Posted in Events, Personal life

Sombre for the Somme Centenary

A post about the Somme centenary service in Hawkesbury Upton and Simon Bendry’s new book commemorating Hawkesbury’s war dead and war veterans

Panoramic photo of hills around Hawkesbury
The Somerset Monument, commemorating a local officer in the Napoleonic Wars, towers above my village, Hawkesbury Upton

Sometimes looking around our village, nestling comfortably on the last of the Cotswolds before the landscape tumbles down into the Severn Vale, it’s easy to believe that this is a safe and privileged place, untouched by human conflict.

That is, until you notice the village war memorial, marked by a simple cross on the Plain, as our small village green is known. Surrounded by historic houses and the traditional pound, where stray livestock would be impounded for the collection, the war memorial is a daily reminder that during both World Wars many members of our community served their country in HM Armed Forces, a substantial number never to return. Some of these were lost while serving in the Somme.

How We Remembered Them

Each year on Remembrance Sunday, the local branch of the British Legion organises a respectful procession from the Village Hall, originally the Hospital Hall treating military casualties, to the Plain, for a simple service around the war memorial, bringing all generations together. This gathered throng far exceeds the usual number of church attendees, and typically includes past, present and future officers from HM Forces, as well as descendants of those named on the memorial. Many of those surnames are still represented in our community.

Our Somme Remembrance Service

cover of programme with poppy saying "Remember"
The service sheet used at our Somme Centenary remembrance service

On Friday 1st July, we held an additional services at 7:30am, along with many other communities nationwide who marked the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. It included the three sharp blasts on a military whistle that marked the call to go “over the top” of the trenches to face gunfire from the enemy. In the course of a long process, over a million men tragically to lose their lives for no obvious gain.

In Hawkesbury Upton, our act of remembrance for the Somme included at least one high-ranking officer, one young servicemen currently on leave, and one new recruit eagerly awaiting his joining instructions. Their presence was a sobering reminder that the names on the monument represented real characters, much loved by their community, and that in times of war, not even our cosy little village would be a safe haven.

Invitation card in shape of Westminster Abbey
The invitation to the Westminster Abbey vigil, organised by Simon Bendry from Hawkesbury Upton

Nor is our village as remote or insignificant as the outsider might assume from the national events, because, to the pride of our entire community, one young man from our village played a pivotal part in the national commemorations. Simon Bendry, who grew up in our community, went to school here, and whose parents live here still, was part of the small team that created and ran the all-night vigil the night before in Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen to lead the national act of respect.

It was Simon’s idea that the vigil would link to a series of individuals who took part in the war, and that throughout the night their stories would be shared. You can listen to their accounts here.

Simon works as National Education Coordinator, First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, for the UCL Institute of Education.

New Commemorative Book of the War Memorial

Cover of book by Simon Bendry
A labour of love by a Hawkesbury historian

Though Simon may have been far from the village as we paid our local tribute, I’m sure he will have had the Hawkesbury fallen in his thoughts, following the publication earlier this year of his moving personal tribute: a biography of each of those named on the Hawkesbury War Memorial plus those who served but survived. This meticulous labour of love was the result of 18 years of research, something he had longed to do since passing the memorial each day on his way to and from school. The  beautifully produced book, a huge asset in our growing library of local history books, is available to buy in the Hawkesbury Stores, Hawkesbury Upton Post Office and online.

Earlier Commemoration in 2014

The service and Simon’s book also brought back memories of another tribute made by our village drama club two years ago to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. They created a revue which combined local materials such as letters from serving officers with more well-known items. I have never seen a more moving piece of drama than when the village children, including my daughter then aged 11, all dressed in black and holding poppies, silently and slowly fell, one by one, to the floor during a recital of John Macrae’s poem In Flanders Fields which includes the chilling line “We are the dead”.

Down here in our idyllic little village, a hundred miles from the nation’s capital, off the beaten track and off the national agenda, we shall remember them.

poppy field public domain





English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

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