass plaque on chair in memory of Captain Skrine
Two of the chair plaques; to Captains Bowlby and Skrine, whose
private memorials now stand next to one another

Other chair plaques commemorate other soldiers, such as Serjeant George Frederick Watson. Watson served in the 9th battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, and died, aged 21, on the 5th of July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The inscritopn reads "Given by sisters and brothers for his loving Mam and Dad". His parents were John and Mary Ann Watson of Bolckow Terrace, Grangetown near Middlesborough.

Brass plaque on chair in memory of Serjeant George Watson
Brass plaque on chair in memory of Serjeant George Watson

The cushions on the chairs show the insignia of many regiments, sometimes more modern than those who fought in the Great War - for example the SAS. At least one chair plaque commemorates a man who died in the Second World War - perhaps a Great War veteran. During a recent visit, I met a man at the church whose father was commemorated on a chair - he had been wounded at Passchendaele, but had survived the war and returned home safely.

Specific donations were made for certain parts of the church; funding for the church tower was given by Sir James Knott, who lost two sons during the Great War. James Leadbitter Knott was a Major in the 10th West Yorks, aged 33 when he died near Fricourt on the Somme on the 1st of July 1916. His younger brother, Captain Henry Basil Knott had previously been killed in September 1915, whilst serving with the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers. Despite James dying and originally being buried on the Somme, both are now buried in Ypres, in Resovoir Cemetery, next to one another. The body of James Knott was moved to Ypres after the war, an extremely unusual occurrence.

Sir James Knott lost two sons in the War
The bell-tower was donated by Sir James Knott, who lost two sons in the War

On the wall opposite the entrance door is a large bust of Sir John French above a stone memorial tablet, around which are brass plaques in memory of Haig, Churchill and Montgomery.

Bust to Sir John French
Bust to Sir John French

The brass plaque directly below Sir John French's memorial tablet (visible ion the picture above) explains that the church's heating system was damaged in World War Two, and in 1955 was repaired (funded by the Veterans of Canada) as a memorial to the Canadians who had died during the war.

The lectern at the front of the church is in memory of Rose Coombes (author of Before Endeavours Fade), and the two pulpits themselves are dedicated to Sir John French, by his cousin F J Wootton-Isaacson. A large brass plaque on the floor between the pulpits is in memory of General Plumer (incorrectly captioned in the Holts Guide as commemorating Sir John French).

Large brass plaque laid in the floor of the church commemorates Lord Plumer
Large brass plaque laid in the floor between the altars commemorates Lord Plumer

Behind the altar, a large stained glass window commemorates the Guards, with 15 'panels' each depicting a certain Guards unit.

There are more stained glass windows on either side of the aisle, in memory of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Army Medical Corps as well as a number of regiments such as the 1st Monmouths, including their battle honours.

Stained glass window commemorating the GuardsStained glass window commemorating the 1st Monmouths
Stained glass windows commemorating the Guards (left) and 1st Monmouths (right)

Also, various banners hang from the walls on either side of the aisle, of the 6th London Rifles and the one shown below which is from the Queen's Westminster Rifles.

Banner commemorating the Queen's Westminster Rifles
Banner commemorating the Queen's Westminster Rifles

During the Second World War the church was locked up for some years, although there are reports that it was used on occasion for worship by the Germans. Although there was little damage by the end of the war, some of the windows in the church were broken (not neccesarily as the result of fighting). However, the church was necessarily neglected over this time. Today it stands as a glorious memorial to all who fought and died, not just in the Salient, but in the War.

For more information on St. George's, and to keep up to date with events there, details of services can be found here.

Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Paul Reed: Walking the Salient
The Times online archive