Windows of War

By Freya Thomas, English Literature Undergraduate

2018 has been marked by events that have commemorated 100 years since the end of the First World War. It has been a year of national remembrance for all those that gave their lives. Very few towns or villages in 1918 escaped loss, with most erecting war memorials inscribed with the names of those that died as emblems of this.

One of the most startling and unusual tributes to the war can be found in my local parish church, St Mary’s in Swaffham Prior, in the North Aisle stained glass windows. Contrary to traditional depictions of religious and biblical iconography, these stained-glass windows illustrate something unique: a remembrance of the war as it was, including its killing machines and trench warfare. Such windows seem almost out of place amongst the wooden pews, scripture-depicting stained glass and the sense of peace which fills the old stone church. However, it is this contrast, with the presence of more traditional images, that makes the memorial so distinctive. The memorial is a reminder of the extent of national and personal grief which must have inspired their creator and benefactor.

Designed and paid for by squire C.P. Allix in 1919, the windows are part of the village’s memorial to the 23 local men lost in the war. While the first two windows represent aspects of the fighting, with an emphasis on weaponry and the alleviation of the horrors of warfare, the third window illustrates images of peace: grazing sheep, ploughed fields, harvest-time workers and Christ the good shepherd, a surprising juxtaposition to the war-depicting windows.  

The three North Aisle windows (seen on the left as you walk into the church), show all stages of war: from the call to the front to the unimaginable horrors of trench warfare. As you scan the glass you see glimpses of bright gold shells in a munitions factory; images of soldiers in trenches beneath a howitzer; war planes flying through glassy azure skies; a YMCA shelter surrounded by the barren grey-green expanse of war. There are injured men depicted in field medical centres, and a zeppelin gliding pseudo-serenely through a deep grey night sky scattered with stars. More recognizable symbols of Red Cross field hospital kitchens are also shown, managed by saint-like nurses in neat blue uniforms and even a chaplain blessing a dying soldier where he lies fallen. 

Beneath each image sits a verse from the Bible. The YMCA hut is accompanied by Matthew 22 verse 39, ‘and the second is like unto it thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’; the zeppelin by Psalm 91 verse 5, ‘thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night’; and the field kitchen by Isaiah 40 verse 1, ‘comfort ye my people comfort ye’, granting an element of hope to the ill-fated scenes depicted.

Professor Jolyon Mitchell, in his book ‘Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence’1 discusses Swaffham Prior’s stained glass. Mitchell emphasises the role of the windows in the expression of grief. He argues that ‘individuals and communities both experienced and expressed their grief in myriad ways’ and therefore, ‘the windows in St Mary’s are a small surviving trace of that sorrow’. Yet Professor Mitchell also underlines the way that the windows overcome ‘the sense of powerlessness brought on through grief […] by commemorating acts of kindness and care’: the prayers of the chaplain, the attention of the nurses, the sympathy or camaraderie of fellow soldiers.  

Mitchell quotes C. P. Allix himself as an illustration of the way such a memorial, with its vivid depictions of war, needed justification for its location in a local place of worship. In his ‘carefully handwritten address delivered at the dedication service’, Allix writes ‘”I think it is the most appropriate spot in which a memorial could be placed. It is the best house in the parish, it is God’s house and it is our house.”’  

Throughout the last hundred years, World War One has been commemorated in a multitude of different ways. These colourful windows in Swaffham Prior’s rural Cambridgeshire church remain a particularly unique and poignant expression of one small community’s grief and remembrance of that time.  

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