DURING the weeks of Advent, not all the bell-ringing coming from a church near you will have been heralding the birth of the Christ-child: some may have been commemorating a poignant death 100 years ago. Six soldiers who died during December 1916 had been bell-ringers before they enlisted, and — as has become customary — present-day ringers have been ringing to honour the centenary day of each man’s death, in the place where he lived.
The dead owe this special commemoration to a bell-ringer still very much alive: Alan Regin, who lives in London. He has spent much of the past 30 years working his way through all the names on a Roll of Honour of fallen ringers, and learning a good deal about who the men were: where they lived, where they are buried, who their parents were, what their trades were (carter, under-gardener, thatcher, mop-stick maker, wheelwright), and whom they married. He has visited more than 1000 of their graves, in war cemeteries or village churchyards.
MR REGIN’s fascination with their stories began in the 1980s. The ringers’ Roll of Honour was compiled after the First World War by a bell-ringer who was a military chaplain, the Revd Cyril Jenkyn. It contained the names of 1077 ringers, and has been stored in St Paul’s Cathedral. Musing over these records in their glass case, Mr Regin asked the then Keeper of the Rolls what else was known about the men. The answer was: “They’re just names, aren’t they?”
That did it. Since then, Mr Regin has visited all the military cemeteries in France and Belgium, as well as many in Turkey and Gallipoli, and has studied hundreds of war memorials, both abroad and in British towns and villages. There are currently only 29 names left on the Roll of Honour for which he and his small team of researchers have been unable to find details; the rest are all accounted for, including a further 200 men whose names Mr Regin himself has discovered, and who now appear on a second Roll of Honour.
Since the centenary commemorations of the First World War began, he has instigated ringing for about 80 per cent of the fallen named on the Roll of Honour — mostly in their home towers, and often on the bells that the men themselves rang before the call to arms.
WILLIAM HENRY RIVERS, for instance, had 14 siblings, and was a gardener who had a wife and daughter, both called Rosa, and was a ringer in the Oxfordshire village of Longworth. He was also a Private in the Royal Berkshire Regiment’s 2nd/4th Battalion; and he died on 22 December, 100 years ago, in a field in northern France. Ringers will have honoured him yesterday.
Lance Corporal Alec Charles Godsell was doubly remembered. Baptised in 1896 in St Swithun’s, the parish church in the village of Leonard Stanley, in Gloucester, he worked on the family farm in the village, and rang the church bells. He was killed on 25 September 1916. Members of the Godsell family still live and farm in the area, and one of them, Alec’s great-great-niece, gathered 25 more of them to listen to the quarter-peal being rung for him in St Swithun’s, and to raise a glass in his memory, 100 years to the day that Godsell fell.
Friends of a ringer at Leonard Stanley, however, were coincidentally planning a visit to the war cemeteries at that time. Adjusting their schedule slightly, they managed to be at Godsell’s grave in Pont-du-Hem cemetery on the same day, and at exactly the same time, as the bells in Gloucestershire were beginning to ring; and they planted wooden crosses with poppies and messages from Godsell’s family at his grave.
Rifleman Bertram Prewett, who enlisted in 1915, rang in Bushey Church, in Hertfordshire, where he married Lizzie Elton, in 1913. He was a skilled ringer — a member of the prestigious Ancient Society of College Youths — who, before he joined up, had rung 953 peals: a great achievement, even today. He is buried in Sailly-Saillisel cemetery in France, which a group of today’s College Youths visited in 2014, taking with them his own carefully maintained peal books, and ringing Stedman Caters (his favourite method) on handbells beside his grave. His centenary will not be marked by ringing at Bushey until August 2018, the centenary of his death.
THE enthusiasm of ringers’ responses to the idea of honouring “their” dead exactly 100 years after they died, is touching. From West Wycombe, where Company Sgt Major Robert Ernest Rippington lived and rang, Lyn Lee, a member of the present band, wrote on 31 July 2016: “We joined with other local ringers this afternoon at St Lawrence’s, West Wycombe, to ring the bells in his remembrance.” This was followed by tea and cakes in the churchyard, and laying a bell-shaped wreath at the memorial “to show that we are proud that he was one of us”.
Ringers in Stoke-sub-Hamden, as well as ringing for Pte Walter George Ralph who died on 16 September 1916, staged a play about him and bell-ringing at the tithe barn in Stoke, and enthused: “It was lovely to hear his name being spoken in the village after 100 years.”
THERE are the deaths of two more years still to be remembered. A. E. Housman wrote for the fallen: “Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; But young men think it is, and we were young.” The remembrance of the thousands upon thousands of deaths in field hospitals or Flanders mud has not lost its emotive power, nor its grip on our imagination in the hundred years since the war.
As the ringers at Newcastle Cathedral wrote of Captain the Revd Alexander Torrance Laing, “a deacon in Holy Orders”, who died on 3 July 2016, aged 27: “We rang to celebrate his life and the ultimate sacrifice that he made. Alexander Laing, we have remembered you.”
RINGERS have planned a further, and enduring, tribute to those who died in the First World War.
Alan Regin has raised the £195,000 needed to install eight change-ringing bells in the Anglican church of St George, Ypres, and hopes that they will be in place by September next year. Rung in the traditional English way, they will be the first-ever bells to be hung for change-ringing in Belgium, and will be a sound of home for British visitors to the area.
The bells will be silent, though, every day at 8 p.m., when people gather to hear the Last Post sounded from the Menin Gate Memorial near by — a simple and moving ceremony that has taken place daily, all year round, since 1928.
St George’s was built in the 1920s to serve the British community that settled there after the war, many of whom worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission. Services are held there every Sunday. It has always been a focus for pilgrimage to the area: chairs, windows, wall plaques, and kneelers commemorate individual soldiers, regiments, battalions. The new ringing room will be named after Rifleman Bertram Prewett.