Posts Tagged ‘Village’

Holy Mowers prevent Devon village war dead fading from memory

October 26th, 2014

Donaldson was in all likelihood killed while riding one of the horses towing a gun carriage, and without the intervention of Mr McNab and his friends his name, and that of the other fallen, risked fading into obscurity.

Another of the village’s dead was Major AA Cordner, of the Royal Marines Light Infantry, killed on St Georges Day, 1818, at the age of 28, when his ship HMS Vindictive took part in the Allied raid on Zeebrugge.

Mr McNab, 82, said: “It became obvious two years ago that the lettering of the names on the War Memorial had faded to such a degree that the young Army cadets who read out the names of the fallen in both wars on Remembrance Day could barely decipher them. I just decided we needed to do something about it to make sure the names could be read and that the individual sacrifice of those men would continue to be remembered.”

But the group’s efforts did not stop at simply renovating the memorial’s lettering.

Mr McNab and his friends, Rob Rawlings, Peter Heaton, Robert Clifford and Tim Clifford – collectively known as the Holy Mowers – decided to apply for a grant from the War Graves Commission. With the £750 they received they undertook a complete restoriation of the granite memorial cross and its surroundings in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Whitchurch.

For several years the Holy Mowers had been cutting the grass and weeding the area around the cross and the nine war graves which surrounded it – some dating back from the 1860s, with another four from the 1914-18 conflict and two from the Second World War.

Now, with the War Graves Commission Grant, they set about repairing the paths around the memorial and cleaning up the cross itself.

“It was apparent that the area surrounding the granite memorial was in an horrendous condition,” said Mr McNab, who served with the Black Watch during the Korean War and in Kenya, followed by 17 years in the Royal Marines. “Working on Saturday mornings we dug the site over and cleared it of weeds, rocks and old tree roots.

“Then we boarded the sides of the site, laid a membarne down and began laying down the gravel – carting it onto the site in 72 barrel loads in one day.”

Finally the memorial’s facing was cleaned and the names re-painted, with the work completed in time for the site to be re-dedicated and ready for next month’s Remembrance Day service.

To keep costs down the Holy Mowers carried out the work themselves, allowing them to spend the grant – and an additional £150 they raised locally – on the necessary materials.

Mr McNab said: “We’d work for two hours and then retire to the local inn for an hour to refresh our ancient bodies. Most of us don’t attend church, but we firmly believe that the churchyard needs to be maintained and the men of the village remembered.”

One recent episode served to illustrate the importance of the group’s labours.

While he was crouched over the memorial, repainting the names of those lost, Mr McNab was approached by a Canadian family.

They had travelled to the village in the hope of finding the resting place of a distant family member, killed in action overseas.

“The family couldn’t find the grave – it’s whereabouts aren’t known – but they did see their relative’s name on the memorial. I fact I’d just been painting that section and they were delighted to see how much care was being taken of the war graves and the memorial itself”, said Mr McNab. “It was a very moving moment.”

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Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead, review: ‘riven with complexity’

July 7th, 2014

Before the war, the area had grown as a hikers’ resort in summer months; in the winter, snow made it almost inaccessible. This meant there were lots of guesthouses, hotels, schools and spare rooms. Pastor Andre Trocme, Eduoard Theis, an Englishwoman called Gladys Maber and many others began taking in Jewish children. There is the story of the Bloch family, who arrived later in the war, having been forced to leave an increasingly oppressive and menacing Lyon. The two Bloch boys loved the adventure of this new landscape. They were sometimes challenged by German soldiers, who demanded to know if they were Jewish. They replied that they were Protestant. Almost 50 years later, Pierre Bloch thanked the village “for my happy childhood as a little Jew during the Holocaust”. But it was still a nerve-shredding existence. All families on this high plateau – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish – were subject to aggressive police visits; children would frequently have to be hidden in barns, in cupboards, out in the snowy woods. And there were many heart-in-mouth efforts to get groups of refugees across the heavily guarded border to Switzerland. The daily suspense grew more intense with the opening of a convalescent home for wounded German soldiers. Then there were the arrests and interrogations of community leaders.

Moorehead analyses the web of relations between villagers and local Vichy officials and even Wehrmacht officers who seemed intriguingly ambiguous. But she widens this investigation across the region, drawing in stories of astoundingly brave resistance, contrasted with the SS’s steadily more psychopathic behaviour as the Allies closed in.

Her book is also about ownership of history. Moorehead analyses how, in recent years, the story of Chambon-sur-Lignon has been fluffed up as a sort of national comfort blanket – a beacon of redemptive light in Vichy darkness – at the expense of other people and communities who defended Jewish fugitives. And at the expense of difficult truths. Some farmers who took in Jewish children, for instance, didn’t always treat them kindly. Equally, one German officer who wanted to hold a Jewish child on his lap at the circus was – that boy realised later – actually desperately missing his own boy.

If anything, Moorehead’s pacy, headlong narrative, zigzagging across the war years and different territories with so many piercing vignettes and close detail, packs too much in and the structure suffers. A longer book would have given more room for reflection, especially on the years that came after the war, the aftershocks of trauma for so many.

Having said that, stories of this weight could occupy several volumes and would still disorientate with all the possibilities – both altruistic and malevolent – of human nature.

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

356pp, Chatto & Windus, Telegraph offer price: £18 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) (RRP £20, ebook £11.99). Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

READ: Best books of 2014

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