NOT much is known about Walter Conway. He lived at 127 Duckett
Street in Stepney, east London, and in February 1914, aged only 14
or 15, he enlisted in the Royal Irish Rifles. Conway was soon
thrown into the maelstrom of the Great War, but was wounded in 1918
and discharged. Then, he retreats back into obscurity. But an altar
frontal, unveiled last week in St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate
the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, has ensured
his place in history.
While convalescing in hospital, Conway was drafted into a group
of 137 injured soldiers, sailors, and airmen, scattered throughout
Britain. Along with many others, they were being taught how to
embroider as part of their rehabilitation; but their work would
form a new altar frontal for the cathedral.
The servicemen spent 18 months sewing small pieces of intricate
needlework - golden palm branches, small birds, flowers, and
tangled foliage. These were then stitched together to form the
complete frontal, which was first unveiled in July 1919 at a
national service of thanksgiving for peace, held in St Paul's.
The veterans, including a number from the Commonwealth, created
different panels with elaborate bird, flower, and palm designs. But
the centrepiece of the frontal is a chalice studded with red gems.
Contemporary newspaper reports said that the idea to place a
chalice at the heart of the design came from a 19-year-old
rifleman. Although it cannot be known for sure who this unnamed
soldier was, Conway was the only 19-year-old rifleman who worked on
the frontal. Now, after spending seven decades in storage, and
after six months of painstaking restoration, the frontal, replete
with his chalice, can be seen at the cathedral again. The Precentor
of St Paul's, Canon Michael Hampel, said on Friday last week that
the frontal was much more than just an altar dressing.
"[The soldiers] felt that this frontal would be a memorial to
their comrades who had died . . . something that was being used in
the context of worship, particularly in the eucharist. The cup of
suffering, which is also the cup of salvation, sits at the heart of
Besides being a fitting tribute to fallen friends, the
embroidery was an active part of the soldiers' therapy. Canon
Hampel said that, since the Crimean War, wounded servicemen had
been taught to sew while recovering, to focus their damaged bodies
and minds on something creative.
A member of the team who restored the frontal, Anita Ferrero,
said that she had been impressed by the men's efforts. "It's very
fine and very good, beautifully done," she said. "The therapy was
doing something creative and beautiful when they had come out of
these scenes of destruction. One would hope it would have restored
their minds a little bit: the injuries were mental as well as
Canon Hampel said that St Paul's wanted the frontal to encourage
prayer and reflection during the four years of the centenary.
Besides carefully restoring the embroidery, the cathedral has also
spent months tracking down the families of the men who made it.
"Some of the [relatives] who are coming to see this over the
next few days knew nothing about it," he said. "I think it will be
a very poignant and moving thing for them to see something their
father, grandfather, uncle helped to make.
"The same hands that clung to life [in the trenches] are the
ones that pick up needle and thread and go and do something
beautiful like this, and what that says to me is that, despite
everything, there is hope."
CREATING memorials in the aftermath of war had both dark
and positive sides, but, for the Christian, commemoration brought
responsibilities, the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, said
at a service in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, on Monday, to mark
the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, writes
"We cannot spiritually separate the violence, the
carnage, and the suffering of the innocent that is under our gaze
today - whether in Gaza, in Israel, in Syria, in Ukraine, or in
Iraq - from our memorialising of the beginnings of the First World
War. War must always represent the abject failure of the human
spirit and of humanity itself."
Monuments to hatred were easily built, he said, but the
Christian choice offered the more painful option of restoring
beauty, and even relationships. "It requires faith, courage, and