The Bewicke-Copley Brothers, Sprotbrough, Doncaster

The parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Sprotbrough, near Doncaster, is one of those warm, welcoming and perpetually open churches which can tell the visitor a wealth of information about the life of the community.

One striking part of Sprotbrough’s story is found in a beautiful stained glass window in the St. Thomas chapel, designed by the noted artist and sculptor Sir Ninian Comper.

It is dedicated to two brothers-in-law, one of whom,  Redvers Lionel Calverley Bewicke-Copley, is the initial subject of this post.


Redvers Bewicke-Copley2

Redvers Bewicke-Copley

Born in London on 17 Sept. 1890, but brought up at Sprotbrough Hall, Redvers was descended on his mother’s side from Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Chief Minister. He was educated at Eton College and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. In 1910 he was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant, promoted to Lieutenant in 1913 and Captain in July 1915.

Redvers was one of the `Old Contemptibles’, a nickname given to the British Expeditionary Force to France and Flanders in the autumn of 1914, on account of the Kaiser describing Britain as having a `contemptible little army.’

He was wounded 23 Oct. 1914 while helping a wounded comrade & sent home to England on sick leave;

A brother officer wrote: “On 14 Sept, on the first day of the Battle of the Aisne, isolated parties had made their way up to the edge of the wood on the northern slope & had been driven in. Thinking the wood had been made good, I took a machine-gun section up to the edge of it. Here I found D.L., Bewicke-Copley & a Coldstream Sergeant with a bunch of some 25 German prisoners. As soon as I mounted my guns, a heavy fire from snipers started & D.L. & the sergeant were killed, but Copley covered the prisoners with his revolver & ordered them to shout to their friends to cease-fire or to be killed themselves. Copley came in under cover when the sniping diminished. He then said he was not going to leave the prisoners & was going back for them. It seemed certain death & I told him so, but he went out and brought them in quite calmly. I think it was about the most cold-blooded piece of daring I have seen in the war.”

Having spent nearly two years convalescing in Britain, Redvers returned to the front in late 1916. However whilst leading a party repairing trench wiring at Sailly, France, he was shot clean through the head by a sniper within 20 yards of the German line and killed outright on 21st December 1916. He was Buried at Combles.

Sprotbrough war window.jpg

The magnificent war memorial window in St Mary the Virgin, Sprotbrough

Left to right, the panels are  Martin, a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in two, and gave half to a beggar. The next panel shows St Michael with the Devil at his feet, as referred to in the Book of Revelation, chapter 12, v7-9

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.  But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

The third panel depicts St  George with a dragon at his feet.  The final panel with the figure holding his sword upwards, in a sign of peace, is believed to be Christ

As a footnote, a sword believed to be Redvers’ regimental souvenir, was listed for auction in 2015 with a guide price of £200-400

Redvers Bewicke-Copley sword

 Redvers Bewicke-Copley graveRedvers Bewicke-Copley’s grave at Combles, France

However the story of the Bewicke-Copleys and twentieth century warfare was not to end there. Redvers’ younger brother, Robert Godfrey Wolsley Copley, had also served in the First World War.

NPG x166873; Robert Godfrey Wolseley Bewicke-Copley, 5th Baron Cromwell by Walter Stoneman

Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, Robert was commissioned in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and first saw action out in France and Flanders with the 3rd Battalion in the period May-November 1915. He then departed for the Mediterranean theatre of war, transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in May 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross. He was also mentioned in despatches and received the Italian Al Valore Militare in bronze. He was also wounded. Having then witnessed further active service in Russia 1918-19, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Following the war, he succeeded to the title of Lord Cromwell, and gained the rank of Colonel in the service of the Royal Army Reserve of Officers.

Robert assumed command of ‘D’ Company, 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In 1939 he was recalled to active service army and led the defence of Calais in May 1940.  Robert was wounded in both of his arms and his head. Despite this he remained in command at his barricade and taken as a POW by the Germans. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

An account of Robert’s bravery on this occasion was left by Airey Neave, whom some might remember was killed by a terrorist car bomb at the Houses of Parliament in 1979.

‘The situation of the 60th was desperate. A death-struggle at the bridges. Barricades of   burned-out lorries and trucks off the Rue Edison and Place Richelieu were manned by the surviving officers and riflemen. Houses in the area had long been devastated by the flames and blown by shellfire into heaps of rubble behind which the defenders fired on the Germans. The mortar bombs came in an endless stream exploding dead on the road-blocks. The 60th, lying without cover in the streets, had little protection from the Stukas. No one who experienced the attack on the morning of the 26th is ever likely to forget it. A hundred aircraft attacked the Citadel and the old town in waves. They dived in threes, with a prolonged scream, dropping one high explosive and three or four incendiaries. They machine-gunned the streets and dropped a few heavy bombs between the 60th H.Q. in the Rue des Marechaux and the docks. The first effects on the defence were paralysing but, as others had experienced with Stukas, the damage was moral rather than physical. Within a few minutes, the riflemen eagerly fired Bren guns and engaged the Stukas, one of which was brought down on the seashore … ’ Neave continues: ‘At the Place Richelieu, Lord Cromwell, firing a Bren gun, was three times wounded that morning. He had already shown all those qualities that add up to real leadership in war. He was hit by bullets in both arms and in the head, the sight of one eye being badly affected. And yet he remained in command when all the men at his barricade, save himself and two riflemen were dead. At 11.30 a.m. he was compelled to fall back to the line of the Rue des Marechaux.’

Robert was repatriated in 1943 due to his injuries and continued to be active in public life, serving as  Lord-Lieutenant of Leicestershire between 1949 and 1966.He was invested as a Knight, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (K.St.J.).

In 2012 Robert’s medals came up for auction and fetched £8,200. However the value of the contribution of two generations of men in the wars of the twentieth century cannot be valued in monetary terms.

Robert Bewicke-Copley Medals.jpg

Robert Bewicke-Copley’s medals, from the 1914-15 star through to the Order of St John of Jerusalem

Once again, familiar themes demonstrate themselves in the instance of the Bewicke-Copley brothers:-

1. The memorialisation of war death in a parish church, as using Christian motifs. This reminds us that the an appreciation of the importance of Christianity in the minds of our ancestors is an essential prerequisite for a fully-rounded understanding of twentieth century warfare.
2. The sense of duty held by most of the ruling class of the time that led to such high casualty rates amongst junior officers such as Redvers.
3. The importance of the Church of England, as the guardian of so much of our shared history, of making that history as accessible as possible as was originally intended, rather than shutting out the visitor with a locked-door / Sundays only policy.
Sprotbrough church
The wonderful St Mary the Virgin, Sprotbrough. Well worth a visit.
The theme of Christianity in twentieth century warfare is explored in detail in my two books:
Fight the Good FightFight the Good Fight2

Restoring the memory of Private George Wallace Jackson, Sherwood Foresters

Whilst touring north Nottinghamshire in February 2016 I was shocked and saddened to come across this memorial headstone in the churchyard of St John the Evangelist, Carlton-in-Lindrick.

George Jackson

 One of the most poignant sights I have seen in years of research. The memorial to Private George Jackson, Sherwood Foresters.

Of the many hundreds of memorials I have come across, this was the first example of a statue on the grave of an individual, rather than for a community monument.

The inscription read:

“To the glorious memory of Pte George Wallace Jackson, 2/5 Sherwood Foresters, who fell in action in France, March 21st 1918, aged 22 years.

‘Greater Love Hath No Man Than This: That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends.’

This memorial was erected by his sorrowing mother.”

A further inscription marked the death of that mother, Charlotte Padley (formerly Jackson) in 1926.

I wondered if how the monument came to be that, hoping it was nature rather than vandalism. George Jackson’s mother had sought to come to terms with her loss through the use of the quotation from John 15:13, seen on so many memorials.

I decided that I could not leave this situation as it was and that further research was in order.

A search of the newspaper archives revealed this moving report from the Worksop Guardian of 1st August 1919:

After many months of suspense, the news has reached Mrs Charlotte W. Padley, Carlton that her son, Pte George Wallace Jackson, 2nd / 5th Bn. Sherwood Foresters, reported missing since March 21st 1918, was killed on that date. Pte Jackson, who was 22 years of age, was a well-conducted youth and respected by all who knew him.

Before enlisting, he was employed by the Worksop Co-operative society, where he went as soon a he left school, his brother and sister also being employed by the same society.

Pte Jackson was a son any mother might be proud of, and he leaves behind a memory which will long be cherished.

The Army Council forward a message of sympathy from the King and Queen, and his mother has also the sympathy of all who knew her gallant son in her bereavement.

George’s body was never recovered and he is one of nearly 35,000 names on the Arrass Memorial.

His mother, Charlotte, would have received the £24 12s 6d owing to George in back pay and war gratuity. I wonder if this money, a sum of around £1200 at 2016 values, was used to pay for the memorial?

George Jackson effects

The page from the Army’s Register of Soldiers’ Personal Effects relating to George Jackson (c)

So we have managed to find some further details about George Jackson, but what of the distressing state of his memorial? I emailed the vicar of the church who passed my contact on to Maurice Stokes, a parishioner who is investigating the possibility of restoration. To date (27th February 2016) a request has been made for an authentic copy of the complete uniform of the Sherwood Foresters. In addition an appeal is to be launched to trace any living relatives of George Jackson.

Mr Stokes has also gathered an estimate for the cost of the repair of the memorial, valued at £1000 to £1500.

Therefore, using the reach of social media, I am putting out an appeal to trace any relatives of George Jackson.

George had four surviving siblings plus a half brother.

His siblings were:

Evelyn Georgina Jackson (1888-1945)
Bazell Jackson (1891-1914)
Mildred Jackson (1895-?)
George Jackson (1896-1918)

Evelyn married George Betts in 1909 a they had five surviving children. These people were the nieces and nephews of Private George Jackson.

Joseph Norman Betts (1913-1995)
John Charles Betts (1915-1991)
Irene Betts (1917-1998)
Charlotte Betts (1920-2013)

They all seemed to have retained a connection to North Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

So the appeal at the moment is threefold:-

  1. To find further information on Private George Jackson, and to see if family members can provide a photograph and any knowledge as to where his campaign medals and `death penny’ might be.
  2. To find any further examples of gravestone / memorials like this one to get as an authentic reproduction as possible.
  3. To raise the funds for a proper restoration so that the memory of Private Jackson can be restored and full respect given to the sacrifice he gave, emblematic of that of hundreds of thousands of other young shop assistants, factory workers, clerks, postmen, teachers and people from all walks of life across the land.


Therefore if anyone can help with any of these three objectives, please contact me at

Donations towards the restoration can be made by clicking here

Update March 2016 –





Many thanks

Update May 2016

I have received communication from members of George Jackson’s family who were able to provide the following information:

George Wallace Jackson’s father, George Jackson, had been killed in a mining accident in 1898 whilst working at Wath Main Colliery in South Yorkshire. He was 30 years old and was run over by a wagon on an inclined plane.

It has been possible to find a picture of Charlotte, the widow of George Jackson sr and the mother of Private George Wallace Jackson. It was Charlotte who paid to have the vandalised memorial erected.

Charlotte Jackson Padley.jpg

In addition, a photograph is in existence of a young man in the uniform of the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment (Sherwood Foresters) to which both George Wallace Jackson and his half-brother, Cyril Padley, belonged. At this stage it is not known which of these it is. Cyril died in 1976, aged 77, in Retford, Nottinghamshire. Therefore the next stage is to contact the regional press to see if the photograph can be identified.

In addition I was given details of other family members which I shall be following up to see if they can shed any further light on the mystery.

Charlotte Jackson's son (2).jpg


The search continues…

Update August 2016

Due to enquiries made by family members with whom I have been in contact, a photograph of George Wallace Jackson himself has come to light. It looks as if it was taken in his mid-teens, probably at the time he started work with the Worksop Co-operative Society. My impression on seeing it was of the innocence and hope of youth, and a further example of the promise that was destroyed during the war. I now feel the pieces of the jigsaw are coming together.

George Wallace Jackson


John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, published by Pen and Sword.

Fight the Good Fight


Lord Reith of the BBC – John Reith of the 5th Scottish Rifles

As the nation remembers its war dead over the coming weeks, central to that commemoration will be the BBC broadcast of the Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph, Whitehall.

Her Majesty the Queen steps back to pay her respects after laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, during the Remembrance Sunday service. The Queen led the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London, as commemorations were held across the UK in honour of those who died in wars and conflicts. Thousands of current and former military personnel joined the Queen, together with the main party leaders, who also laid wreaths. 2010 marked the 90th anniversary of both the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, who was interred in Westminster Abbey. The Queen was the first to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, followed by other members of the Royal Family, Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and opposition leader Ed Miliband. About 4,500 ex-servicemen and women took part in a march past the Cenotaph.

However, many of those watching may not be aware of the role the founder and first Director-General of the BBC, John (later Baron) Reith played in the First World War, and how his Scottish Presbyterian background informed that role.

Born the son of a church minister in 1889, John had trained as an engineer before the war, but on its outbreak, was made transport officer of the 5th Scottish Rifles. He was sent to France in October 1914, and saw it his role to look after the spiritual as well as the physical wellbeing of his men.

John Reith

John Reith, with his trademark scar earned by a sniper’s bullet in 1915

In the run up to Easter 1915, shocked that his batman did not know the words of Psalm 23, he urged his men to read the Bible daily, something he noted they added to their list of routine duties. Twenty-two of them were later admitted to the Presbyterian Church, with his mother sending out Bibles for each of them.

On 7th October 1915, during the Battle of Loos, John was struck in the cheek by a sniper’s bullet and invalided back to England. In February 1916 he was sent to the USA to negotiate the supply of munitions to the UK. He became a popular and striking figure in Christian circles in Philedelphia, urging the Americans to join the war on the side of the allies. In one speech, made in January 1917 to the Presbyterian Social Union, he quoted from the Book of Judges:

Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.

Throughout the war, John Reith displayed a forcefulness of character and utter belief in his own philosophy and approach to the tasks he was given.

You can read more about his war experiences in my new book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, available to purchase from Pen and Sword Publishing.

Fight the Good Fight

The Brocklesby Family of Conisbrough, near Doncaster.

In many ways the wartime story of the Brocklesby family of the former pit village of Conisbrough, Yorkshire, is typical of a large section of the population of Britain in that era.

John Brocklesby was a grocer who also served as a Justice of the Peace, overseer of the poor and chairman of the parish council.  In addition he was a lay preacher at the local Methodist church.

John and his wife, Hannah, had produced four sons. Three of them had war experiences common amongst many families up and down the country. George, the eldest son, served as a recruiting sergeant for Conisbrough once war was declared and Britain tried to recruit a citizens’ army. John himself was elected as chairman of the town’s War Fund Committee and Hannah served on the Ladies’ Committee for Soldiers’ Relief.

The two youngest sons, Phil and Harold, served with distinction on the Western Front. Phil joined the Barnsley Pals and was in the midst of the carnage of the first day of the Battle of Somme on 1st July 1916. Harold fought at the Battle of Loos in 1915, surviving being shelled by both the Germans and his own artillery, despite the four officers in his company being killed.

Brocklesby family

The Brocklesby family of Conisbrough. Harold top left, George second from left, Bert second from right and Phil far right on the back row.

However it was the story of Bert Brocklesby that made the national headlines and saw his case discussed in parliament. Taking a very literal view of his Methodist upbringing, he interpreted the sixth commandment, `Thou Shalt not Kill’ to mean that he should refuse to have anything to do with the war, including working in industries which supported the war effort. Like his father, Bert served as a preacher in the chapel.

On a cold January evening in 1915 he stood up to give the address in Conisbrough Methodist Chapel, taking as the text Romans 12:19:

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord

Bert continued to say how the war was morally wrong; how that Christ would never bear arms against a fellow human. Conisbrough was shocked. Bert was to lose many friends, and was sacked from his job as a schoolteacher.

Along with hundreds of other men, he became an absolutist conscientious objector. He was arrested and imprisoned in Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire, where the drawings he made on his cell wall can be seen to this day.

Richmond Castle

Bert Brocklesby’s moving depiction of his imprisonment at Richmond Castle
`Every cross grows light beneath
The shadow Lord of Thine’

Eventually he was taken, with fifteen other men, to France, where he was sentenced to death for refusing to obey military orders in a war zone. However there was to be a dramatic twist to his tale….

Find out what happened to Bert Brocklesby, and how the other members of this devout Christian family reacted to the position taken by their son and brother in my new book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War.  It contains an analysis of the different ways in which Christianity was important in different areas of the war, twenty-three case studies of individuals, and a foreword by the respected MP for Barnsley Central Dan Jarvis, Labour’s Spokesman on War Commemoration.

If you would like a signed and personally inscribed copy for the discounted price of £18 including p+p, please email me at


Fight the Good Fight

My second book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War is also available now. Special offer price is £30 for the two, a combined saving of £10 on the rrp. P+P is free too!

Southwell Minster (2) The Handford brothers of the Sherwood Foresters

As well as the very special Second World War pieces mentioned in the previous blog post about our visit to Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, there was a First World War window with a twist to it. It was dedicated to two brothers killed during the war. I have come across other examples of windows to brothers, notably at Mattersey in the same county (see here: ).

However the two young men commemorated here were both killed on the same day; October 14th 1915 at the Hohenzollern Redoubt during the Battle of Loos.

Southwell Minster 1

The inscription in the bottom right hand corner reads:

For a Remembrance before God of Henry Basil Strutt Handford, Capt. VIIIth Battn Sherwood Foresters, and of Everard Francis Sale Handford, Lieut. VIIIth Battn Sherwood Foresters who were killed in action in France on Oct 14th 1915.
`Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.’

This moving final sentence was taken from the first book of Samuel, 1:23, referring to the lives of King Saul and his son Jonathan, killed in battle fighting the Philistines. This is yet another example of how the memorialisation of death took on a distinctly Christian flavour in the Britain of 100 years ago.

The window depicts St Michael and St George, and I am sure that the blue dragon being slaughtered sports a large moustache and the features of the German Kaiser!

Henry and Everard were the only sons of Major Henry Handford, the medical officer of health for Nottinghamshire, and Hon Mary Handford. Both had attended Rugby School, with Henry being described as a `fine athlete’ and Everard a `prominent Rugby football player’ in the Nottingham Evening Post of 20th October 1915. Both had won places at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Henry took a 2nd Class in the first part of the law tripos in 1914. He had joined the 8th Sherwood Foresters as Second Lieutenant 13th July 1912, was promoted Lieutenant 2nd September 1914 and Captain 26th April 1915. He volunteered for foreign service in August 1914, leaving his law course unfinished, went to France 25th February 1915 and was killed in action at the Hohenzollern Redoubt 15th October 1915, aged 21.

Southwell Minster 12

Henry Handford

Everard had been born in Nottingham 3rd May 1895. He was due to have taken up residence in Cambridge in October 1914 but volunteered for foreign service in August and obtained a commission as Second Lieutenant in the 8th Sherwood Foresters 3rd October 1914, being promoted Lieutenant 1st October 1915. He went to France in 12th July 1915 and was killed in action at the Hohenzollern Redoubt 15th October 1915, aged 20.

Southwell Minster 11

Everard Handford

Like Rudyard Kipling’s son John, featured in the film `My Boy Jack’, and Percy Paris Pope of the Dorchester brewing family, Henry and Everard’s bodies were never recovered, and they are commemorated on a panel of the Loos Memorial in France.

Today their faces stare at us as a distance of 100 years, faces full of hope for the future and the promise of a life to fulfil. However those lives, which had shared their schooling and university careers, were cut so short like those of hundreds of thousands of others in the conflict.

John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, a series of twenty-three case studies of individuals who experienced the war from a variety of faith perspectives. It features a foreword by respected MP Dan Jarvis, Labour’s spokesman on war commemoration.

Fight the Good Fight

A companion volume, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, featuring many original interviews with people who lived through the conflict.

Fight the Good Fight2

Pastor Pieter-Jozef Dergent, Martyr of Gelrode

I first became aware of the moving story of Pastor Dergent through an exercise book completed by a young man, Samuel Ching, at Mrs Hayman’s Boys’ Bible Class in Bournemouth during the First World War. In it reference was made to a Father Dergent standing up for his faith against the German onslaught into Belgium in 1914.

Some online newspaper and magazine searches revealed that Dergent’s case had made front-page news in the British and American press during the early part of 1915, as stories of German atrocities in Belgium were circulated, both to encourage people in Britain to volunteer for the army, and to stimulate sympathy for the allied cause in then-neutral America.

Only one published work exists about the life of Pastor Dergent, a book written in Dutch by a friend of his who investigated the case in the late 1940s. With the help of this book, and a visit to the sites associated with Pastor Dergent undertaken in Easter 2015, it was possible to piece together the story of tragic heroism; a story that probably touched me as deeply as any of those I came across during my research.

Paster Dergent

Pieter-Josef Dergent was a 44-year-old Catholic priest in the tiny parish of Gelrode, in the Leuven region of Belgium. He was well-loved by his parishioners, and he took care of children and the infirm, and it was considered that he was beginning a Christian revival in Gelrode, where he had been in post for just under a year.

On 19th August 1914, German troops occupied Gelrode and the nearby town of Aarschot. They considered priests to be dangerous partisans, capable of inspiring resistance from the Belgian people. The following week, Pastor Dergent ignored a ruling to stay within the village of Gelrode, setting off to take wounded civilians to a nearby monastery. On returning through Aarschot, he was arrested and imprisoned.

The following day he was taken to the outside of the church at Aarschot, where 3,000 prisoners were being held, and repeatedly brutalised in a disgusting manner, whilst being taunted to renounce his faith. He raised two fingers of his right hand and said:

I swear before God and the saints that I will not renounce my faith.

Aarschot church

The church at Aarschot, showing the place where the torture of Pastor Dergent occurred

He was then beaten and stoned, and his body thrown into the nearby river Demer, from where it was recovered on 2nd September and hastily buried

On 14th November his body was reburied at Gelrode, and today a beautiful memorial marks the place.

Pastor Dergent Grave

The author visiting Pastor Dergent’s grave in April 2015

There is also a statue in his honour on the main rode, and the local primary school is named VBS Pastor Dergent in his honour.

Pastor Dergent Statue

The full story of Pastor Dergent is one of twenty-three case studies contained in my first book, Fight the Good Fight, Voices of Faith from the First World War. The book also contains a foreword by respected MP Dan Jarvis, Labour’s spokesman on war commemoration

Fight the Good Fight


Nurse Edith Cavell

Recognition of the life of Edith Cavell will rightly play a large part in the commemoration of the First World War during the latter part of 2015. In particular the anniversary of her death on 12 October will see a revisiting of the themes of bravery, devotion to her work, patriotism and humanity which illuminated her life.

However it is impossible to fully appreciate the remarkable life of Edith Cavell without an understanding of the central importance of Christianity in her view of the world.

Edith Cavell

Born in Swardeston, into the family of a Norfolk parson,  Rev Frederick Cavell, Edith was brought up in a tradition of Sabbath observance and belief in the Bible as the Word of God. It was my privilege, two years ago, to hold in my hands that very Bible, now kept in the archive of the Norwich City Library, and to read the verses and comments Edith had marked out.

It was not just the Bible which was at the core of Edith’s Christianity. During her imprisonment whilst awaiting trail for assisting in the escape of allied soldiers through her nursing home in Brussels, she also had her prayer book and a copy of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis in her cell.

Remarkably, those books were returned to her family after her execution, and in 1920 the `Edith Cavell’ edition of the Imitation of Christ was published, complete with the annotations and comments she had made during those last few weeks of her life. Preparing for her probable death, she had highlighted:

Into Thy hands I commend my spirit, for Thou has redeemed me, O Lord, Thou God of Truth

She tried to make sense of her impending death:

Vanity it is to wish to live long, and to be careless to live well.

After being sentenced to death on 11 October, Edith spent her last night in the company of Rev Horace Gahan, the chaplain of Christ Church in Brussels.

She told him:

I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in front of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.

Gahan then performed the communion, before the pair sang Abide with Me and said their moving farewells.

The full account of Edith Cavell’s last night on earth is one of the most moving passages I have read from the First World War.  A fuller version of it appears in my forthcoming book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, available to order now from Pen and Sword. To do so, click on this link.

Fight the Good Fight

Up from the Gates: A Story of Divine Dealing at Dunkirk

One of the most intense testimonies I have come across from the Second World War was written by Captain Edgar Beresford-Mash of the Army Dental Corps and first published in 1941.

In it he describes the events surrounding his rescue from DunkirkUp from the Gates


Edgar was a dentist operating a practice in the south-western suburbs of London, and serving as a leading member of the Mission of Hope, a charity set up to assist unmarried mothers and their children.

In addition or some years Edgar had held a commission in the Territorial Army Reserve, and on being called up on 3rd September 1939, `I found it an intense mental and spiritual struggle to adapt myself to a new life, a military life.’

Edgar had a book of daily devotional readings called the Daily Light, and during this period two readings struck him powerfully, and he felt God was speaking to him directly:

Chronicles 20:17, `Ye shall not need to fight in this battle, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord…for the Lord will be with you.’

Genesis 28:15, `Behold I am with thee and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest and will leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.’

He embarked for France in April 1940, landing at Le Havre and spent a few weeks in Bethune prior the the German invasion of the Lowlands.  When the attack began a fierce air attack left him temporarily deafened. He moved across to Dixmuide in Belgium, treating hundreds of battle casualties at a Casualty Clearing Station, including a German pilot who had been shot down.

By 29 May 1940 the CCS had moved along the coast to La Panne, operating from a casino. After two days orders were received to evacuate.  They were told to march to Bray Dunes to await evacuation at 4.30pm on 31st May.  Edgar was one of the last men in the rear party.  However the party was broken up by German aerial bombardment. He and his few remaining comrades marched on with little food and water to the Dunkirk Mole.

Avoiding screaming shells, they walked past dead bodies:

Life slipped quickly away, but the full story of the Dunkirk beaches reveals that Life came to Dunkirk as well as Death – spiritual Life.  There were men who were definitely converted where they stood or lay on those beachers. The testimony of not a few of them is that even in that unlikely place and amid all the confusion of warfare they heard the voice of Christ appealing for their personal surrender to Him; they are with us today and bear the testimony gladly.’


Charles Cundall’s official painting of the Dunkirk evacuation

Eventually Edgar climbed aboard a destroyer to return to England.


Desperately trying to hold off aerial bombardment as men try to board the rescue destroyers


The scamble for safety

Another bombardment hit the ship, three bombs scoring a direct hit. A roar of flame spread through the sick bay, burning Edgar’s neck and head. He thought he had been killed, and for one moment he thought that God had failed to keep his promise from September 1939.

Edgar found himself in the flaming water, but then experienced what was, for him, the `utter nearness’ of God.

Events were to take a surprising turn.  Edgar’s full story, illuminated by reminiscences from family members, is told in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War

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Edith Gell’s The Happy Warrior

The Hon Mrs Edith Gell’s pocket-sized book, The Happy Warrior, sold an amazing 400,000 copies between 1914 and 1918.

Edith Gell (1123x1280)

Hon. Mrs Edith Gell

Subtitled Daily Thoughts for all who are serving their country (whether on land, or sea, or in the air), it was a collection of daily Bible quotes based on weekly war-related themes such as:

The Summons,The Raising of the Standard, The Parting, A Righteous War, On the March, Champions of the Air

The Happy Warrior

Pocket-sized The Happy Warrior

Each week would have supporting quotes from hymns, poems or works of literature.

The Foreword was written by Lord Roberts, the Former Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, just five days before his death at the age of 82.  He wrote:

Active service and camp life give little time for reflection, but it is just when leading the life of a soldier at the front in time of war that the stimulating effect of noble thoughts and high ideals is most needed.  The Happy Warrior is designed to give all who champion our country’s honour and the cause of truth, justice and liberty, whether on land, on sea, or in the air – inspiring thoughts for each day, which may also be a bond of union with the dear ones left at hoe – whether in the mother country or in the Greater Britain beyond the seas – a golden link between husbands and wives, parents and sons, mothers, sisters and lovers, seperated perhaps by thousands of mile, but each day thining the same thought, praying the same prayer, by the help of The Happy Warrior

We are fighting for high ideals, and even amidst all the horrors of war and its temptations to retaliation and excess, these ideals must not be lost sigh og, or war becomes a degenerating instead of a puryfying influence. I think it will be a great help to many men to commit to memory the brief daily sentences in this little book, and think of them constantly during the day; for the sustaining power of a noble thought or a good resolution is of great value.

Lord Roberts

Lord Roberts

Edith Gell lived at Hopton Hall, Derbyshre, and as well as the production of this book, she was active in organising groups knitting soldiers’ comforts, recruitment for the army, exhorting women to remain chaste when their men were away at war and co-ordinating an intercessionary chain of prayer.  Her story is one of twenty-three case studies from the First World War recounted in my new book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War. The book also features a foreword by prominent Labour MP Dan Jarvis, their spokesman on War Commemoration.

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Eric Cordingly, Harry Stogden and the Changi Cross

Two of the most moving examples of the ways in which the FEPOW experience affected the inner spiritual lives of the men who had to endure it are those of Army Chaplain Eric Cordingly, and Sgt. Harry Stogden.

Eric Cordingly was a rector from the Cotswolds when the Second World War broke out.  He volunteered as an army chaplain and experienced the Dunkirk retreat before finding himself in Singapore in February 1942, being captured by the Japanese.

Eric Cordingly Changi

Eric Cordingly inside Changi Chapel

Through three and a half years in captivity Eric continued his ministry, creating chapel wherever he was, including by the infamous Thai-Burma Railway. The first of these chapels was in the Changi Barracks and was christened `St George’ after the insignia of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers of which he was a part.  The building had previously been a mosque used by the Indian army when they were stationed at Changi.  Men set to work creating the fixtures and fittings using what tools and materials they could find and created a beautiful space to worship.

St George

The former mosque which became St George Chapel, drawn by POW Eric Stacy

One particularly charming story was told by Eric in Down to Bedrock:-

`…on a wet afternoon a little bearded Indian arrived on the pillion of a motorcycle.  He came straight to me where I was busy giving a talk in Church.  He introduced himself as the Moslem priest whose mosque we were now using.  He had coem for his prayer books, which fortunately I had saved and kept hidden in my cupboard.  He was overjoyed to receive them, and in `pidgin’ English we introduced each other as `padres’ of religion.  He rather surprised me with his broadminded remark that he was glad that I was using his building, and that it was being used for the worship of God.’

Eric also led the `Theological Faculty’ at the `University’ set up in the camp.  He oversaw the education of around thirty men, with no books or teaching aids to help him.  Regular services were held in the chapel, with a daily morning communion, evening prayers, choir practices and instruction for those wishing to be confirmed as Anglicans.  Communion took place using a concoction of raisins, water and sugar as the wine.

Eric wrote:-

I shall hope to be able to convince the reader of what is at present felt by us all, namely a growing religious life centred around our Church of St George.  No priest could wish for a happier “parish” or sphere of work…We seem somehow to ahve back to fundamentals and simple wholesome worship, and we all feel the need for a real religion and all this in spite of the unpleasantness of Captivity, lack of nourishing food, and the tropical heat.  My own life personally is richer by these experiences…Iam sure this experience is something I shall value forever.’

One of the items made for the chapel was a brass altar cross, the base being fashioned from a Howitzer shell case. Eric drew the design and the cross itself was made by Sgt Harry Stogden of the RAOC.  The cross went with Eric up the line to the Thai-Burma railway, back to Changi and eventually to Eric’s mantelpiece during his subsequent career which saw him rise to the position of Bishop of Thetford.  In 1992 Eric’s family returned to cross to Changi where today it adorns the chapel in the museum as a symbol of hope and reconciliation and to remind visitors of the strength of the human spirit when facing the most adverse conditions.

Changi CrossThe Changi Cross – from Changi to Kanchanaburi to Changi to Gloucestershire to Norfolk and back to Changi!

Tragically the maker of the cross, Harry Stogden, died in 1945 whilst en route back to England.  However his son, Bernard, was able to attend the ceremony to place the cross on the altar at the museum’s chapel, bringing him closer to the father he never knew.


Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden

This story is moving in so many different ways – the tragedy of the lives lost unnecessarily due to starvation and preventable diseases, including that of Harry Stogden, the strength of character and moral purpose shown by Eric Cordingly and many others under the most unimaginable conditions, and the inspiration which both Eric, Harry and those mentioned in the books are able to carry on providing due to the generosity of their families in bringing their remarkable stories to a wider audience.

The last word is from Eric Cordingly, writing two decades after these experiences in Beyond Hatred (ed. Guthrie Moir, Lutterworth Press, 1967):-

`It was the most wonderful time of my life, in spite of the grim and hungry times. For once, and for three and a half years, the thin veneer of civilization, or reticence, had been stripped from men. We were all down to bedrock. One saw people as they really were…the truly remarkable thing was the way the human spirit rose to magnificent heights. After months of sheer degradation, gradually the spirit to care for one another revived, incredible kindness and self-sacrifice was in evidence’

The full story of Eric Cordingly and the Changi Cross is one of twenty case studies in my new book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War

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