Have you ever visited the Crypt in Hereford Cathedral? It’s a lovely, peaceful space and with the new lighting, it’s taken on a new significance and use in the building. At the east end of the crypt is a stone altar and reredos - perhaps not the most famous object in the cathedral, but it’s got a fascinating history and with our present remembrances of the First World War, it’s rather significant. The altar and its reredos, of Penarth alabaster, was installed in 1924 as a memorial to Second Lieutenant Basil Webb (1898-1917), a Welsh Guard, killed in action on 1 December 1917 at the age of 19, during the battle of Cambrai. In the action 57 men, including all but one of the officers were killed by machine gun barrage as they crested a ridge, moving towards Gonnelieu. Basil Webb was buried in Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery. Basil Webb’s father was Sir Henry Webb, 1st baronet, a liberal MP who during WW1 raised and commanded the 13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment and the 14th Battalion Worcestershire regiment. Basil was his only son. As a memorial he engaged the architectural firm of Caroe and the famous Welsh sculptor Sir William Goscombe John RA to design and make the memorial. The sculptor was known to the family, as Basil Webb had been the model for Goscombe John, when he produced the bronze sculpture ‘The Boy Scout’ in 1910. At the age of 12 Basil also composed the Refectory Prayer for Chester Cathedral, which remains in use today.
The reredos is in the form of a triptych with two plain arcades and a central panel lettered underneath ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo et in Terra Pax - Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace’. The central panel contains 3 figures - a Roman soldier on the left (a portrait of Basil Webb himself) with St Michael in the centre, and St Ethelbert on the right (holding a model of Hereford Cathedral).
This year on 1 December, we shall have a service commemorating the centenary of the death of Basil Webb - The Eucharist will be celebrated on the altar itself and we will remember this young life, cut short by war. Many of our churches have stories like this - when we think of the First World War, we think of those huge cemeteries with their lines of identical graves - but each gravestone has a poignant story and our cathedral remembrance reminds us that behind each story is a message of sacrifice - and a message to make us work the more earnestly for peace and justice in our world today.
Do visit the Crypt when you are next in the cathedral and perhaps say a prayer for all young people caught up in war today, throughout our world.
A letter from the Dean of Hereford