Ipswich: My grandfather saved this pretty church hanging in 1918. Now I want to take it back ‘home’ to France
05:16 05 April 2014
Jeremy Fraser has a dream. A mission. It centres on a depiction of Mary and Jesus, and a desire to give France a happy ending. Steven Russell on a war story with a difference
John Fraser wasn’t a young man when war broke out, being born in 1872 and thus very much a Victorian, but he answered the call. His country was desperate for medical skills and he had them. The son of a doctor, he was himself a surgeon who had studied at Cambridge.
Lieutenant Colonel John Fraser joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and found himself in France as officer commanding of 53rd Field Ambulance, 19th Division. In the heat of the action, he and his men rescued and repaired soldiers, and organised evacuation lines for those badly wounded.
His family have few details of the doctor’s time in uniform, but there must have been many moments both hairy and brave. Dr John received the Distinguished Service Order (awarded for meritorious or distinguished service), the Military Cross (for exemplary gallantry) and France’s Croix de Guerre (for those mentioned in despatches for acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy).
It wasn’t the only thing he did for Britain’s neighbour across the Channel.
The town of Le Cateau – not far from the border with Belgium, the birthplace of painter Henri Matisse, and a place of tragedy woven into the history of The Suffolk Regiment – had suffered. Its fine baroque church, built in the 1600s and 1700s, was badly damaged by German bombardment.
In 1918, John’s eye was caught by a beautiful embroidered banner in the Catholic church. Perhaps 1.5 metres high, it showed Mary and the baby Jesus sitting on a cloud, holding a string of rosary beads. Kneeling in homage was a Benedictine monk – the church once part of a Benedictine abbey.
With the approval of the local priest, John rescued the banner from the sad-looking L’Eglise Saint Martin in the month before the armistice and took it away for protection. He intended to return it once peace was restored, but that never happened. For decades it’s lain in a drawer at a school near Preston.
John’s grandson is Jeremy Fraser, who lives near Ipswich.
“I think what must have happened is that my grandfather thought he’d try to get it back to the French, but they said ‘There’s no way we can put it back in this church now. It’s just not going to work; the sky’s coming in…’ and so it was with the church’s approval that he took it to Stonyhurst, a Jesuit school up in Lancashire.”
The Catholic boarding school’s roots in England go back to 1794, though it was founded in 1593 not far from Calais.
Jeremy has a note written on August 7, 1920, by French curé-doyen Albert Mainil – the senior priest. He explains that the doctor had saved the banner and wished to give it back, but the church was still badly damaged and unsecured. With the authorities’ blessing, John was passing it to the rector of Stonyhurst College in perpetual memory of all British and French soldiers who died and in remembrance of the gallantry displayed.
Jeremy first heard of this nearly 20 years ago – thinking it had the makings of a good story – and it became tangible a couple of years ago when he and wife Avery were in the north and called on the school.
“They dug out the banner for me. It’s a rather beautiful thing. A lot of it is silver thread, tarnished of course, and the fabric is torn and tired out. But it is a beautiful thing that’s been lying in a drawer for 50 years, I should think.”
In 2014, 100 years after the start of The Great War, he’s determined to see it restored to former glory and returned to its home – if L’Eglise Saint Martin wants it. Jeremy has already set the wheels in motion across the Channel.
“The original church was rebuilt, and then bombed again in 1945. But it’s in good nick now. It’s very nice – a big, light, airy, chunky church.”
And the fabric is in the hands of a professional restorer.
“It’s tarnished, but the floral bits are pretty. Some of the figures are canvas, which someone has cut out of a painting and stuck on, in what looks like an attempt at restoration in the 1800s or the early 20th Century.”
Dr John Fraser’s act of sensitivity has also proved a muse for his grandson’s creativity.
After working in various industries, Jeremy studied at Ipswich School of Art as a mature student and became a painter of semi-abstract landscapes, mainly. Later, he also began to write.
His self-published novel The Colour of Evening Light is a fictional tale but is inspired by, and borrows, some of the elements of Dr John’s experiences.
Young medical officer John Pearson rescues a tapestry from a burning French church at the start of the First World War. When he has to surrender the woman he loves, the tapestry becomes a kind of good luck charm in his eyes, amid the pain of new love ripped asunder by events.
The story moves on to the mid-1960s, when the tapestry surfaces in the archives of an English school and John Pearson’s nephew learns of family secrets. He also sets out to return the artefact to its home in France.
“I wanted to major in the book about the appalling anguish of young lovers torn apart by war. And the journey of discovery David [John Pearson’s nephew] goes on to find the tapestry and get it back to France,” explains Jeremy, who began work on the novel at least three years ago. It took 18 months to write, followed by lots of “polishing”.
If we could only but wind back time, it would be lovely to sit down with John Fraser and hear some of his stories from almost a century ago.
“I only knew him as quite an old man when I was a little nipper, and he was a stroppy old boy then!” admits Jeremy.
There is a good story that hints at the determination and measure of the man. Apparently, he was trying to evacuate many wounded people from a town or village that had been bombarded during the war.
“He organised a train and then it wouldn’t work. My grandfather at this point lost his rag and seized a few French people, and said ‘This train is leaving now! If you’re not going to light the fire, I’ll light the bloody thing!’ Eventually he got it going and several hundred people were taken off to safety.”
What happened once the guns fell quiet?
“I’m not sure of my facts here, but I think my grandfather gave up doctoring pretty soon after the war. He retired, if that’s the right word, to the Channel Islands and bought a house in the early 1920s. He built a lovely garden there.
“I don’t think he did any surgical work, possibly because he had seen too much.”
The Colour of Evening Light costs £8.99 and is available via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“I have the sort of CV a lot of people would say made me unemployable, in the sense I’ve done a lot of stuff,” smiles Jeremy Fraser.
At 19, having failed to get into university, he spent a couple of years in Canada, working for a company in the pulp and paper business.
Montreal was a vibrant and exciting culture shock for a lad who had led a sheltered existence – all-male school, life on a farm in Sussex – “and never really met anybody”.
Running short of funds, Jeremy got a short-term job as a lumberjack to pay for his voyage home.
Back in England, he worked for the company that had employed him in Canada, then joined a brewery – part of the Watney Mann group.
“That was going fine until… aha… I committed a grave indiscretion.”
Abroad, he’d joined the Royal Canadian Hussars as a territorial soldier. Upon his return, someone suggested ‘You need to carry on with the TA. You ought to join the territorial side of the SAS; they’re a good bunch.’ “So I did that.”
He got to know Ranulph Fiennes – later to become Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wickham-Fiennes, third baronet, and make his name as a polar adventurer.
So it was that, aged about 24, Jeremy became involved in an ill-advised plot to sabotage Hollywood’s 1967 film Dr Dolittle…
They wanted to protest because – as they saw it – the beautiful Wiltshire village of Castle Combe was being spoilt and locals angered. TV aerials were taken down, for instance, and an artificial dam built to make the place look like an 18th Century harbour, with boats bobbing about.
“Unfortunately there were some explosives involved… which had come from the SAS… which Ranulph Fiennes was in,” explains Jeremy.
He says it was all rather innocuous, and he took part only on the condition that no damage was done to people or property.
“The explosives were used to make a loud noise to divert attention. Basically, it was a jape that went wrong. Nobody got hurt, but because explosives had been used… that’s quite serious, really.”
The authorities thought so – as did the media.
“It was very juicy, because it had public school boys; a baronet; it had a pretty girl driving around. The story ran for a long time and we all ended up in the assize court, got heavily fined for our trouble, and as a result of that I lost my job.”
Fined something like £120 – a hefty sum in the 1960s – Jeremy had to borrow the money from his father, “which was even worse”.
He regrets it now. “The potential career I had with the brewery” – a gentlemanly place – “was a good one.”
The greatest regret is that he’d gone with an introduction from his father, whose friend was a main board director. “There’s no question about it. I let this man down. He had taken a punt on me and I’d gone bad on him.”
Luckily, jobs were plentiful in the 1960s and Jeremy sold advertising space for The Economist… “which I loathed”. He endured it for a couple of years before spending three months on a friend’s sailing trip to the Baltic.
His pal also dreamed of starting a business in agricultural contracting. They made it happen. For several years Jeremy took charge of the landscaping work and his partner concentrated on the agricultural side.
The links with Suffolk were already being forged by this time. The Economist job had been based in Yorkshire. Jeremy, with a boat of his own, had kept it in Poole harbour. When his world shifted northwards, Dorset made no sense. So he moved his boat to a mooring on the Orwell.
Jeremy himself moved to the county in 1968, after the Baltic adventure, and rented a cottage in Tattingstone, south of Ipswich.
A few years later – on a February day in 1971 – he took a look at a farmhouse not too far from the River Stour that had been drawn to his attention. It was at the end of a rough road but stood in 17 acres and offered glorious views.
He didn’t really have any money, and didn’t really want to buy a house. But he sat on a bench on this sunny day “thought it was so like my step-father’s farm where I was a kid; ‘I’ve just got to have this.’”
The place needed a lot of work, including small matters like the installation of a kitchen and bathroom.
He called a halt to the agricultural contracting work then, because so much needed doing on his new pile and he couldn’t afford to employ a team of builders.
Jeremy also developed a small but successful farming operation, with a pig-breeding unit and 500 bacon pigs. He had it until the late 1970s, when he hurt his back quite badly and couldn’t do the physical work.
He joined forces with a friend starting to import high-pressure water pumps from Denmark. It occupied Jeremy until about 1990.
Then it was time for a change. In his late 40s he began a two-year course at Ipswich Art School. “It was a very invigorating time.”
Jeremy says he’d taken a portfolio of “average” drawings to the interview, but no paintings. “I think they were looking for candidates, quite honestly.”
Art hadn’t greatly figured until then, though he had been to an exhibition at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, of contemporary sculpture and paintings. It was backed by brewer Tolly Cobbold and he knew a man from Tolly’s wine division.
“I’d always mocked modern art, because I never understood it and thought it was silly. I went to that exhibition – it must have been in the late ’70s – and it opened my eyes. I began to see potentially what all this was about.”
After the course, he began to paint “seriously” and have his oil paintings shown. It hasn’t brought in enough to make what you’d call a living but does make “a very useful contribution to the exchequer!”
It’s hard to pinpoint what propelled him in this direction, “but once I started it was like a drug, you know. It fulfils a creative need, there’s no question about that, and so does the scribbling.
“You can create something on a piece of paper or a canvas, and you think ‘Yes, that’s quite good.’ Then you go to bed, wake up in the morning, and have this drive to get out of bed, go into the studio, and see what this ‘animal’ is looking like this morning.
“Either you’ll think ‘How could I be so wrong?’ or ‘Yup’, and you’re on the way. It is a sort of drug. And I think the same is true of writing. If you produce a paragraph or chunk of writing that gives you a lift, that’s a lovely feeling.”
Writing was certainly a friend when Jeremy was a young man in Canada. A bit depressed about the boring work he was doing, he’d penned a number of articles, short stories, to get things off his chest.
“They were awfully long-winded and dreadful, but I quite liked some of it,” he says.
He’s not sure why writing took centre-stage many decades later. Perhaps it was because he’d reached a kind of crossroads with his painting, having done it for nearly 20 years and being unsure about the direction it should take.
Jeremy had a first attempt at a story, in long hand, and could see areas that weren’t right.
He wrote a second (The Colour of Evening Light) and had it critiqued by a London literary firm. “It helped no end. Some of it ‘wonderful’; some needed cutting, cutting, cutting. And more pace in parts.”
Dogged efforts to hook a literary agent and publishing deal came to naught, so Jeremy determined to publish it himself.
He’s now halfway through another story. This one’s also set in France, but in the 1990s/2000s. It’s about the conflicts that arise when a famous chef dies of a heart attack and various people covet the restaurant he leaves behind.
Living with the enemy
Le Cateau was occupied for virtually the whole of the First World War.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for a military cemetery there, says the Le Cateau-Cambrésis area was the scene of a battle fought by British forces against a greatly superior German army on August 26, 1914.
“The town remained in German hands from that date until the evening of 10 October 1918, when it was rushed by the 5th Connaught Rangers and finally cleared a week later.
“During the war Le Cateau had been a German railhead and the site of an important hospital centre.
“The military cemetery was laid out by the Germans in February 1916 with separate plots for the Commonwealth and German dead. It contains the graves of over 5,000 German soldiers…
“A separate plot contains the graves of 34 Russian prisoners of war who died in captivity. The Commonwealth plot is the site of almost 700 graves and commemorations of the First World War.”
The CWGC explains that The Battle of Le Cateau in August, 1914, saw more than 7,000 British and French soldiers killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Germany suffered about 5,000 casualties.
“The battle had been a costly one, but the stand taken by II Corps temporarily stemmed the German advance and bought the Allied forces in the northern sector valuable time as they retreated towards the Marne.”
Dark days for Suffolk Regiment
Le Cateau, by coincidence, is part of a dark chapter in the annals of the East Anglian military.
Eric Lummis’s The History of The Suffolk Regiment tells us: “When Britain entered the war on August 4th 1914, The Second Battalion was immediately mobilised and was in France with the British Expeditionary Force by the 17th.
“It was soon in action against the advancing Germans near Mons and on 25 August at Le Cateau. There the decision was taken to stand and fight.
“Along with other Battalions of 14 Brigade, acting as rearguard of 5 Division they fought against overwhelming forces for nine hours before being overrun. Losses were over 700.”