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‘so nobly sacrificed their lives': Dorchester war memorials

Brian Bates tells the story behind two very different Dorchester memorials to the fallen of World War 1

A contemporary image of the unveiling of the 'Cenotaph' with families of those honoured thereon in the foreground

After World War 1 had ended with the Armistice on Monday 11 November 1918, the question arose of what to do with the bodies of those killed overseas. In the end, the Government decided that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of rank or class, and that those who fell should remain where they were. For the families and loved ones the war had finished but their grieving had not, and part of that process was the need for some kind of recognition of their loss. Communities like Dorchester also felt the desire to have some tangible, permanent record of the sacrifice made, and memorials of different types began to spring up in nearly every town and village throughout the land. What made Dorchester different were the turbulent background to the creation of its main war memorial, and the fact that the town also erected a memorial dedicated to the enemy.
The war memorial at the corner of South Street and South Walks was never officially called a cenotaph, but most locals call it by that name. It did not have an easy birth. The idea of creating something that would be a memorial to the sacrifice made by the people of the town was first discussed publicly at a meeting at the Corn Exchange on 14 March 1919, when the mayor said that they had a duty to erect some memorial to ‘the gallant Dorchester men who had so nobly sacrificed their lives for King and Country’ (Dorset County Chronicle, 20 March 1919). The meeting decided to appoint a committee of 24 persons to consider the various suggestions put forward, which included a swimming pool, a working man’s institute, the endowment of scholarships and a convalescent home for children. The committee went away to deliberate and reported back to another public meeting on 2 June. Not surprisingly, with so many members the committee could not agree on a single proposal and instead presented both a minority and a majority report. The majority report proposed a monument located at the junction of South Street and Trinity Street, outside Ernest Tilley’s cycle shop, and in addition the erection of a memorial institute and victory hall, providing the money to pay for it could be found. The minority report agreed with the idea of the memorial but not its siting and did not consider that funds could be raised for the memorial hall.
Things came to an impasse at that point and any idea of a memorial might have been mothballed forever had it not been for the Dorchester Comrades of the Great War who, in January 1920, wrote to the town council and asked for the scheme to be resuscitated. The matter was duly resurrected and it was finally agreed that a monument should be built in its present position at the corner of South Street and South Walks, even though some of the chestnut trees in the Walks would have to be removed and the kerb re-aligned to accommodate the structure.

The rear of Dorchester's main Great War memorial commemorates those who were involved in having it built and declaring it open

When it came to the design for the monument, the council looked to Sir Edwin Lutyens, the designer of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and wrote asking if the design was copyrighted. His office replied that it was but they were sure that he would not object to it being copied, providing he supervised the work. The expenses of employing such a renowned architect were too much for the council so, instead, they sought estimates from local firms for the design, carving and erection of a monument. The winning tender was that of Algernon Grassby, monumental mason, of Maumbury Way, at a cost of £400.
Attached to the front of the memorial, which is made of Portland whitbed stone, are bronze plaques bearing the names of the fallen. These were made by Robert Membury at the Model Brass Foundry in Colliton Street. Except for a couple of complaints concerning omissions, everyone seemed happy with the 239 names listed. They include one woman, Constance Hodges.
At the forefront of the multitude gathered before the Cenotaph on the day of unveiling by Lord Ellenborough, 24 May 1921, were the mourners. The remainder of the congregation included local dignitaries and representatives of organisations in the town. After the singing of several hymns, addresses by local clergy and a reminder to all about the sacrifice that had been made, the Last Post was played and Dorchester’s Great War dead were finally put to rest.

The front of the cenotaph, showing the names of those who fell in World War 1. Memorials to the fallen of World War 2 are on the sides of the monolith.

Dorchester’s more unusual war memorial is built into a grassy bank at the eastern end of Fordington Cemetery and commemorates the 45 Germans who were buried here. It was erected at the end of the War and depicts a German soldier in uniform, kneeling with bowed head, holding a rifle. The inscription underneath reads ‘Hier ruhen Deutsche Krieger in fremder Erde doch unvergessen’ (Here lie German soldiers in a foreign land but not forgotten).

The inscription underneath reads ‘Hier ruhen Deutsche Krieger in fremder Erde doch unvergessen’ (Here lie German soldiers in a foreign land but not forgotten).

The first prisoner to die was Bernhard Schneider, whose funeral set the pattern for others that followed. The time chosen was early morning, to avoid the traffic. A funeral service was held at the prison camp by Rev. Stratton Holmes, pastor of the local Congregational Church, who not only spoke German but also was considered acceptable by the mainly Lutheran prisoners. Despite the early start of 6.30 am, the crowds turned out and two policemen led the procession through the town to clear the way. A firing party preceded the Prison Guard brass band, then came the coffin, on a gun carriage drawn by horses, followed by a contingent of about 50 prisoners, accompanied by members of the prison guard, and an open carriage full of wreaths. The whole spectacle must have been impressive and one wonders what the good folk of Dorchester made of it. One Fordington woman made her views known, via the Dorset County Chronicle of 2 September 1915: ‘I only hope that in Germany they treat our men as well and pay as much respect to those who die’.

The block of stone catching the sunlight in the top left of the image is the German memorial which commemorates the POWs who lost their lives far from home

There is little information about the men who were interred, but we do know that two died of appendicitis, one of gas poisoning and another of carbolic poisoning. One man was shot while trying to escape. On the night of 16 May 1919 Rupert Gilder of the Royal Rifle Brigade was sergeant of the guard at the camp. At about 12.45 am he was startled by two shots and immediately raised the alarm with his officer. The two men ran to where the shots came from and found two sentries who, when asked why the shots had been fired, replied that a prisoner had attempted to escape. The man lying fatally wounded in the barbed wire was Franz Radgowski, a 20-year-old Pole who was found to have a pair of wire cutters on his person. Franz was taken to the camp hospital but soon died. At the inquest the jury were satisfied that the proper warnings had been given and the guards were exonerated.
Until September 1918 there were only twelve fatalities at the camp, but after that the number escalates to eighteen for the remainder of 1918 and fifteen in 1919. Most of these were doubtlessly caused by the flu epidemic which also killed some of the guards at the camp. The bodies of those interred in Fordington Cemetery were later exhumed and buried in the Cannock Chase war cemetery, Staffordshire; some local people believe that the remains were sent back to Germany and, as there is no definitive list, it is difficult to establish how many of the 5000 buried in Cannock Chase came from Dorchester.

Dorchester Remembers the Great War
This article was edited and abridged from the epic volume by Brian Bates. The book itself was inspired by the moment when, in casting his eyes down the list of names on the cenotaph on Remembrance Day in 2005, he wondered just who were these people who had laid down their lives for their country. He set out to find the stories of the near 300 names which feature on Dorchester’s memorials and to make human the individuals whose names he had read.
Some stories are an aggregation of facts, but even these can be harrowing; Frank Adams (5’2″ and 7st 12lbs) was sixteen when he presented himself (to a recruiting sergeant) claiming to be 19 years and 2 months old in August 1914. Five months later he died as a result of larking around when another soldier shot him with what he thought to be a blank; it was not.
Interspersed with the stories of the fallen are brief, informative descriptions of the various World War 1 campaigns; for the third battle of Ypres, for example, he reveals that 4.25 million shells were fired in the preliminary bombardment.
A couple of hours spent reading this book, followed by a mental calculation of how long it would take to produce a similar book for the other 8.5 million combatants who were killed on the battlefield or who died during and after World War 1, let alone the 29 million non-fatal casualties of that single conflict, gives a sense of the scale of the inaccurately described ‘war to end all wars’. Although the scale of waste of World War 1 cannot truly be captured by mere numbers, the very real and recognisable human scale of this book make it incredibly powerful. This book is not just a labour of love, but an extraordinary evocation of the lives and deaths of ordinary men recorded in one Dorset town.

Dorchester Remembers the Great War, ISBN 978-1-906651-16-9, is published at £12.99 by Roving Press Ltd, 4 Southover Cottages, Frampton, Dorset DT2 9NQ. Tel 01300 321531, www.rovingpress.co.uk

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