A village by the River Thames

FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS between the mid-1970s and about 2003, I made occasional journeys between Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire and Eton in Berkshire. On each of these, I passed signs indicating roads to Datchet, yet it was only in November 2020 that we decided to take a look at this village near the River Thames and opposite Windsor.

Writing in 1876 in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”, James Thorne commented that Datchet in Buckinghamshire:

“… is a quiet genteel place of abode, dull and uncharacteristic in appearance; as such places usually are; but the neighbourhood is beautiful and interesting.”

While today Datchet continues to appear genteel, it is not as dull as Thorne made out. Much that Thorne might have seen had he visited it when researching his book can be seen today. For example, the Church of St Mary, which was built in 1860 on the site of an older one, which was demolished in 1857, is attractive despite having been completely rebuilt in Victorian Gothic style.

The church stands beside The Royal Stag pub. Although the front part of the pub facing the village green was added in the 18th century, the rear part that faces the churchyard dates back to 1500 or before (https://datchethistory.org.uk/streetshouses/the-north-greens/the-royal-stag/). Over the centuries, the older parts of this building have undergone modifications, but externally it looks quite old. The pub was visited by the astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) and his family and is mentioned in “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome.

The pub faces a green in the middle of which there is a memorial to those of Datchet, who fell in both World Wars. A plaque on the memorial relates that the men who fell in WW1 were fighting the combined forces of “Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria”. As far as I can recall, this is the first WW1 memorial I have seen that mentions Bulgaria.

Facing both the pub and the church across the green, there is a long half-timbered building with four gables. Thorne describes it as having five gables, but we could only see four. Between two of the gables, there is an area of roof tiling on which a sculpture of a cat appears to be chasing a sculpture of a rat. This building now divided into dwellings is collectively known as ‘Manor House’. Although much modified, this building might have been constructed in the late 16th century. The mock Tudor facing, which we see today, was added in about 1870.

A building named ‘The Old Manor House’ next to the building just described was rebuilt in 1955 on the site of a building constructed first in the 17th century. A row of brick cottages stands on the other side of the gabled building. These attractive old structures are, like their neighbour, timber-framed. They might be older than their larger neighbour. Their brick frontage was added either in the 17th or 18th century.

Another old cottage faces the London Road, which runs along the side of the churchyard. This is ‘Church Cottage’, which was built in about 1500 and has undergone little change since then. It is probably the oldest building still standing in Datchet. James Cottages, neighbouring Church Cottage, are far younger, having been built in 1853 to commemorate James Pearce, who had died in 1851.

I could describe some of the other old buildings that make Datchet a lovely place to linger for a while, but I hope I have written enough to intrigue you. Before concluding, I will tell you a bit about the village’s name, which is strange to my way of thinking. The excellent village website (https://datchethistory.org.uk) provides much interesting information about Datchet and reveals the following about the name. Current thinking links Datchet (‘Decetia’ in Latin) to the French town of Decize, a point in central France where the River Loire could be crossed with ease in Gallic and Roman times. The website observes:

“… Decize and Datchet have more in common than an unusual name; both were originally established on islands of high ground in the low-lying land of a major river route; the remains of Decize’s ancient fort is shown on the map as ‘oppidum’. Settlement sites like this are common, but it may still be significant that these two share such a distinctive name which is not found anywhere else.”

Although we spent less than an hour in Datchet, that was sufficient time to discover that far from being “dull and uncharacteristic in appearance” as claimed by the 19th century writer James Thorne, it is quite attractive even if not in the same league as villages such as Lavenham in Suffolk and Stow-on-the Wold or Bourton in the Cotswolds.

Umbrella of memory

BUILT BETWEEN 1787 AND 1820, BRIGHTON PAVILION looks less like a hospital than most other buildings. Yet, during the First World War (‘WW1’), this decorative seaside retreat for British royalty was converted into a hospital to treat Indian troops. They had been wounded whilst fighting for the for the British Empire in the battlefields of Flanders. On the 14th of December 1914, the Pavilion was opened as a hospital with 724 beds. According to George Morton-Jack in his book “The Indian Army on the Western Front”, 14,185 wounded Indian troops were brought to Brighton on six “state-of-the-art” hospital ships. They were treated in the Pavilion and other hospitals specially established for the Indian wounded in Brighton and elsewhere. Over 2,300 Indians were treated in the converted Pavilion.

BLOG

The Chattri

A few of the Indians did not survive their injuries. Of those treated at the Pavilion, 18 died, 10 of whom were cremated. Those who died, were given last rites according to their religious beliefs. Moslem corpses were buried in a purpose-built cemetery near the Shah Jehan Mosque at Woking (in Surrey). This mosque was completed in 1889 to the design of Gottlieb William Leitner (1840-1899), an orientalist of Hungarian Jewish heritage. The Hindus and Sikhs who succumbed to their injuries in the hospitals in Brighton were cremated on traditional funeral pyres. Between the 31st of December 1914 and the 30th of December 1915, 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated at a specially demarcated spot on Holt Hill (near Patcham) in the South Downs, 500 feet above sea-level and then their ashes were scattered in the sea according to their rites.

Years ago, we used to meet the late General Misra (of the Indian Army) once a year for dinner when he came from India to the UK on his annual visits. He was a jovial gentleman, who seemed to enjoy life. All that we knew about his visits was that during them, he used to make a trip to Sussex to pay his respects to those Indian soldiers who had died during WW1. Apart from knowing him as a pleasant dining companion, we knew nothing else about him apart from the fact that he was related to some close friends of ours. We were not sure exactly why he used to go to Sussex in particular. Also, we were then unaware that our affable old friend had had a formidable military career.

During WW2, the General was attached to the 6th Rajputana Rifle regiment. A report (https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/28086/4/MANIS002.txt) written during the British Indian campaign against the Japanese in Burma noted:

“Expediting the Jap withdrawl from the TENGNOOPAL Ridge and converting his retreat into a rout, the capture of a prominent hill to the east of Sibong, know(n) as Battle Hill, by a battalion of the 6th. Rajputana Rifles enabled us to have a grand-stand view of the retreating Japa on their LOC. The Rajputs singing and shouting made merry here as they sent MAG bursts on the jap LOC. In this battle and from the attack on Lone Tree Hill near Shenam, the Rajrifs [sic] have been commanded by Lt. Col. Dinesh Chandra Misra of Agra and a graduate of the Indian Military Academy.”

On the 5th of October 1944, the London Gazette announced that the then Captain (temporary Major) Misra had been awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his services in Burma. His distinguished military career (with the British before Indian independence) is summarised on the Imperial War Museum website (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80017253):

“Indian cadet at Indian Military College, Dehra Dum, India, 1933-1935; officer attached to North Staffordshire Regiment in India, 1935-1936; served with 5th Bn Rajputan Rifles in India and Hong Kong, 1937-1941; served with British Army Aid Group Indian Section, China, 1942-1943, served with Rajputan Rifles in India and Burma 1943-1944; student attended Staff College at Camberley, GB, 1944-1945.”

From what my wife and I remember of this affable general, he never mentioned his brave exploits or even hinted at them.

Recently, a friend posted a photograph of a monument that he runs past whilst taking exercise on the South Downs near Hove. This small structure, which looks Indian in design, is what General Misra used to visit on his annual trips to the UK. A few days ago, we visited our friends in Hove and after eating a delicious lunch with them, we drove up on to the Downs near Patcham and walked through a field of well-fed grazing cows to reach a small enclosure containing the Chattri and a monument listing the names of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated at this place during WW1.

‘Chattri’ is the Hindustani and Punjabi word for ‘umbrella’. The monument on Holt Hill consists of a small white marble dome supported on eight pillars made of the same material. This stone Chattri stands on a podium with stairs leading up to it from a lower platform on which there are three low granite slabs. The three granite slabs cover the spots where originally there had been three concrete slabs on which the funeral pyres were built and then ignited according to religious tradition. The ‘umbrella’ or ‘chattri’ symbolises, according to a plaque nearby, “the protection offered to the memory of the dead”.

Funded partly by the India Office and Brighton Borough Council, the monument was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It was built to the designs of EC Henriques (died 1940, aged 51) a young Indian architect from Bombay. His work was supervised by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (1841-1917), an expert in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. I have eaten dinner at one of Jacob’s other buildings: Bikaner House, a palace he designed in Mount Abu (Rajasthan), constructed in 1893. Built as a summer palace for a maharajah of Bikaner, it is now a hotel. In January 2020, we ate a poor-quality meal there. We and the other diners sat dressed in padded jackets because the dining room was unheated, and the outside temperature was close to freezing point.

The bases of the eight columns of the Chattri interested me because they bear the same decorative motif seen on the bases of pillars in Hindu temples constructed well before the era of Moslem invasions of India began. The early mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat (e.g. in Ahmedabad and Champaner), which borrow many structural features of Hindu temples, also contain pillars whose bases are decorated with the same motif seen on the Chattri. The same is true of the capitals of the pillars that support the dome of the Chattri. Also, the domes in those ancient Hindu temples and mediaeval mosques are always supported on eight pillars arranged in an octagon, as is the case at the Chattri.  In brief, the small but elegant Chattri, which looks a little incongruous in West Sussex, would look very much at home in many parts of India.

The Chattri stands high on the South Downs in a pleasingly landscaped garden. It overlooks the surrounding hills and the ribbon of coastal towns including Brighton and Hove, and beyond them the sea. Part of the monument complex is a more recently (2010) erected concrete wall on which are carved the names of the 53 Hindu and Sikh men who were cremated at this spot, as well as their ranks and regiments.

To reach the Chattri, we walked along a path through a field in which cattle were grazing. As I looked at the cows, I thought that most of the Indian men whose lives ended in Brighton and were cremated on the Downs must have often walked amongst cattle in India before they left it to fight in Flanders  for the Empire, which did their fellow countrymen few favours.

During our brief visit to the Chattri, there were a couple of families relaxing around it. Their children were playing cheerfully around the pillars and on its steps, blissfully unaware of what it represented. This did not bother us. We felt that their joy would have been appreciated by the men who sacrificed their lives for the future of families such as these and many others. The wide horizons, the lovely landscape, and the fresh air enveloping the monument, gave the place and its surroundings a special, maybe spiritual, atmosphere, a feeling of the continuum of life and beyond. Who knows, but any of us at the Chattri might possibly be reincarnations of some of the soldiers cremated there.

POSTSCRIPT: INDIAN SOLDIERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Many Indian soldiers fought for the British because they believed, or hoped, that by supporting the Empire in its struggle for survival, India would gain at least some autonomy, if not a generous dose of self-rule. In the last years of WW1, even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi roamed around India encouraging Indians to enrol to fight for the British. Joseph Lelyveld wrote of Gandhi in his book “Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India”:

“He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in the next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is ‘the straightest way to swaraj’”

The Indian soldiers fought for the empire. Some were killed, others injured, but India did not reach swaraj (i.e. self-government) at the end of WW1. Remember, less than a year after the Great War ended, soldiers commanded by a British general killed at least 379 and wounded over 1000 unarmed Indian civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, the district of India that supplied many troops to the Western Front and other battlefields. Even Winston Churchill, no lover of India, was genuinely outraged by the horrific nature of this murderous event.

India would have to endure many upheavals and another world war before independence was won.

Military disasters

IT IS ALWAYS PLEASING to read about a subject that is new to me. A friend gave me a copy of “Fall of the Double Eagle” by John Schindler. It deals with the conflict between Austria Hungary (‘AH’) and its enemies Russia and Serbia at the beginning of WW1.

BLOG book

Schindler’s book is clearly written and engaging. It reveals a tale of truly lethal incompetence, that of the military leaders of AH during their pointless attacks on Galicia and Serbia. These were confrontations whose aim appeared to be to satisfy the egos of the arrogant leaders of AH’s military.

With the exception of skilful use of radio interception of Russian signals, everything else that the leaders of AH’s military laid their hands on led to the unnecessary deaths and injuries of a horrendously large number of brave and loyal soldiers. These soldiers, drawn from all of the numerous ethnic groups in the AH Empire, were united in their loyalty to their Habsburg rulers and very brave in battle. However, the incompetence of their superiors rendered their bravery pointless and in most cases their actions resembled those of lemmings running towards a lethal ending.

Despite knowledge of recent examples of modern warfare, the Anglo-Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the AH high command made little or no attempt to update military equipment and tactics/strategies. Schindler describes this well, and also the unwillingness of the AH government to invest money on bringing the military up to date. Consequently, when the AH armies came into conflict with the Russians and Serbians, courage and bravery were futile in the face of superior artillery and tactics.

What Schindler describes brilliantly in his book is a tragic epic of incompetence. The military leaders of AH should have had, but did not appear to have had, very bad consciences in the light of the number of fatalities caused by their negligence.

Reading Schindler’s fascinating compendium of official arrogance, refusing to learn from experience, and lack of foresight, during the first years of WW1, made me have worrying thoughts about what is going on around us today during the current pandemic.

I recommend Schindler’s book to anyone interested in WW1 and/or the importance of competent planning by governments.

PS: The inclusion of some maps might have been helpful to assist the reader in following the exciting descriptions of some of the campaigns described.

Poetry

Steaming_240

 

I have never been able to enjoy reading poetry and enjoy it. However, if it is read out aloud by someone else, I usually love what I hear.  Poetry is like music made with words.

Here is a poem that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young teenager. It is Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He was killed in France during WW1. His poem captures the essence of the world that reveals itself gradually when a train stops at a small country station.

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

REQUIEM FOR THE EMBLEM OF POWER

Cork Street, near London’s famous Burlington Arcade, has long been home to quite a number of art galleries. Recently, the greed of property developers has led to the closure and disappearance of many of these. Dadiani Fine Art, a small gallery, at number 30 Cork Street has survived so far. This gallery is hosting an exhibition of works by Paul Wager, entitled “Requiem for the Emblem of Power”. The show, which opened in January 2018, commemorates the centenary of the ending of the First World War ‘WW1’). Althoug the website states that the show was due to finish in April 2018, it was still available for viewing in September 2018. So, you might still be able to ‘catch’ it.

wager 0

Paul Wager, British, was born in Hartlepool in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War. According to the gallery’s website, Paul Wager wrote:

I find myself at the interzone of painting and sculpture; my work is a heavy metal cocktail of male fantasies, obsessive and confrontational. It is a chemical haze of alternative sound and vision, religion and politics, conflict and war, tragedy and loss. A crucible of liquid observations and memories which stimulate my pending offering to the uncharted future of art.”

wager 1

The works on display in Cork Street reinforce this statement this well. According to Umberto Eco:

“Art now in general may be seen as conveying a much higher degree of information though not necessarily a higher degree of meaning.

However, the Gallery notes:

Wager’s paintings are a profound statement of information and meaning

Be that as it may, I found the art works, visually alluring, powerful, and moving. Finely crafted, both in detail and as a whole, and creatively designed, they are  fitting, original contributions to the large body of recent creations made to celebrate the passing of 100 years since 1918.

wager 2