Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Story In Stone

Further along the B1252 at Sledmere is this memorial to the Wolds Waggoners Special Reserve. The Waggoners were the idea of Sir Mark Sykes (whose descendents still live nearby at the lovely Sledmere House) who as early as 1905 recognised that the local farm labourers skills with horse-drawn wagons could be useful in a war that he felt must be coming soon. The Waggoners – all volunteers – were drawn mainly from the farming communities of the immediate region, but some later members came from as far away as Norfolk. In a sort of latter-day feudalism they signed on for Sir Mark, accepted a bounty of a golden guinea and with that promised to go to war if needed. Of course, war did come – right in the middle of harvest time. The Waggoners left their fields and were among the first sent to the Western Front. Despite being support troops they were often in range of enemy guns and at least 35 of their total strength of 1200 were dead by 1918.

The memorial was designed by Mark Sykes himself, carved by one Carlo Magnoni and unveiled in 1920. It’s exceptionally moving. It reminds me of Trajan’s Column in Rome - reading almost like a comic book or a film director’s storyboard. Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘curiously homely’ and there is certainly a na├»ve quality to the carvings, perhaps deliberately. Another touching aspect is that the verses inscribed on the monument are written in the local Yorkshire dialect.

Good lads and game, our Riding's pride,
These steans are set by this roadside
This tale your children's bairns to tell
Of what ye did when war befell,
To help to save the world fra wrong,
To shield the weak and bind the strong

The highly detailed panels read in sequence, with the men working the land, signing on, training and going off to war. The ‘at war’ panels are chilling – some with pickelhaube-d Germans torching churches and dragging women along by their hair. By 1938 the German Ambassador was calling these particular panels “Wicked English Horror Propaganda” and called for them to be removed. In appeasement Britain there was a lot of official hand-wringing but in the end, they remained. A year or so later the lads of Sledmere and the Wolds would be off to war again.

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