Tortworth South Gloucestershire

Question: Was it better to be an officer or a squaddie in World War One? Were your chances of survival better? Or was it simply that life was better to be an officer in wartime; an orderly on tap? Class seems to be one of those ‘hot potato’ questions when it comes to war. Was it better to give or take orders?

Tortworth is an old time example of an estate. It dates back to the 17th century before it came into the hands of the Moreton family. The current Tortworth estate still run by the Moretons aka the Earls of Ducie covers many thousands of acres, much of it agricultural. Its tenancies includes Tortworth school, Cromhall village hall and other properties. The beautiful Tortworth Church in some form or another has been here for centuries.

Perhaps the Church and its monuments to those who served in World War One are an indication of its social past.

Step into the churchyard, through the gate, your thoughts may drift to those who may have come before. It is an idyllic spot, at the bottom of a gentle hill, grassy meadows surround. Its one of those places where time could pass and life would carry out without anything changing. But through the gate, your feet heading one way, your eyes take a glance to your right and you stop.

Braced against the wall is the first indication.

Reginald G. Smith

Captain Reginald G. Smith has a Canadian maple leaf emblazoned across it, for the 47th Battalion Infantry Regiment, the Western Ontario regiment. It is a memorial for the youngest son of Daniel and Sarah Ann Smith. Reginald died aged 33 years of age in France, buried at Villers Station Cemetery, Villers-au-Bois in the Pas de Calais region; it contains well over 1000 men of which just over 1000 men are Canadians. Most are men who died in 1917, many of them in April 1917. April 1917 is significant in the founding of the Canadian identity, the spirit illustrated in their Battle at Vimy Ridge. Reginald died on May 5th 1917; he had enlisted just over a year earlier when he had been working as a secretary in Victoria Chambers, Ottawa. His father Daniel was a farmer at The Crockleys on the Tortworth estate. The then Lieutenant Smith was killed in action during an attack on the Triangle near La Coulotte in France.

Whilst that sinks in, my eyes sweep around. They stop caught first on the anchor. Then the name. SMITH.

John Arthur Smith

For Daniel and Sarah Ann Smith, well-known farmers in the area, they lost not one son but two during the war period. John Arthur Smith was 45 years old when he died as the master of a liner. He was a Captain in the Mercantile Marine and a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve; John had been playing a part in the war effort up until his death.

John Collett Tyler

Inside the church, several personal memorials appeared into view. John Collett Tyler was a 21 year old Royal Field Artillery officer when he was killed, shot through the head in a front line trench; he had been involved in feeding back information to his commanding officer in a massive counter attack operation at Hill 60. Tyler was born in India, the family a resounding history of militarists. The Tylers were once resident in the village; it appears to have been an old heartland in the 17th century.

Spencer Julian Wilfred Railston

Across the way, the memorial plaque to Spencer Julian Wilfred Railston draws the eye. A Lieutenant in the 8th King George’s Own Lancers in the Indian Army attached at the beginning of the war to the 4th Dragoon Guards. But it is the 25 year old’s apparent attempt to save a Belgian woman’s life that led to his own death that intrigues…

Lieutenant Railston has no known grave, his name on Panel 1 of the Menin Gate is indicative of the fact this man died in early November 1st 1914. Son of Colonel H. E. and Mrs Magdelen Railston; his maternal grandmother was Lady Georgina Moreton, eldest daughter of the second Earl of Ducie who was married to the Rev. Charles Oakley, the rector of Wickwar. It is written in his military record that he died trying to rescue a Belgian civilian at a time when Messines was a place half-occupied by the German army and the British army. Railston was killed in the attempt.

Henry Anstey

2nd Lieutenant Henry Anstey died at the Battle of Arras serving with the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade. On the wall next to his memorial appears to be the original grave marker placed on his grave in France; for he is buried in Tigris Lane Cemetery in Wancourt between Arras and Cambrai.

Harry Anstey had set up home with his new wife in 1910 as a farmer at Elm Tree Farm in Tortworth. A wounded fellow officer wrote home to say that Harry Anstey had behaved in a cool and noble manner in the major offensive at the Battle of Arras in April 1917. He was by all accounts, a man well known in the farming area; missed by many.

When churches were built, they often became symbols of powerful relationship, of a noble relation to the church; a personal association with a family. Some churches were built adjacent to the main estate houses, former castles and high points, some in the middle of estate villages. The church itself was a occupational hierarchy. Some churches are very much a reflection of that; a sign of affluence and influence. Money paid into the church for stained glass windows, plaques, lighting, architecture. A hopeful route to true salvation or a guarantee? Other churches are a true reflection of the society that lived in and around it; the church or its clergy a core part of people’s lives in education, life or death or indeed crisis.

For Tortworth is an estate church, its walls are brimmed with aristocrats and significant others; the sons, grandsons, daughters and of those seemingly connected by marriage or friendship. But Tortworth is also a story of the relationships between those with money, status or land and those who worked those houses, those lands without whom the estate would not have been the place it was.

For Tortworth also holds two other fascinating insights into this village during the inter-war period: the war memorial to those who ‘gave their lives in the Great War’ and the Roll of Honour. The remembrance of the First World War was not about who could buy the most extravagant memorial plaque or impressive memorial stone; but about the simple act that war was a leveller. Officer class or not? Aristocrat or farmer? Servant or criminal? It didn’t matter.

You could make the comment that an officer’s life was shorter as they were frequently targeted on the front line, or you could see an ordinary Tommy’s life was harder without all the perks of the officer class. Both would have merit. But for me, death or the absence someone who was supposed to come home from war was the same, no matter if you were a Lady, a landowner, a farmer or a labourer. Grief, sadness, respect, honouring – it was the same. Some bought a slab of stone. Some picked wild flowers. Some whispered a prayer in church.

The war memorials were often a chance for the village, the town, the employer or the regiment to honour their men whatever their rank or situation. The memorial and roll of honour of Tortworth are illustrations of that. They were often paid for by subscriptions, collected and paid by voluntary contributions from its local people. Some paid more. Some less. So whether you were Private Arthur Lowe of the 10th Glosters who died of wounds in September 1915, an estate labourer or Eli James Lainchbury, Private in the Norfolk regiment who died in March 1918, gamekeeper; it didn’t matter. Dead or surviving; rich or poor; your name was worthy of honour in Tortworth.