Greenford and the Great War

Graves of the Great War, Greenford Park Cemetery (photo Albertina McNeill)

It’s difficult now, a hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, to imagine the quiet rural place Greenford was in 1914. The things that are such a familiar part of today’s landscape, streets lined with semi-detached houses, Greenford Road, the A40, the Flyover, all these had yet to be built. There were farms and fields where we see warehouses and retail parks. Carts were drawn by horses along roads now busy with HGVs and cars. In 2014 the population is numbered in thousands but in 1911 Greenford was home to 843 people. It was a time remembered by John Betjeman in his poem “Middlesex”:

Parish of enormous hayfields
Perivale stood all alone,
And from Greenford scent of mayfields
Most enticingly was blown

There is very little left to show the physical impact of the Great War on the area. I’ve come across mentions of concrete blocks on the summit of Horsenden Hill that indicate where there was once a gun emplacement, erected by Poore’s of Acton, more familiar to west London residents as a source of DIY materials. A munitions factory was set up near Dunelm in Long Drive, in what is now an industrial park.

Windmill Lane, parade of shops, Greenford, London Borough of Ealing (photo Albertina McNeill)

The names of those who answered the call but did not return are reminders of the emotional toll the Great War must have taken on the nascent suburb, inscribed on the war memorial at Greenford Broadway and on gravestones in local burial grounds. It must have been a sad and challenging job to deliver a letter or telegram in those days, to the house in The Grove, Greenford Park in April 1918, which seems barely to have changed from the time when the parents of William Allday lived there, and to the home of the wife of Henry Baker a few streets away in Windmill Lane, possibly in the parade of shops which still exists at the junction with Greenford Road.

William Allday has no known grave but is mentioned on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium and Henry Baker is buried in Basra War Cemetery in Iraq. Which was harder to bear, the fact that there was no grave to visit or that a grave was so far away that a visit was impossible? Two other local families must have considered themselves relatively fortunate as their loved ones were buried closer to home. Robert Eakin died of his wounds and was laid to rest in a place that was probably familiar to him, the churchyard of Holy Cross.

Rosebank Avenue, Greenford, London Borough of Ealing (photo Albertina McNeill)

There are a surprising number of First World War graves at Greenford Park Cemetery, thirteen that date from that period, and those that lie there represent all three armed services, including the UK’s early air force. It would have been a long tiring walk to get there from her home at Rosebank Avenue, Sudbury Hill for the mother of Percy Higley but I can imagine her making the journey regularly for as long as she was able to. Several families must have walked to the cemetery from their homes in Hanwell to visit these graves.  

The simple distinctive stones that mark them are not the only memorials to those who lost their lives. If you look closely at others of the period shared by family members you will sometimes find a mention of loved ones who are buried abroad. A gravestone at Greenford Park Cemetery shows that the Wrights had already lost two sons, aged 13 and 19 before Leonard was killed at the age of 17 at Gallipoli, another that the Burtenshaws lost their son Albert in Salonica. In the churchyard at Holy Cross Edward Denniss is mentioned on the family gravestone. His parents lived in Greenford Avenue, Hanwell. A Royal Engineer who worked with carrier pigeons to send signals, he is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery in France.

Royal British Legion, Greenford, London Borough of Ealing (photo Albertina McNeill)

What memorials cannot tell us is what life must have been like for those who came back with wounds both visible and invisible. The local branch of the Royal British Legion, so supportive of veterans, was not formed until 1935, once there were many more people living in the area. It must have been impossible for them to describe accurately their experience of war to loved ones. Today the television news leaves us in no doubt as to how terrifying it can be, we are almost inured to it, but a hundred years ago the families they came back to were innocent of the level of violence and fear experienced by their menfolk. How could they explain what it is like to hear a shell explode or to see your friends torn apart by its shrapnel to someone who had only known life in a peaceful village?

War memorial, Greenford, London Borough of Ealing (photo Albertina McNeill)

Whenever I visit Greenford War memorial I think of the men who had served in the Great War standing in front of the names of people they had probably known, growing older, living lives denied to those who had not returned with them. Every year the landscape around them must have changed a little until it would have been unrecognisable to those they remembered. It took a while, as such things still do in Greenford, to work up the support needed to get the memorial built but eventually a Portland stone cross was set up close to what is now Greenford Broadway and it was unveiled in 1921. It seems fitting that the words at the base evoke the meadows that once characterised the place these men left behind them and that were lost, in part, to the enormous social and industrial changes set into motion by the First World war:

“Ye who live on mid English pastures green, remember us, and think of what might have been.”

Dementia Concern Remembrance Day window display, Greenford, London Borough of Ealing (photo Albertina McNeill)

Unfortunately they and those who have come after them have learned that it was not “the war to end all wars”, however appalling and cataclysmic it may have seemed to those who went through it. Generations have now worn the poppy that has come to be associated with the remembrance of the war dead in the UK. We still see men, and now women, return wounded from theatres of conflict around the world. Those who value that sacrifice continue to tend the graves of the fallen. The anniversaries of battles will go by, marked by a decreasing number of veterans who took part in them, as age achieves what war did not.

Truck with Poppy Appeal badge, Greenford, London Borough of Ealing (photo Albertina McNeill)

Names on Greenford War memorial:
Allday, William; Allen, H. C. ; Allen, Herbert; Allen, J.; Baker, Henry Charles; Blackwell, Alfred; Collins, A.; De La Perelle, John; Eakin, Robert Andrew; Hutt, James; Lee, Edward; Marshall, G. W.; Richards, Martin; Richards, William; Savage, F.; Tillyard, Herbert; Watson, Albert; Whibley, A.

THEIR NAME LIVETH FOREVER MORE

This post is dedicated to my great uncle, the Reverend William Wilson Morrell OBE, who was taken prisoner during the First World War and returned to France as a Territorial Army chaplain in the Second World War.

Information for those wishing to pay their respects to the fallen of the Great War buried in Greenford Park Cemetery can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website by typing “Greenford Park Cemetery” into “Cemetery or memorial”. Details are given of where the graves can be found within the cemetery and there is a noticeboard showing where each section is. Check opening times before visiting by clicking here

Holy Cross Church is at the junction of Ferrymead Gardens and Oldfield Lane South and the churchyard can be accessed at all times.

Greenford War memorial is at the junction of Oldfield Lane South and Ruislip Road.

Find out more about the anniversary of the First World War here

Links to sources:
Greenford population statistics
Greenford War memorial
POORES OF ACTON, THE STORY OF A BUSINESS, T & A HARPER SMITH, 1994, Acton History Group
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Roll of Honour – Greenford
Royal British Legion Greenford
British History Online

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2014. Please do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved. Do not add any of these images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.