Swaffham Prior war memorial, Cambridgeshire

Swaffham Prior War Memorial, Cambridgeshire

Tanks rumble across No Man’s Land, submarines patrol the sea, soldiers stand guard and munitions workers labour day and night - all in stained glass. They feature in three of the windows in St Mary’s Church, which, together with a stone cross, constitute Swaffham Prior’s unique memorial to World War I.

Created in 1919, the windows were designed by CP Allix; local squire, church benefactor and a man apparently fascinated with machines. The windows have lots of small scenes, each accompanied by Biblical texts, some of which seem rather laboured, as if they have been levered in to justify the images.

The first one starts with a barrage balloon floating among the stars while searchlights comb the sky and a tank roams the plains. Not the sort of thing you usually see in churches. Under a biplane flying though glassy blue skies is the text ‘Though they climb up to heaven thence will I bring them down.’ Was Biggles an agent of the Almighty in his battles with the Red Baron? As they stack up the shells they‘ve made, female munitions workers are encouraged by ‘Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might.’

The fascination with technology is undimmed in the second window - ‘Though they be hid from my sight in the bottom of the sea thence will I command the serpent’ accompanies a fantastic painting of a submarine, complete with riveted sections, periscopes and a complex rudder mechanism. On the surface a ship steams along happily, but not for long… now you see it sinking under the waves, where you can also admire four different types of mine.

After that the belligerence starts to lessen. Hospital nurses help casualties and, elsewhere in the world British engineers build a pipeline to bring water to the desert. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour like thyself’ is the inspiring text for an illustration of what seems to be a YMCA shelter – surely the world’s ONLY instance of this organisation appearing in sacred art?

The final window extols the benefits of peace. There are bright scenes of sheep grazing, men ploughing fields, women gathering crops and so on. It’s all very nice and cheery but you can just tell his heart wasn’t in it, or perhaps there just wasn’t enough technology to interest him. If only the Massey Ferguson and the mechanised milking parlour had been invented in time to liven up those pastoral idylls.

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