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Court solves problem of known soldier, unknown grave in Oxford

09 September 2022

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS/GEOGRAPH/COMMONS

St Nicholas’s, Tackley, in Oxfordshire

St Nicholas’s, Tackley, in Oxfordshire

THE consistory court of the diocese of Oxford has granted a faculty permitting the erection of a memorial monument to an English soldier who was killed in Ireland in 1921, and buried in the churchyard of the Grade II* listed church of St Nicholas’s, Tackley. The precise location of his grave, however, could not now be identified.

The churchyard regulations for the diocese of Oxford state that a “monument may be introduced only at the place where the body of the person to be commemorated by the monument is buried”. It was, therefore, necessary to obtain a faculty.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission sought the faculty to commemorate Private William Sydney Walker, of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who was murdered while on active service with the British army on 22 February 1921, aged 24.

The commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917 as the sole organisation charged with the care of the graves and the commemoration of members of the Commonwealth forces who died during the official war periods of the two world wars as a result either of wounds inflicted or an accident occurring during active service. The relevant Order in Council declared the First World War to have ended on 31 August 1921.

Private Walker had served in France and Belgium before he was shot and killed at Woodford, County Galway, where he and two other soldiers were recorded to have been “found murdered by Sinn Feiners”. The body of one of them had a notice saying “Spies, tried by court martial and found guilty, let all others beware.” All three bodies had been sent back to England for burial.

Private Walker was buried with full military honours in the churchyard at Tackley on 26 February 1921, but his details were not passed on to the Commission by the service authority after the war for commemoration. A case was submitted to the service authority in 2007 for adjudication, and the Commission was informed that Private Walker qualified for commemoration under the death-in-service criterion.

The burial register for the churchyard did not record a grave reference for Private Walker’s burial location, and an inspection visit by the Commission failed to locate the grave. The Commission therefore proposed installing a standard war-pattern headstone in a suitable location within the churchyard with a superscription “Buried elsewhere in this churchyard”.

The PCC of St Nicholas’s pointed out that Private Walker died not during the First World War, but as part of the forces involved in the Anglo-Irish war, and, since the church tried to be a model of ecumenism, there were Roman Catholics of Irish descent and even a Roman Catholic priest who were part of the worshipping community. The PCC, therefore, expressed concern that an official memorial to the Anglo-Irish war in the form of a commemoration to an English soldier could be felt as an act of exclusion. The Rector was particularly sensitive to any local concerns in the light of issues raised by memorials to slavers and similar problems of contested heritage.

Chancellor David Hodge QC said that introduction of the proposed memorial would not result in any harm to the setting, the appearance, or the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest, or of its churchyard. He was satisfied that the Commission had shown a sufficiently good reason to introduce the proposed memorial to Private Walker into the churchyard, even though the location of his grave was not known, so that the memorial could not be introduced at the place where his body was buried.

He was laid to rest in the churchyard, and it was “fitting that he should be remembered . . . for posterity”. It was no fault of Private Walker that the church records failed to record the precise location of his burial; but members of the public viewing the memorial would not be misled about his being buried in that place because of the words at the top, which clearly indicated that he was buried elsewhere in the churchyard.

The Chancellor was also “entirely satisfied” that there was “no good reason in terms of pastoral and other considerations and sensitivities relevant to the role of the Church of England in general, and the church of St Nicholas in particular, as a compassionate, caring, welcoming, inclusive, and diverse religious institution, which might militate against the introduction of the Commonwealth War Graves memorial to Private Walker”.

It “could not possibly offend any open-minded and right-thinking member of the church congregation or the local community, or any visitor to the churchyard, whatever their nationality or any religious faith”, the Chancellor said.

The wording of the proposed memorial contained no mention of Ireland. It stated “5374675 Private W.S. Walker. Oxford & Bucks Light Inf. 22 February 1921 aged 24. In Proud Memory of a very brave husband and father”.

A war-grave memorial commemorated an individual, and not the conflict in which the soldier served and died. There was, the Chancellor said, “an unhappy dissonance in receiving the body of a dead service-man or -woman for burial in a churchyard, yet refusing to commemorate them so as to inform posterity and comfort those whom they had left behind”.

The faculty was granted for a memorial to be installed next to the only other war-grave memorial within the churchyard, but further away from the door to the church, in accordance with the wishes of the PCC.

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