Peace on earth

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
December 2013

Steffie Shields contemplates memorial parks and gardens in Lincolnshire.
Poppies are appearing everywhere as I write – in the shops, on newsreaders’ lapels, and brought by a willing appeal-collector to my door. Yes, I know, as you read this, Armistice Day is long gone, but this year, with 2014 almost on us, is different – and the next four years will be particularly memorable.

One of the tales which, once heard, is never forgotten typifies what is really important to the man on the street: Christmas and football. Do you recall that WWI soldiers, both British and German, let their weapons fall silent, climbed out of their God-forsaken, rat-infested mud trenches, to meet, shake hands and play a game of football?

The German leaders started the Great War, but it was the German soldiers who started the first truce, placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees and singing carols. Our ‘Tommies’ responded by singing their favourite English versions, and both sides started calling out Christmas greetings across the dark battle void. Then as the guns fell silent, and the unlucky fallen were retrieved for burial behind their own lines, some bold soldiers ventured further, making the odd excursion to shake hands, exchange small gifts, food, tobacco and alcohol.

Amazingly some held joint Christmas services, doubtless with memories of their families and sweethearts, and home fires burning, filling their heads. The truce barely lasted through Christmas night, though some sectors remained peaceful through to New Year’s Day.
Christmas is the season for peace and joy and special stories. These are not myths. They are legendary and worth retelling not just to remember family ancestors. Every child of each new generation needs to learn about the sacrifice of thousands of ordinary men and women on both sides. When it was all over, their families continued to make sacrifices, give donations, raise funds and work hard to build memorials in villages and towns, in churches, and designed memorial parks and gardens – often built by the unemployed (including returning soldiers) as acts of remembrance. These now historic green spaces gave solace and meaning.

‘The Muse Forbids Heroic Worth to Die’, a translation of an appropriate inscription that appears on a memorial column in one of the country’s most famous eighteenth-century landscape gardens. The owner, Viscount Cobham, was much affected when he lost a favourite nephew, Captain Thomas Grenville, who died of his wounds on 3rd May 1747 at the naval Battle of Cape Finisterre. The old soldier died himself the following year – and a tower, topped by Cobham as a Roman general, was built by ‘Capability’ Brown to overlook the sensational gardens, bearing these sentiments: ‘As we cannot live long, Let us leave something behind us, To show that we have lived.’ A powerful truth.

I came across an interesting marble memorial in the gardens of Leasingham Hall. It commemorates a box tree brought back from the Battle of Waterloo. It is the symbol of Mrs Myddleton, and her daughter, who found her husband Captain Myddleton injured and nursed him back to health. ‘This boxwood grew in the Garden of Heugemont during the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815’. This monument is much more about giving thanks, than remembering a battle. Sadly the box tree, usually a tough long-lived evergreen, symbolic of eternity, has succumbed.

As part of my research, building an archive for Lincolnshire Gardens Trust, I would love to hear news from readers of any other unusual war memorials. The public parks are of course accessible to research – but please let me know if there are any in private Lincolnshire gardens such as the one at Leasingham Hall.

Since the War Office took over Ayscoughfee Hall in Spalding from 1916–1920 it was appropriate that the gardens, a public park since 1902, should become the setting for a war memorial. Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944), one of the country’s leading architects, was called in to redesign the fish pond, as a formal canal to reflect a temple-like pavilion housing the WWI memorial, sheltered by magnificent clouds of centuries-old yew hedges. Of course, such memorial parks and gardens need constant care and upkeep. If we neglect them, we affect the powerful retelling of the story of sacrifice. The WWI 2014–18 Centenary is concentrating minds, generating civic pride and community spirit throughout the country. In August this year, the Boultham Residents’ Association went into action in Boultham Park, with the blessing of the city authorities, to tackle re-painting the railings and other metal work at Boultham War Memorial.

The Heritage Lottery Fund supported a recent major refurbishment of Ayscoughfee Park, including a ‘Garden of Peace’, commemorating servicemen and women, with plaques from regiments and squadrons involved in winning fifty years of peace since WWII. If you have never been, I recommend a visit – take time off from hectic Christmas preparations or festivities; a quiet walk in such a place of memory is thought-provoking, and healthy for mind and spirit.

Wyndham Park Forum volunteers have been working overtime to support a restoration of the Paddling Pool and Boating Lake. The new Sensory Garden here has been an uplifting and colourful bonus to the town and a Green Flag has been awarded, recognising that this WWI Memorial Park is a well-managed park. Recently Michael Portillo made a promotional film there to promote the benefits of Grantham. Several special events are being planned for 2014. A commemorative copper plaque in the bandstand pavilion is worth pausing to read too.

In 1999 a cross was installed at Saint-Yves in Belgium to commemorate the site of the Christmas truce, inscribed with the words: ‘1914 – The Khaki Chums Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget’. How can we forget that these ordinary folks won our freedoms – freedom from war; freedom to live, improve and prosper in peace; freedom to celebrate the joys of Christmas every December? Millions of families were and are still affected.

My great uncle Roy Matthew Hadingham, aged twenty-one, a Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Gloucestershire Regiment, was reported missing on 22nd July 1916, having disappeared on a night patrol on 26th June, the third of the night, in the danger zone. He had been congratulated by the Brigadier after his second reconnaissance sortie for penetrating further into No Man’s Land than anybody else in the Brigade – within fifteen yards of the wire. His body was never found. His name appears on the Loos Memorial, Loos-en-Galette in Belgium. Long before the play ‘War Horse’ was ever penned, I inherited from his sister, my great aunt Gabrielle, a little horse on wheels, Roy’s toy that he called ‘Anthony’. Ever since, once the presents fest is over, I have placed Anthony under the family Christmas tree. Thanks to Uncle Roy and his countless fallen comrades, I will also light a special candle this year – and give thanks for every festive joy I have been free to share with my loved ones. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Christmas.

* On Saturday 9th August 2014 a walk and talk is being organised by Lincolnshire Gardens Trust from Wyndham Park to Belton Park to remember the thousands of machine-gun corps gunners who trained there and would have walked that road many times.

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