Bonn Bones

Bonn Bones

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.

Bonn Bones

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.

Bonn Bones

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.

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.

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 discreetly within its front quad.

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.