St George’s Memorial Church: A Concise History by Gillian Hawkes

In Ieper (Ypres) today there are two great memorials to the fallen of the First World War, perhaps the best known of which is the Menin Gate. St George’s however can be viewed with equal importance in regards to perpetual remembrance.

The first mention of the foundation of an Anglican Church in Ieper was in August 1919. A few months later an article was published in The Times that an Anglican Church was to be built in Ieper to serve both as permanent memorial to the dead but also as a meeting place for the visiting relatives.

Opinion on this was however, divided as illustrated by a letter sent to the Editor of The Times indicating that an Anglican church would not be appropriate both because many of the soldiers who were killed were not members of the Church of England and also because Belgium was a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

The movement to build such a church only really got underway with the foundation of the Ypres League in 1920. The president was a Canadian, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Beckles Willson, who had acted as town major of Ieper in 1919 and was also instrumental in the creation of the Imperial War Museum. The chairman of the Ypres League was Field Marshal French, and the patrons were the King and the Prince of Wales. Their aim was to keep alive the memory of Ieper and of the sacrifices that were made in the Ieper Salient during the years 1914-1918. The Ypres League published its own magazine, the Ypres Times, organised pilgrimages and meetings all over Britain as well as holding an annual Ypres Day on 31st October. In Ieper, in the Surmont Volsberghestraat, they had a house in which they kept an extensive library.

A decade after the declaration of war, during the annual pilgrimage, Field Marshal French, called for donations to help to build a church in Ieper. The then Archbishop of Canterbury too was supportive of this initiative. One of the commissioners of the Imperial War Graves Commission suggested building a chapel of remembrance by the Menin Gate, but this would have been open to people of all denominations, in keeping with the spirit of the war graves.

The Ypres League contacted Sir Reginald Blomfield to draw plans for a memorial church.

The first location that was considered was by the Rijselpoort (Lille Gate) near to the Ramparts cemetery. The town council however, objected to this so the search for a more suitable location continued. The fundraising for the church however, continued apace. The death of the president in 1925, Field Marshal French, gave renewed vigour to the campaign. The site which was suggested by the town council was also located on the ramparts near to the ‘Leeuwentoren’ (Lion’s Tower) but this suggestion was rejected by the Bishop of Fulham as it was located too far from the city centre. Finally, through the help of the Imperial War Graves Commission a suitable plot of land was found on the corner of the A. Vandenpeereboomplein. The land was duly purchased of the widow of Arthur Merghelynck, town archivist and founder of the Merghelynck museum. Now work could start in earnest. The idea to build a school, attached to the church had already been discussed. The school would be paid for by donations made by Old Etonians and would serve as a memorial to the approximately three hundred and forty pupils who had given their lives in the Ypres Salient.

In the spring of 1927, Blomfield's plans were complete. He had designed a simple space that would be able to accommodate 200 people. The interior furnishings were to be provided by families of the fallen. Almost every item in the church serves as a permanent memorial to a soldier who gave his life in France and Flanders. There are also memorials to people who died in the Second World War. The school too was simply designed, comprising of one classroom and a staff room.

The Bishop of Fulham opened the church and the school on 24th March 1929, Palm Sunday. The school opened its doors to receive the first pupils on 9th April 1929.

A Snap Shot of Daily Life in the British Settlement 1929-1939

The school opened its doors to its first pupils on 9th April 1929. Sixty-two pupils were initially enrolled, these were mostly children whose fathers worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission and who had settled in the Ypres area. The teachers, all recruited from within the United Kingdom, had an enormous task of teaching these children English. Most had already attended Belgian and French schools. Their task was also to maintain links with the homeland that may otherwise have been lost.

The first head master was Harry Morris, he moved to Ypres together with his wife. They concentrated their efforts on teaching the children English and good manners. In January 1930, Mr. Morris was able to report to General Pulteney, Treasurer of the Ypres League, that the grasp of the English Language amongst the pupils was greatly improved. A second school was opened, briefly, in Arras but closed due to a lack of pupils. Mr Morris was so successful, in fact, that in 1932 it was possible to introduce a full curriculum along the lines taught in schools in Great Britain. The pupil numbers had risen during these years; in 1930 there were 93 children attending the school. It is truly extraordinary that the school was co-educational from the start, something rarely encountered at this time. This rise in student numbers led to the Pilgrim’s Hall, which had initially been built to accommodate pilgrims during their visits to the battlefields, was put to use as a classroom. The Pilgrim’s Hall was also used as a social club for the local British community. The school used the Hall as a venue for its plays and birthday parties. The Hall contained many items of historical value, including the uniforms of Field Marshals French and Plumer. These items were however, not recovered after the war. A library was located on the first floor, which initially contained a great number of military titles that were donated by the Ypres League. Soon the library was added to and works of literature found their way onto the shelves, this was much appreciated by the school children and the British community. Later an extra schoolroom was built next to the playground, which paid for by a donation of £1000 from the Prince of Wales. The number of pupils continued to increase; at the beginning of the new academic year on 1933-34, there were 130 children. These came from all over the former Salient, from Passendale to Ploegsteert, some even from as far a field as Kortrijk. A daily bus service was provided by the IWGC.

During this time Mr Morris was replaced by Mr William Allen who was accompanied by his wife and an assistant Marjorie Summers. The new headmaster changed the name from Eton Memorial School to the British Memorial School, BMS for short, and also introduced a British-style school uniform. This helped to emphasise the ‘British ness’ of the school children and to strengthen the links with home. This was after all important due to the great number of VIP’s which visited both the church and the school in the interwar years. Amongst the visitors was King Leopold III, King of the Belgians, who had attended Eton College during the First World War, Fabian Ware, founder of the IWGC, Sir Reginald Blomfield and the widow of Field Marshal Haig. A very British way of life was maintained in the school, including saluting the flag on Empire Day, dancing around the Maypole on May Day, nativity plays at Christmas, and playing cricket. Every year the local branch of the British Legion organised a horticultural fair in the church hall and on the playground of the school. The Hall also served as a venue for the Christmas market that was held every year and organised by the children and the women of the British community.

In 1937, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Yorath from Wales replaced Mr and Mrs Allen and brought with them two new assistants, Phyllis Ryder and Doris Wood. During this period the number of pupils decreased to just below one hundred and remained at this level until 1940, when the school gates shut for one last time. In early May 1940, with the storm clouds of the second world war hanging overhead, many of the pupils gathered for a last time in the playground, ready to be evacuated back to Britain. The school would never reopen.

The church too served as an important meeting point for the many pilgrims and for the local community. The chaplain gave information on the local battlefields and war graves and led the weekly Sunday services. A choir provided the necessary music for the Sunday services and included men, women and children. The Rolfe brothers played the organ and the churchwarden Mr. Fox ran a Sunday school. In total, thirty-seven children were baptised in the font, which was given by the RAF, and were confirmed in the church. The chaplain not only welcomed pilgrims but also served as a social worker for the employees of the IWGC. He travelled throughout Flanders and Northern France to visit the sick and baptise children. The BBC also visited the church and broadcast several of its services so that people across the Empire could join in acts of remembrance. The very last service which was broadcast was on 21st April 1939 and was led by the Bishop of Fulham, who at that time was responsible for all the Anglican churches in Europe. Another world war was however, not far off.

The War Years

At the outbreak of the second world war, many of the valuable and irreplaceable objects in the church, some of which are discussed below, including the memorial plaques on the chairs, were either cared for by the citizens of Ieper or deposited in safes. The chairs were used by the Germans to furnish their soldiers’ club in the Rijselstraat. The memorials were however, treated with respect by the Germans and the church was on occasion used for worship. The school was used as classrooms for Belgian children and the chaplaincy served as a German officers club. The damage caused by the war was limited to some exterior bomb damage due to an allied bomb that hit the Elverdingestraat.

The New Challenge: The Post-War Years

Thus apart from the exterior bomb damage, St George’s survived the second great war of the twentieth century remarkably unscathed. Its future however, was not so secure. The role of secretary of the church committee was taken over by Mr. J.R. Griffin, who was one of the founder-members of the British Legion, an organisation which was flourishing after the Second World War. He visited the site and estimated the cost of repairs and of running the church. The British Legion provided the necessary funds and the IWGC also agreed to contribute to the salary of the chaplain, who had played a vital role in caring for the welfare of its workers in the interwar years. Through the help of these organisations the settlement was saved but its future was still uncertain.

After the second world war very few of the British families returned to the Ypres areas, so the community was small. There was definitely no need for a school as there were very few children. The financial situation was far from rosy. It was thus decided that in the light of the much smaller British community to reduce the settlement to two buildings. The chaplaincy and Pilgrim’s Hall were sold to ensure the future survival of this unique church. The lack of a chaplaincy and Pilgrim’s Hall have however, been keenly felt in the intervening years. Although the number of people resident has remained small, the number of visitors from all over the world has vastly increased. If the then Church Council and Trustees had been prepared to consult with the Town Council, such a sale would not have been necessary. Under Napoleonic and Belgian Law, church buildings must be maintained. Now the church and the town council enjoy a harmonious working relationship. A brighter future however, seemed to be dawning, and this definitely proved the case when in 1949 Revd. S.F. Fowler was appointed as chaplain. The church services, which had in previous years only occurred on an occasional basis, became regular events.

Since these troubled times the church has continued to flourish. It increasingly attracts visitors from all over the world, from Australia to America. A renewed interest too amongst young people, thanks to the First and Second World Wars now taking a prominent place in the National Curriculum, ensures that the memory of the those remembered in the church lives on into the new century.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Every item in the church, the plaques on the walls and the chairs, the windows, the banners and the church furniture are all there in memory of someone who gave their lives for freedom, so of course the list above cannot be exhaustive. St George’s is very much a living church, it attracts visitors from all over the world who come to pay tribute, to find a lost relative or look for comfort and prayer on their journeys. Today, St. George’s is a focal point for ecumenism. Chaplains of all denominations from the British Armed Services are encouraged to conduct services: the local churches ecumenical council meet together for prayer and worship in the church. St. George's is part of the Diocese in Europe and is committed to closer ties with all denominations in the witness of the Gospel of Christ. At the very heart of St George’s ministry lies the daily remembrance of the dead. It strives to keep that memory alive for the coming generations, just as the Flame of Remembrance, which was given by the Imperial Patriots, does. It is also a place where it is possible to contemplate the cost of war and where people may find inspiration, through the personal testimonies all around them, to work for peace in this troubled world.

Greater Love Hath No Man: Some Memorials in St George’s

The church itself was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. Today he may be a lesser-known figure, yet in the early part of the twentieth century he was at the forefront of architecture. Ieper has, of course, many monuments designed by him, most notably the Menin Gate as well as forty cemeteries such as Lijssenthoek, New Irish Farm, Poperinge New and Ramparts. He is also responsible for the Cross of Sacrifice that can be seen on all cemeteries. He described in 1927 in the Ypres Times how he envisaged the finished church to look: ‘In general treatment, I have adopted the traditional manner of Ypres as most suitable for the building and most in accordance with local feeling. The material will be Flemish bricks, a very sparing use of stone for copings and the like, and tiles or small slates for the roof.’ He was however, not only concerned with the exterior but also the interior design of the church and included in his plans the donated items as well as windows. He did not want stained glass windows as this would decrease the amount of natural light, but he did agree to have clear glass windows with small decorations such as the insignia of regiments.

Glass Window in the ChoirThe glass windows were made by the London firm of Clayton and Bell and their designs are attributed to Reginald Bell. The first window that is often noticed when entering the church is the one located in the choir. It commemorates the fallen comrades of the Guards Regiments.

Other windows are dedicated to individuals; for example, in the outer vestry is a window dedicated to the memory of the twin brothers Captain Francis Octavius Grenfell and Riversdale Nonus Grenfell. They served with the Ninth Lancers and the window bears the regimental coat of arms as well as that of the family, including the family motto: Loyal Devoir. Both brothers were Old Etonians. Francis lies buried in Vlamertinge Military Cemetery and was awarded the Victoria Cross and Riversdale is buried in Vendresse Military Cemetery, near the Aisne in France.

The south side of the church is adorned by beautiful yet very simple glass window, commemorating Captain Loftus Jones who served with the 7th West Yorkshire Regiment and was given by his mother Mrs. Letitia Jones. Captain Loftus Edward Perceval Jones was born in Australia and worked as a solicitor in the High Court in Shanghai; he was also an Army Reservist. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment and was commander of C-Company. Aged thirty-nine, Captain Jones was killed in St Elooi, near Voormezele on 3rd August 1915 and is buried in Bedford House Cemetery.

Other windows on this side are dedicated to the South Irish Horse from Dublin and carries a depiction of St. Patrick as well as the regimental badge, a Shamrock with the regimental motto: Quis Separabit.

The third window is dedicated to the memory of the fallen comrades of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

The fourth one was given by the Monmouthshire Regiment, in memory of their fallen comrades, and carries the regimental badge, the Welsh dragon and the motto: Gwell Angua na gwarth (better dead than cowardly).

The west elevation contains one large window in memory of the 3rd Army Corps and its two original divisions: the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales, patron of the Ypres League, the regimental badge of the 3rd Corps whose general was W. Pulteney, who later became treasurer and secretary of the Ypres League, and the badges of the 4th and 6th Infantry Divisions.

The baptistry contains not only the font, which was given by the RAF, but also three windows that remember three officers of the four battalions of the regular infantry regiment of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment).

The window on the left is dedicated to the memory of Captain George Thomas-O’Donel from County Mayo in Ireland and was given by his parents Edwin and Millicent Thomas-O’Donel. He was mentioned twice in dispatches and was awarded the Military Cross. He was killed between Railway Wood and the Menin Road on 16th June 1915 during the first attack on Bellewaarde; He has no known grave but is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

The middle window remembers Lieutenant-Colonel Norman McMahon and to his cousin Lieutenant Frederick Hardman and was given by their fathers, General Sir T. McMahon and Captain J. Hardman. Lt-Col McMahon was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and was killed, aged 48, on 11th November 1914. He too has no known grave but his name can be found on the Missing Memorial in Ploegsteert. Lt. Hardman came from Dorset and was the only son of Capt and Mrs Hardman. He was only 24 when he was killed on 26/29th October 1914 near Neuve Chapelle in France. He also has no known grave. His name can be found on the Missing Memorial in Richebourg (Pas de Calais) on the cemetery Le Touret.

The window on the right is in memory of Captain Boyce Combe from East Sussex and was given by his mother Mrs. H. Brabazon Combe. He was just 26 when he was killed on 11th November 1914 and has no known grave but his name can be found on the Menin Gate.

The three windows in the northern elevation of the church commemorated respectively, the dead of the Air Services (Royal Air Force, Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service) of the United Kingdom and Dominions.

The second window is dedicated to the dead of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

The third window is in memory of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

On leaving the church, in the porch there is a small window in memory of Lieutenant Cyril Edward Holme Knapp-Fisher who served with the 6th Kings Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry) and died of his wounds on 31st July 1915 in the Military Hospital in Poperinge aged 21. He is buried in Lijssenthoek Cemetery. His father, Sir E. Knapp-Fisher, gave the window.

Finally, outside the church we can see a Glastonbury Thorn.

There are also banners that adorn the interior of the church, some of these were given by visiting branches of the Royal British Legion, and others are regimental or personal banners, such as the one belonging to Sir Douglas Haig. The one that hangs above the door deserves special mention as it was carried in the coronation procession of King George V and was presented to the church by the St George family.

Another noteworthy memorial is the bust of Earl French, 1st Earl of Ypres, Sir John French. He deserves particular commemoration in this church as he was instrumental in providing greater momentum in its founding. The memorial itself was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield but the bust was sculpted by an American artist, Jo Davidson. He was born in New York City in 1883 and studied sculpture at the Arts Students League in New York and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He was famed for creating realistic portraits of his sitters which included Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anatole France, Mahatma Gandhi, Marshal Foch and Albert Einstein. His work can still be admired in some of America’s foremost art galleries.

Other memorials are more personal and clearly illustrate, on a human scale, the cost of war. The Doox Book is an example of this. It is a book in memory of Charles Dean Prangley, Doox to his family. He was from Bexwell Rectory, near Downham Market, Norfolk. The book is the Holy Communion Service of the Church of England and is beautifully inscribed and illuminated. It serves as a true labour of love and memory to the Revd. Prangley’s son. The calligraphy and illumination is attributed to George Smith of Cynthia House in Downham Market. He is an unknown artist who in daily life was a corn merchant.

Charles Prangley’s nickname, Doox, is specially inscribed on every page, at the place where we would expect to find an indication of sacrifice, service, suffering or a life given for his fellow men. The gold cross that adorns the cover of the book is made from his mother’s wedding ring. The cover is made from wood that was taken from the tree that grew in the garden of his childhood home. The back pages of the book contain pictures of the boy in his soldiers uniform, of the mother, Bessie who is believed to have died in childbirth and of the bereaved father. These are pasted on to beautiful watered silk which came from the mother’s wedding dress.

The book serves as a life testimony to a boy of barely nineteen who led his men into battle and whose body was mown down at Flers in France. His body was found at 2am and given a Christian burial by his company commander. He was much loved by the people in his village as well as by his men.

On the first page is a beautiful sepia painting of Bexwell village and church, Marlborough College, where he went to school and Jesus College. The sanctuary of the church is also painted, after the Memorial Service that commemorated all the boys of the village who had died. ‘Doox’ can be found amongst the ears of wheat, so realistically painted, as a symbol of the bread given at Holy Communion, as a symbol of the Body that was given for our salvation. ‘Doox’ can also be found amongst the grapes and vines, again symbols of sacrifice.

The hymns which were regularly sung in the trenches and other make-shift places of worship are inscribed and illuminated. The last page that carries the blessing, we can see ‘Doox’ appearing from all directions. On the last few pages are the signatures of Randall Davidson, then Archbishop of Canterbury and Geoffrey Fisher, also a former Archbishop of Canterbury, and who was one of his masters at Marlborough and Wynne Wilson who also taught him at Marlborough and later became Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The father was thus left alone, grieving both for his wife and only son, he entered his study each night and wrote down his deepest thoughts, short messages which he thought might serve to comfort other parents in his position. The book was published and the proceeds of its sale were given to the Old Comrades of the Lincolnshire Regiment. This book can serve as an inspiration to all and highlights the great personal cost of war.

Other dedications and memorials are no less moving and have perpetuated the memory of the beloved child, parent or husband, by its continued and continuing use in the daily life of the church. Another such example is the organ and its accompanying blower. The organ was brought over from England by the parents of Lieutenant Durant who served with the 1st Irish Guards and who was killed in 1916 in France. The blower was donated by the family of H.J. McManus who served with the 6th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and was killed near Ypres on October 7th 1915 aged seventeen. These are still used and accompany the singing of the hymns and anthems during the church services. When you hear it play, it is worth bearing in mind that they were given in memory of boys barely out of their teens.

The altar was given in memory of the fallen comrades of the Royal Army Medical Corps and the sanctuary steps were given by Nancy Q Radcliffe Platt, in memory of her brother John Rookhurst Platt, an Old Etonian, who served as a Lieutenant in the RFA (T). He was killed in action at Zillebeke.

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Blomfield, R. 1927. French architecture and its relation to modern practice. The Zahanoff Lecture, 1927. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
  • Coates, S. 1993. The refugee problem during the First World War: The experience of Belgian refugees in Leicester. Unpublished dissertation Economic and Social History, University of Leicester.
  • Dendooven, D. Het ontstaan van de St George’s Memorial Church en de Eton Memorial School. Unpublished
  • Dendooven, D. Jo Davidson en de bust van Sir John French. Unpublished.
  • Dendooven, D. Sir Reginald Blomfield, architect van Saint George’s. Unpublished.
  • Hawkes, P. Their name Liveth For Evermore: Number 1: St George’s Memorial Church. St. George’s Newsletter.
  • Heyvaert, B. De Britse ‘Nederzetting’ in Ieper 1929-1950. Licentiaat thesis, Universiteit van Gent.
  • Parsons, I.M. 1965. Men who march away: Poems of the First World War. London: Heinemann Educational.
  • Sheffield, G.D. 1999. Leadership in the trenches: Officer-man relations, morale, and discipline in the British Army in the era of the First World War. Basingstoke: MacMillan.
  • Tarlow, S. 1997. An archaeology of remembering: Death and bereavement and the First World War. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Volume 17, Number 1, pp. 105-121.
  • Tarlow, S. 1999. Bereavement and commemoration: An archaeology of mortality. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Verbeke, R.V. 2001. De Glasramen van St George’s Memorial Church. Gidsenkroniek Westland.