Shouldn’t we return this crucifix to the French? says Jonathan, 16, under the medieval vaults of the pretty Tinwell church. In this village located 170 kilometers north of London, on this Sunday morning, November 11, 2018, the service of Remembrance Day (Remembrance Day) has just ended. That year, we also celebrated the centenary of the signing of the armistice of the First World War and the parishioners brought medals which evoke the history of their ancestors, engaged alongside the poilus in the trenches of the north of the France.
On a table rests the gilded bronze crucifix, brought down from the central altar for the occasion.
Around the traditional cup of tea, June Dodkin, 82, church warden (guardian of the church and responsible for the smooth running of Anglican services), has just explained to the assembly: “It was reported from a village in the Somme called Doingt, by the pastor who officiated here from 1919.” June has always known this story written in the little church guide. In the surprised silence that follows Jonathan’s apostrophe, she recognizes that the idea of bringing the sacred object back to France had never occurred to her. “This village, perhaps, with all the bombings at the time, it no longer exists,” she says.
Without stopping, Jonathan takes out his smartphone and, in front of his elders, dexterously taps: Doingt, Somme, village. “There you go,” he exclaimed a few seconds later: “Doingt-Flamicourt! It has been rebuilt. There is even an image of the current church… » As the screen goes around the assembly, June reflects, disturbed to see this beautiful white limestone facade appear which, a few minutes ago, she was unaware of. ‘existence. Like everyone present that morning, she finally agreed: “Yes, we must give them back their crucifix. » “Yes, it is a fair gesture on the part of our church which, in eight hundred years, has been fortunate to survive the Great Plague and two world wars,” added Katharine McDewitt, Jonathan’s mother who suggests: “Let’s write to their mayor, he will know who to send it to! »
More than a year had passed when, on December 10, 2019, June jumped out of her chair: among today’s emails, a message from a certain… Hubert Boizard, resident of Doingt, who apologizes for the long response time. Finally ! She wrote to them several times on behalf of the parish council, but ended up believing that the project was not of interest to the French. Hubert presents himself as an active member of the Mémoire de Doingt-Flamicourt association, which was very touched by the British proposal. He explains that he was asked by the town hall to be Tinwell’s contact. And he sent June some striking postcards from the 1920s showing the ruins of the church. Hubert will ask the municipal council and the priest, Jean-Louis Brunel, to confirm their agreement for the return of the crucifix.
With jubilation, June launches the investigation to answer Hubert’s questions: in which regiment did the Reverend Graham Goodwin, who officiated at Tinwell just after the war, serve? While she searches various archive services for traces of her visit to Doingt, an official invitation arrives from France and a travel date is soon set for October 24, 2020. Hubert lists the festivities imagined: welcome ceremony at the town hall, ecumenical service at the church, but also a tour of the sites of the Great War with a visit to the memorial of Péronne, the neighboring town, without forgetting a tribute to the Doingt cemetery where 417 soldiers from all over the British Empire and died in the field hospital then installed in the village.
My feeling is that you have taken care of the graves of our soldiers in your cemetery, for a hundred years, while we preserved your crucifix. There cannot be a stronger bond between us, June responds on February 1, 2020, while reassuring Hubert that Tinwell plans to have a replacement crucifix for his altar made by a willing amateur sculptor. A resident of the village, he will use wood from an old church bench.
But neither June nor Hubert saw the Covid epidemic coming which broke out in the spring of 2020, making preparations for an upcoming visit to France impossible… In the emails they exchanged, June confided to this Frenchman that she never saw his concerns for his son living in the United States and his daughter near London, while Hubert told her, heartbroken, of the death of their honorary president, victim of the virus. Then, the horizon clears and together they put forward dates for this famous trip: first May 2022, pushed back to August, then to October 21.
In the meantime, the Rev Olwen Woolcock took charge of the Tinwell parish. Absorbed by the difficulties linked to Covid, she did not pay too much attention to this crucifix story. In July 2022, after hearing June and Katharine talk about the program that awaits them in France, she approves. But one question bothers her: “Have you asked permission from the Church of England to donate this crucifix, which is of historical interest and which legally belongs to it?” » Obviously, no one thought about it! Olwen urgently wrote to the Diocese of Peterborough that this was “a gesture of goodwill and recognition towards the tragedy of the Somme and all those who lost their lives there”. But she already knows that the matter will take several months.
Finally, on October 3, 2022, in Tinwell, Olwen, June, Katharine and all the parish council are over the moon (to the angels)! The Chancellor of the Diocese of Peterborough has just granted final permission to remove the crucifix from the list of sacred objects belonging to the Church of England. After all, no resident came forward against it, even though, according to the rule, for twenty-eight days a panel displayed in the church had clearly invited them to choose.
During the last week of January 2023, Olwen Woolcock speaks with a prominent member of the parish: Sir Giles Floyd, 90, whose family owns the land on which the church is built. She informs him of the project around the crucifix when the man interrupts: “It was not Pastor Goodwin who brought it from Picardy, but the Reverend Percy Hooson! I remember very well that he spoke to us about it. » June and Olwen examine this story in a new light: Percy Hooson, born in 1872 and died in 1969, was an army chaplain during World War I and did not arrive in the parish until 1932. But, after everything, the church archives attest that the crucifix was only placed on the altar in 1936…
Very quickly the clues accumulate: while she finds no trace of Graham Goodwin’s possible service in France, June comes into contact with Percy Hooson’s grandson, who keeps his grandfather’s four war diaries. -father, in faded ink. However, the latter says that he served as chaplain… in Doingt in 1917! The pastor wrote further that he, at the end of the war, brought back “several very heavy objects” in his luggage. Even if he does not specify that the crucifix is part of it, the parishioners of Tinwell no longer have any doubt.
The sound of the bugle resonates with gravity in the Doingt cemetery on this slightly rainy Saturday, July 1, 2023, the anniversary of the start of the great Somme offensive in 1916, which cost the lives of 443,000 soldiers, half of whom belonged to the British army. Katharine’s husband plays for the dead. Around the couple, their two daughters, Antonia and Imogen – Jonathan, taken by exams was not able to come – as well as around ten other representatives of Tinwell including the Reverend Olwen Woolcock in white dawn. Of course, June is there, with her son who came from the United States to support her. Alongside them, Hubert and the members of Mémoire de Doingt-Flamicourt listen, impressed: “Be careful, in Great Britain, it’s two minutes of silence after the bell rings!” warned Hubert. At the end of this moment of contemplation, they lead the English delegation towards the church, followed by the municipal councilors and the inhabitants who wish it.
In a few brief words, Hubert reminds everyone of the story that brings them together. The association found a letter that the priest at the time had written after the withdrawal of German troops in 1917 and from which he read extracts aloud: “To get to the altar, I had to climb a pile rubble (…) The altar is stripped, no more candelabra, no more candles, no more crucifixes!”
Then, in front of one hundred and fifty people, with determination, young Antonia lifts the heavy crucifix with both hands and goes up the nave to entrust it to Zoé, a teenage resident of Doingt, who installs it on the central altar. The “fraternal ceremony”, in the words of Father Jean-Louis Brunel, begins, celebrated in both languages. The parishioners of Tinwell sing hymns in full voice. “What quality! It’s fabulous,” admires Hubert, overwhelmed. Father Brunel asks God to preserve men from the “terrible distress of war” which still rages today in many countries, notably in Ukraine. Reverend Olwen returns to the meaning of Christ on the cross, then concludes: “Doingt, restored, has become a place full of life and projects. It is right to return the crucifix. This is where it should be. Face to the sorrows and struggles of our current world, it symbolizes and affirms light, life and hope.” Then the audience is invited to pray, in particular “so that the barriers of culture, race, language and religion fall.”
The two priests together lift the crucifix and install it in the side chapel, under the gaze of Jesus in the Garden of Olives, fearing his coming torture, represented on the fresco of the vault. This is not a coincidence: what better response to this moment of doubt than this return of the crucifix? Father Brunel said to himself when he had to decide where to place him in the church. “Picking up a Christ in the ruins was such a strong symbolic gesture of faith and hope that a century later it still resonates,” he concluded with Olwen.
June, Hubert and many others have sparkling eyes. Katharine observes her daughters and thinks that this adventure has allowed them to understand to what extent History leaves powerful traces. Suddenly, confinement and Brexit seem far away: already, the mayor of Doingt is talking about a return trip, perhaps a twinning… How good it is to reconnect across the Channel.
Five months of fighting. From July 1 to November 18, 1916, the offensive was carried out mainly by the British army east of Albert (Somme) while the French concentrated at Verdun (Meuse).
- 1 MILLION dead, wounded or missing soldiers including: 170,000 dead and missing for the German army. 206,000 dead and missing for the British army 67,000 dead and missing for the French army. 600,000 wounded, all armies combined.
- 12 KILOMETERS gained to the north and 8 kilometers to the south. Such is the meager advance obtained by the Allies at the end of this great murderous offensive which left a lasting mark on British collective memory.
Sources: Museum of the Great War, in Meaux; History of the Great War in Péronne-Thiepval.