For November, it was a surprisingly pleasant morning. In need of somewhere to go to stretch our lockdown-cramped legs, we wandered to a neighbouring village to explore its history. Whilst personal preference may direct our attention to the ancient face of the land, it was because of more recent memory that we had landed in Whitchurch… this sleepy little backwater, like every other town, village and hamlet, has played its part and paid its price in time of war.
To most of us, the fallen from long ended wars are simply names inscribed upon the Rolls of Honour or cenotaph. It is their families who feel the loss of life, love and presence most keenly. They may not even know what happened, how or where their loved ones died. There may be no grave at which to stand in mourning, no chance to say goodbye.
There are others who do return home from conflict, broken, scarred, both physically and mentally, to families who may be equally traumatised by separation and fear. Theirs are the forgotten stories… and sometimes it needs a name or a face better known to highlight and illustrate the tragedy.
Whitchurch is typical of so many of our Buckinghamshire villages, built along the course of the major road out of town. It has the almost obligatory Norman church, the remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, a handful of holy wells, its fair share of half-timbered buildings and far more than its fair share of thatched cottages. Today it is home to around a thousand souls. Some, amongst the many who lived and served here, stand out.
Once, in the years of peace between the First and Second World Wars, Whitchurch was home to a young artist named Rex Whistler. He lived at Bolebec House, a beautiful old building whose back lawn nestles in the shadow of the old Norman castle, looking out across the valley. In 1933, Rex painted that scene, a painting now known as The Vale of Aylesbury, and famously used it as part of the advertising campaign for Shell.
One of the “Bright Young Things” of the 20s, Rex, a man of great charm, had made a name for himself as an artist, designer and illustrator as well as painting the portraits of the rich and famous and accepting commissions for murals. When war broke out, he was a successful artist and thirty five years old. He joined the army, and, in June 1940, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. On the 18th July 1944, he left his tank to go to the aid of other men in his unit, he was killed by a mortar bomb and lies in the military cemetery of Banneville-la-Campagne. He never came home.
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