One hundred years of Chesham War Memorial
After the Great War ended, Chesham Council held a series of meetings to plan peace celebrations, and to decide upon fitting memorials for the town.
Proposals included new houses for injured servicemen, a children’s recreation ground, an ex-servicemen’s clubhouse, a new public hall and a free library. One idea for a town clock was rejected because it was joked that Chesham people might then feel they should arrive at things on time.
Chesham War Memorial Committee
The ideas which carried the most enthusiasm were a permanent war memorial and a new wing for Chesham Hospital. A Chesham War Memorial Committee was appointed, presided by Mr Henry Algenon Veney Byrne, chairman of Chesham Urban District Council. Locals were invited to contribute to a War Memorial Fund, and submit the names of those Chesham men who did not return from the war.
Peace celebrations 1919
On August 5, 1919, peace celebrations were held in Chesham. A great carnival procession passed through the town, with a parade of most of Chesham’s 1,000 ex-servicemen. The procession started at Brockhurst Road in Newtown, and headed through the town to Market Square, and ended in the park with a great party with competitions and amusements.
Two victory oaks were planted in the park in the afternoon (see Bucks Free Press Nostalgia August 16, 2020). Events were held all day ending with fireworks at night.
Temporary War Memorial 1919
A temporary war memorial cross was erected in front of the Town Hall. A wooden cross was made of plain wood with the bark still on, entwined with evergreens and a laurel wreath on top. This had a Union Jack draped across it, with the inscription “To the Glorious Dead.” People laid flowers and wreaths at the cross.
The peace procession passed it in solemn silence on the way to the park. The memorial was left for a few weeks. The original plan was to replace it with a permanent stone cross in Market Square. For many the cross was seen as a fitting symbol because Jesus’s death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice in the divine plan to save mankind.
Permanent War Memorial
Chesham council had provisionally accepted a design for a cross. However, others objected to the use of the cross, because it might imply that Christians supported war and killing.
Meanwhile, in 1920 Mr Byrne was impressed by a fine Portland stone memorial he had seen at Heston near Hounslow. This was of an active infantryman in full battledress. Mr Byrne contacted the sculptor Arthur George Walker. In October 1920, Mr Walker submitted a design very similar to the one at Heston. It was of a life-size figure standing with a rifle butt resting by his feet.
The design was based upon a real man in full kit who Mr Walker saw when home from Flanders, and who had agreed to pose for sketches. The design was put on display and reproduced in the local Chesham newspaper, and it found general favour. The council then agreed to it, at a cost of £700.
Mr Walker then prepared it at his studio in Chelsea. On the front panel of the plinth he inscribed the list of 185 names which he had been sent, which continued on the back panel. The left side bore images of a naval gun crew, and the right side depicted a group of pilots surrounding a biplane.
The Memorial Site
Meanwhile, a site had not been agreed. Originally it was planned for Market Square, but other locations were later proposed. On May 30, 1921, councillors met Mr Walker in Chesham. He was shown different sites, such as the cemetery entrance, the middle of Broad Street opposite Emmanuel Church in Newtown, the Pound towards Waterside, and the middle of the Broadway.
Mr Walker said he preferred the Broadway, because the statue could be seen from all angles, and would be more likely to be seen by visitors to the town. The council discussed the issue and gave permission for the memorial to be erected in the Broadway.
The statue was brought from Chelsea by road. It was positioned in the Broadway, facing south towards Market Square, in order that the sun would shine on the soldier’s face throughout the day. It was then draped in a large Union Jack.
The unveiling was held at 3pm on Sunday, July 24th. It was a beautiful day and people came out in their Sunday best with summer straw hats. The ceremony started with a hymn and a prayer led by Rev Henry Welch, the minister of the nearby Congregational (now URC) church.
The memorial was unveiled by Lord Carrington, the Marquess of Lincolnshire. He lived at High Wycombe and as Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire had unveiled a number of war memorials in the county. He gave a short speech followed by the Last Post.
Wreaths were then placed by the British Legion, Chesham Urban District Council, the police, schoolchildren, representative bodies, and then relatives of the deceased. There was short dedication service led by Rev C.E. Boultbee, vicar of Chesham. Everyone sang a hymn and then the ceremony ended with the national anthem.
The event was filmed by Mr Wilson, manager of the Astoria cinema in Chesham. After the service, anyone could lay wreaths and flowers at the memorial, and there was a parade of ex-servicemen organised by the British Legion.
A century on
Chesham Council took over the maintenance of the memorial. The memorial was later given two flanking pillars with the name of 77 men who died serving in the Second World War.
In July 2021 the memorial was one hundred years old. The statue and engravings on the plinth have slowly weathered. The side panel reliefs are hard to make out, and the names on the front and back have been replaced with bronze panels.
Since 2015 the memorial has been Grade II listed historic monument.
You can learn more about Chesham during times of conflict by visiting our online collection.