Smorgasbord Short Stories – The Village Square September 3rd 1939 – by Sally Cronin

The Village Square September 3rd 1939 – by Sally Cronin

The church stood on the outskirts of the small Hampshire village of East Stanton. A place of worship had been sited on this mound for centuries and there was evidence that a church had been dedicated there before 700AD. In the 12th century, the present building had been constructed lovingly by local builders and had been renovated, probably by the descendants of those same builders in the 14th and the 19th centuries.

The last changes to the building had been made in Victorian times and had taken ten years. The money for the project had been provided by the then Squire, Richard Cranford whose great grandson, Edward was now the current lord of the manor. There had been Crandfords in East Stanton since the Middle Ages and the family had served the monarchs of the country well throughout the centuries, resulting in gifts of estates in the surrounding countryside.

The years had eroded this massive holding but the squire still owned the largest farm in the area as well as a substantial number of cottages and buildings in and around East Stanton.

In the churchyard to the rear of the grounds lay the well-ordered graveyard. Even the oldest stones stood strongly and the paths and graves themselves were immaculately kept by the team of volunteer gardeners. The most famous son of East Stanton after the squire was a naval captain, Joseph Stephens who had served and died with Nelson at Trafalgar. Nearly 125 years later, his descendants still left flowers on his grave each anniversary and Frederick Stephens who owned the butcher’s shop in the square proudly displayed a portrait of his illustrious ancestor on the wall of his establishment.

Generations of young men from East Stanton had served at sea. Like many villages in Hampshire that lay close to Portsmouth, joining the Royal Navy was an adventure that attracted many a farm boy reluctant to follow his father onto the land or serve the Squire. Not many of those that served their country in the navy were buried in the small graveyard and in many cases, there were no gravestones anywhere, simply burial at sea. Over the last three hundred years, the women of the village had mourned their husbands and sons and today several widows of the First World War stood together hands clasped for comfort.

On this Sunday morning in early September, the small church was packed and many looked to the front pew where Edward Cranford, his wife Celia and their three children Elisabeth, Amelia and Teddy bowed their heads in prayer. The church was so packed that many of the men stood silently at the rear of the church, hats in hand and heads bowed. As the hands of the clock in the bell tower moved slowly towards the quarter hour, the silence in this holy place intensified.

The vicar, John Hogg looked out at his congregation and for a moment, his eyes rested on his own family in the choir stalls. His wife Bess looked up from her prayers and she smiled encouragingly at him. She placed her arms around her two daughters, Veronica and Grace as they stood by her side and she breathed deeply as she watched her husband move to the side of the altar.

John had brought their radio from the vicarage and he now placed it on a table in the centre of the aisle and switched the set on. At first, there was just hissing and static and then as the church clock struck 11.15, a voice could be heard clearly, filling the building with chilling clarity.

Normally the Sunday service began at 11.00 to allow for the congregation who were mainly from the farming community to complete their early morning milking and other essential jobs. This morning however, the church had begun to fill up shortly after 10.00 as word of this morning’s events filtered through the efficient grapevine maintained in the village itself and surrounding farms and cottages. By 10.30, the church had been packed and John Hogg had decided that his parishioners obviously needed to be together on what could be a momentous day in history. He too had heard the announcement made by the BBC as he was finishing his breakfast. The country was on standby for a speech from the Prime Minister at 11.15 and everyone knew that following the events of the last two days, this speech was likely to change the lives of every one in the country forever.

As he watched his friends and family standing with heads bowed, he knew that they would be remembering another time. They had promised that it would be a war to end all wars and that the sacrifice of so many would ensure peace for all time. The monument in the centre of the village square was testament to that sacrifice and there was hardly a family in the village that had not lost a father, brother, son or husband to that assurance. He himself had served in the trenches and been wounded twice before returning home to take holy orders. His two brothers had not been so fortunate and somewhere in a cemetery in Northern France, simple crosses marked their graves.

“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany. Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution and against them I am certain that the right will prevail”.

There was a sharp intake of breath from the assembled villagers. Suddenly a cry fractured the silence and a woman collapsed against her friends and began to sob uncontrollably.
Within minutes, the whole congregation was hugging and talking. Women cried on their husband’s shoulders and mother’s clasped embarrassed sons in their arms, desperately trying to hold onto them and keep them from harm.

The news was not unexpected, since 1938, the country had been preparing for war, and it was generally understood that a conflict with Germany was a certainty. Men from the First World War who were in the reserves or those serving in the Territorial Army had been mobilised.

Conscription had been abandoned after the First World War but by 1939 there were around 200,000 soldiers in the British Army. This was not going to be enough men to take on the might of the German forces and earlier in the year, the Government had introduced the Military Training Act. This act meant that all men between the ages of 20 and 21 years old had to register for six months military training. Some occupations were classified as ‘reserved’ and essential to the war effort and many a mother in the congregation was grateful that farmers and their workers were exempt. There had been talk of conscription being introduced for all men between the ages of 18 and 41 who were not in reserved occupations and those boys who were eligible to be drafted and some older men looked at each other in silence.

At the back of the church stood a group of men in their fifties and sixties, many of whom had served in the First War. They had already formed into groups of Special Constables and Air Raid Wardens, trained and ready to deal with a very new type of warfare that would be waged in the skies and in bombing raids.

There was no doubt in all the villagers’ minds that every single one of them would be affected in some way by the finality of the news today.

The vicar moved amongst the men, women and bewildered children, trying to give comfort but fighting his own feelings of fear and dismay. He felt guilty as he gave thanks for having no sons, only two daughters, but knew that many of the young men stood with their families today would not be here when and if peace was declared. He took a deep breath and moved out of the dark and cool church into the sunshine. The squire and his family followed him down the aisle and stood with him as he shook each hand that was outstretched towards him.

Edward Cranford had served in the Army Flying Corps in the First World War and was no stranger to fear and violence. Like John, he knew what was ahead but as he clasped the hands of the young men of the village, he could see in them the fire and desire to serve that he and his many dead comrades had felt when war had been declared in 1914. His son Teddy was 18 years old and was already planning on a career in the army. He shuddered as he fought back the feelings of panic and knew that the die was now cast and he just hoped to God that it would be over quickly and without the horrendous loss of life of the first conflict.

By the time the last parishioner had left the small church, John felt exhausted. He was aware that his job would now change from a peacetime role as vicar of a country church to comforter and bearer of bad news. As the young men clustered together and talked excitedly, he wondered how many of their parents he would be visiting over the coming months and years to bring solace and faith.

He felt a hand slip into his own and looked down to the blonde head resting on his shoulder.

“John, let’s go home please, I need to be with just you and the girls right now.”

Bess had lost a brother at the Somme and they had met when John had visited her parents after the war. He had served with Peter and been with him when he was killed and this had brought a bittersweet essence to the early days of their romance.

Their daughters Veronica and Grace were eighteen and nineteen and knew all the local boys from the various Saturday night dances held in the tennis, football and cricket clubs. There had been no serious romances but he could see from their pinched faces that they were afraid and upset. He put his arms around their shoulders and smiled at Bess.

“Come on darling, let’s get these girls home and get lunch on. We can sit in the garden and talk about what is going to happen and how we can all help our friends in the village get through this next few days and weeks.”

The two girls smiled at their father and hugged him closer. They were bright girls and had questioned him ceaselessly about his time in the army, fascinated by his scars and eager to find something noble in what they had initially felt was one huge adventure. John had told them of that time without glorifying his role and over time, they came to understand the pain of both their father and mother’s losses.

However, their mother knew that her daughters were not immune to the glamour of seeing their childhood friends in uniform and suspected that for the younger generation of the village, the horrors and devastation of war would be tempered with excitement for the opportunities it could offer.

As the family walked around the side of the church and through the graveyard, Bess reflected on the number of young men who had left East Stanton for the army and navy and who never returned. She thought about all the young men who had been in the service this morning and felt incredible sorrow for the life that they would now choose out of honour and loyalty to their country. Please God it would be over quickly and that they would all come home safe.

The Cranfords climbed into their car and drove up the hill, past the mill and through the square. Their house faced the war memorial and Edward slowed as the car drove past. Two of his cousins and his older brother’s name were inscribed on the monument and he could recite all the names on the list by heart. These were his people and his responsibility. He was too old to serve in the armed forces now but he would do what ever he could to protect both the village and its inhabitants from as much hardship as possible. There was no point in sitting around waiting for anyone in authority to do something, as they would have their hands full dealing with the enormity of the broader picture.

As he maneuvered the car into the drive at the side of the house and onto the large gravel area at the rear of the house, he made a mental note of the people he would need to get together to put plans into action. Apart from the Special Constables and Air Raid Wardens he would need to speak to all the shopkeepers, the doctor and matron of the local nursing home to ensure that they were ready for whatever events took place including refugees and food shortages.

He glanced over his shoulder at his son Teddy in the back seat and Teddy smiled back at his father. He appeared to have gone from a boy to a man in the time it had taken the Prime Minister to make his fateful announcement. His two daughters looked tearful and both held their brother’s hands tightly on their laps as if to keep him close.

In the homes and farms of East Stanton, the normally jovial Sunday lunches were subdued. Parlours were opened up and families came together from around the county to talk about the news and draw comfort from each other throughout the afternoon

As the warm summer day drew to a close, in the distance, the church bells rang out for evening service and as one, the villagers returned to their place of worship to face the future together.

@Sally Cronin 2015

Thanks for dropping in today and as always your comments are very welcome… Sally.

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