The news, this Remembrance week, that all the war memorials designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, including the Cenotaph in Whitehall, are now officially protected by listing, is of more than passing interest to civil servants.
On advice from Historic England, DCMS has upgraded the memorial’s protective listing to Grade II*. This means it is considered particularly important, of more than special interest, and qualifies for greater protection. Only 5.5% of listed buildings are Grade II*.
The story behind the memorial - and the Civil Service Rifles - is a fascinating one.
The memorial, at Somerset House, on the Strand, is mainly of Portland Stone and unique in its form - an urn sitting on top of a column that contains a scroll with the names of the dead.
The monument originally stood in the centre of Somerset House’s courtyard, which was the regiment’s parade and drill ground - appropriately enough, as the house had originally been built for the Civil Service. The memorial was unveiled by the then Prince of Wales, the regiment’s Honorary Colonel, in January 1924. It was moved to the Riverside Terrace in 2002.
It may come as a surprise to some of us that there was a unit in the British Army for civil servants. The Civil Service Rifles was in fact one of 26 battalions recruited by the London Regiment before the Great War. While some were based on a locality, others, such as the Civil Service Rifles - the 15th Battalion London Regiment - were recruited from specific professions living and working in London.
The 15th took part in the Battle of Loos in 1915, and in 1916 fought at Vimy Ridge and on the Somme. In Flanders, it saw action at Passchendaele. In December 1916, the battalion was reassigned to the Macedonian theatre, around Salonika, before returning to France for the final offensive of 1917, the Battle of Cambrai, where it suffered heavy casualties. It was again in action on the Somme in 1918, and its final engagement of the war was at Tournai in Belgium in November 1918.
Men of the Civil Service Rifles in the First World War included the sculptor Henry Moore, who volunteered aged 18, and was reportedly gassed during the Battle of Cambrai.
One of the battalion’s fatal casualties was Private Will Fraser. His poignant story, previously mentioned by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, typifies the experience of so many of his contemporaries.
He grew up only a stone’s throw from Whitehall, where many of you will be reading this. He passed the Civil Service exam and worked at the Local Government Board, reaching the grade of Clerk (2nd division) in 1912.
Enlisting in 1914, Will joined the Civil Service Rifles. He was shipped to France at the beginning of June 1916, serving for six months on the Western Front, before transferring with the Rifles battalion to Salonika, in northern Greece, in the December. On his arrival, he sent a Christmas card to his brother, saying he was “in the land of the Epistles after a good journey,” and “glad to say I am alright up to present”.
The sad truth, though, was that the battalion was badly equipped for the conditions it found itself in. Their tents and shelters offered little protection against the bitter cold; sanitation was poor and access to clean water limited. Inevitably, there were outbreaks of impetigo, dysentery, jaundice and nephritis. Will himself contracted pneumonia, and died in the field hospital in February 1917. He was single and had no children.
At this, of all times, it is worth remembering the sacrifice of the civil servants - and those from every other walk of life - who have served in our armed forces over the last century. You may like to visit Somerset House, to see the newly protected Civil Service Rifles memorial for yourself and pay your respects.