How many people today have heard of the Tirah Expedition? Or could even say where Tirah was/is? So much for remembrance …

The answer is that Tirah is a mountain region at the North West Frontier of what was once British India, on the border of present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the expedition, which took place in 1897-98, was part of a campaign to suppress the restive local tribes and keep open the Khyber pass.

It was a hard-fought conflict in bitterly difficult conditions of terrain and weather. Sixty-one soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry (mostly privates) perished in the process. Their names are recorded on an obelisk which stands in Bonn Square near the city centre. It was in fact the first war memorial to be erected in Oxford, in 1900, a tragic precedent for what was to follow in the next two generations.

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The monument is twenty-five feet high and sits on a stepped sandstone plinth. Its foundations sink twenty feet below ground level into what was once the graveyard of St Peter-le-Bailey church, close to the original west gate of the walled medieval city. All sorts of human and animal bones and graves were uncovered in the process of entrenching it, a reminder of the skeletal foundations on which Oxford rests.

It makes a curious centrepiece to a rather strange bit of the town: Bonn Square. The fact that our city is twinned with the capital of the former West Germany, rather than, say, Heidelberg or another medieval seat of learning, seems odd and somehow inappropriate. Perhaps it speaks of the municipal hubris of Oxford council in the 1970s, a bleak chapter in the city’s governance. Maybe that also explains its location – opposite the Westgate Shopping Centre.

Despite recent efforts to jollify it (a makeover in 2008 which involved speakers on masts and new lighting systems) the whole area has an unshakably hollow feeling. Poignant and somehow out of sorts, it’s still a place where people seem to gather listlessly, and the debris of pigeon droppings and cider cans tells its story.

When the memorial was opened on 7 July 1900 a guard of honour comprising fifty fixed bayonets was on hand to lend the requisite military gravitas to the occasion, and there were long speeches from local dignitaries, including this from the Reverend William Talbot Rice:

This monument, placed as it is in a very prominent position in the city, will help to remind all passers-by at what a great cost the Empire that they boast and are proud of has been won and is being held.

Little more than a century later it also stands as a reminder that, in the midst of dreaming spires and imperial ambitions, other, more everyday life and death stories are taking place.

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A Note for Remembrance Day

Those wishing to pay their respects on 11/11/11 by identifying the names of Oxford people who lost their lives in the two World Wars owe a great debt to Stephanie Jenkins. Her assiduous research is collated at this website:

As well as highly visible memorial crosses in open spaces, notably those at St Giles and New Marston, Stephanie has also compiled an extensive list of commemorative monuments in churches and churchyards, together with boards, tablets, wall panels, brasses and plaques of every type and style.

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The chapels of all the older colleges in the University display a roll call of members who fell, including many serving staff. New College nobly and controversially added the names of three German undergraduates who died fighting for the other side in WW1.

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Christ Church has a memorial garden with fine herbaceous borders, and there are plaques at various key workplaces around the city – outside St Aldate’s police station, the Royal Mail depot, the old Lion Brewery, and County Hall – while Oxford University Press has a monument tucked discretely within its front quad.

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Perhaps most poignant of all is the magnificent celtic high cross rising up, full of youthful promise, from the playing fields of the Dragon school, next to the cricket pavilion. It bears the names of no fewer than 217 former pupils. ‘Old Boys’ they are called, but some of them were barely out of school uniform.

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Martin Maw, archivist at OUP, adds another element to the story.

The very settled life of Oxford University Press was turned upside down at the outbreak of the First World War; 356 of the approximately 700 men who worked for the Press were engaged on active military service, the majority in the first few months. The reduction of half of the workforce and the ever-present uncertainty about the return of friends and colleagues must have made the Press a very difficult place to work …

The steady dissolution of the workforce, made up of generations of men from the close-knit community of Jericho who had known each other for years, was thought to be too much for the head Printer, Horace Hart (best remembered for Hart’s Rules). He retired and sadly took his own life in 1916.

A total of 45 men were lost to the war. In 1920 a book was produced: On Active Service, War Work at Home 1914-1919, recording events at the Press during the war and also giving the service record of all the men who were conscripted. A monument to commemorate the soldiers who died was also erected, funded by voluntary contributions from staff.

“A further 21 names were added to it after World War Two. The memorial once stood by the Walton Street gate, but was moved to its current, more prominent, site outside Printer’s House early this century.” – MM

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Following Liz Woolley’s reference to Grandpont, we’d also like to mention a moving talk given recently by Councillor Liz Wade, entitled ‘47 Men of North Oxford’, tracing the lives of those men of Jericho, Kingston Road and Hayfield Road who died in the Great War. One of them was Arthur Morris, pictured here, and, below him, the telegram presented to his mother. Liz writes:

Arthur Morris was the ninth of eighteen children, eleven of whom survived infancy. He was born in 1899 at 74 Hayfield Road, and was a sickly child. ‘Save that last bit for Arthur,’ was often heard around the family table. His parents and siblings constantly worried about his health.

In March 1918 he was admitted to the Radcliffe Infirmary for an appendectomy. Instead of spending time recuperating, he was bundled off to the Front. His eldest brother Charlie, himself serving in Flanders, wrote: ‘It makes me nearly choke to think about the way he was treated for he was never fit for active service and it’s a wonder he stuck it as well as he did … I think everyone who knew him felt sorry he had to join up … We all should be proud of a lad like him doing his bit without a lot of grumbling.’

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Arthur had been in France for less than three weeks when he suffered a severe shrapnel wound in the abdomen. He died at a Casualty Clearing Station on the same day: 25 April 1918.

Arthur’s two elder brothers Charlie and Frank both survived the war. Charlie wrote in May 1918: ‘What a thing luck is, there’s Frank been out all the time and not a scratch and Arthur [only] a few weeks. Frank has been doing something great by all accounts, but will he get the reward?’ Frank had saved another man’s life at risk of his own, but never got a medal.

Both brothers became greengrocers.  Frank had a shop in North Parade and Charlie in Summertown Parade. Their sister Elsie, and youngest brother William and his family carried on at 74 Hayfield Road. Elsie, born in 1893, lived until 1979. – Liz Wade

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Liz Woolley writes to bring our attention to a recent discovery (photograph by Philip King).

During the 2014-18 commemoration period we carried out a project to research the ‘66 Men of Grandpont‘, those who are named on the First World War memorial in St Matthew’s Church in South Oxford. One of them was George Tyrrell of Cobden Crescent, who was killed on New Year’s Eve 1915, aged 20. The Tyrrell family were extremely helpful to us during the project, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Earlier this year, George’s great-nephew Geoff contacted me to say that, by an extraordinary co-incidence, a batch of George’s letters from the Front, written in the weeks leading up to his death, had come to light. – Liz Woolley

You can read the story in the recent Oxford Mail and Oxford Times

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It’s Woodstock rather than Oxford; but several readers have mentioned the spectacular installation in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, entitled Standing with Giants.
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We’re grateful to the Reverend Richard Smail for a poetic recollection.

The intensely poignant Dragon Memorial instantly reminded me of the poem which is partly set there, ‘No Ordinary Sunday’ by Jon Stallworthy, who was a pupil there before becoming, inter alia, the biographer of Wilfred Owen, editor of the Oxford Book of War Poetry, and author of a dozen volumes of poetry. – RS

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