The First World War

There are twenty-three men remembered on the GSM War Memorial.

Their varied family backgrounds reflect a congregation which embraced town and gown.

Among the fallen commemorated in the church were the sons of illustrious academics and industrious local tradesmen:

  • a grocer

    Great St Mary's War Memorial

    Great St Mary’s War Memorial.

  • fellows of Cambridge colleges
  • fellows of the British Academy
  • a chimney sweep
  • two former vicars of Great St Mary‘s
  • a King‘s Counsel in Rhodesia
  • a tailor
  • a College Bursar
  • a livery stable owner
  • a fish fryer

They fought in fields of combat across the world and were killed in France, Belgium, the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

We will touch on the stories of a few of these men briefly here.

Our research volunteer, Simon Cross, leads First World War walking tours of Cambridge. If you are interested in a walk, contact our heritage education officer.

A schoolboy sailor

Christopher Cooke grew up in Bridge Street, the son of a Cambridge doctor.

Christopher Cooke as a naval cadet. Photograph courtesy of Gerald Gresham Cooke and Mrs Vivien Gainsborough-Foot.

Christopher Cooke as a naval cadet. Photograph courtesy of Gerald Gresham Cooke and Mrs Vivien Gainsborough-Foot.

Arthur Cooke was a surgeon at Addenbrookes Hospital, who took the rank of Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps and helped establish the First Eastern General Hospital in Cambridge.

The first injured soldiers were accommodated at Trinity College, but an efficient military hospital was soon built on playing fields across the river, where the University Library now stands. Arthur Cooke later went to France himself to tend the wounded there.

Christopher Cooke became one of Cambridge‘s first, and youngest, war heroes. He was only 15 years old when he was caught up in a disaster which proved the deadly efficiency of the German U-boats and changed naval warfare forever.

His ship, HMS Aboukir, was torpedoed in the North Sea along with her two sister ships. The young naval cadet was in his pyjamas at the time, and had to jump overboard as the Aboukir sank. Fortunately he was a strong swimmer thanks to years of practice in the River Cam, and was picked up by a Lowestoft fishing trawler, the Coriander. He made his way back to Cambridge on leave and was hailed in the local press as a hero.

Tragically Christopher was killed, aged 17, when HMS Vanguard exploded at anchor at Scapa Flow. His brother Nicholas is named on the Second World War memorial.

A chimney sweep’s son

Louise and Alfred Kirkup, a chimney sweep, lived on King Street and had nine children.

Several Kirkup boys were members of the choir at Great St Mary’s. Five of them fought on the Western Front, with three signing up to join the Cambridgeshire Regiment on the same day.

The son who died and is named on the war memorial was also named Alfred, and had worked as a haberdasher‘s assistant at the Cambridge Co-operative Society in Burleigh Street before joining up. He was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in September 1917. The other brothers survived the war.

A young poet

Charles Hamilton Sorley was on what we would now call a gap year studying German literature in Germany during the summer of 1914, and was planning to begin his studies at Oxford that autumn. Aged 19, Charles was the son of Professor William Sorley of Chesterton Lane, a moral philosopher.

Charles was enjoying his studies at the University of Jena, writing to a friend on 5 July:

‘Jena is at present a swamp of perspiration and Gewitter (thunderstorms) but the (physically) melting humanity there are still treating me very nicely. I still get up and play tennis with the lark, swim, eat, sleep, and walk across mountains, and bathe myself in Abendrot (sunsets). I live on fresh cherries and wear only a shirt and shorts and sandals like some beast in Alice through the Looking-glass.’

Charles was hiking with a friend in early August when Germany mobilised its army and the world changed. He was put in a police cell overnight on 2 August on suspicion of being a spy but, fortunately, Britain and Germany were not yet at war. Charles managed to get over the Belgian border and reach Antwerp, where he boarded a ship chartered by the British consul to bring British citizens home.

Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Charles Hamilton Sorley.

As soon as he arrived back in Cambridge, Charles volunteered and he soon joined the Suffolk Regiment. He died in Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915.

His family submitted his poems to the Cambridge University Press, and Sorley became known as an unsentimental and unflinching war poet.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead Across your dreams in pale battalions go, Say not soft things as other men have said, That you‘ll remember. For you need not so. Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,‘Yet many a better one has died before.’ Then, scanning all the o‘ercrowded mass, should you Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, It is a spook. None wears the face you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.

A Cambridge sportsman

Christopher Armstrong. Image courtesy of Ruth Anderson.

Christopher Armstrong. Photograph courtesy of Ruth Anderson.

Christopher Armstrong was the athletic son of Charles Armstrong, a Cambridge brewer who was also a churchwarden at this church.

Christopher was the third of five Armstrong children. His siblings were Ruby, Vincent, Beryl and Pearl.

After spending some time at boarding school, Christopher attended the Perse School in Cambridge and went on to study at Jesus College. He was unusually athletic, winning medals in the long jump, shot put, ¼ mile race and 100 yard sprint.

The Armstrong family attended Great St. Mary’s and Christopher’s older brother, Vincent and sister Beryl, were both married there in a double wedding in 1912.


Newspaper cuttings courtesy of Ruth Anderson.

When war was declared, Christopher joined the 1st Sportsman’s Battalion.

Christopher is third from the right in this publicity image, which shows the patriotic sportsmen and professionals casting off their former roles in favour of military service.He fought at Gallipoli and described the heavy fire from Turkish forces in letters to his sister Pearl:

‘You never heard anything like the high explosive. It don’t make a bang. It is just the biggest noise you ever heard. It is more like an enormous sob of a noise and the whole ground and the atmosphere shivers.’

When a H.E. hits a man that is the last of him. You can‘t find a button afterwards. I have been to look for a man after a shell has hit him and found nothing. Not even the red stuff. You see they make a nice little hole in the ground – enough to bury a horse in – so you can imagine.’

Christopher was later deployed to Port Said to guard the Suez Canal, and died during a campaign to relieve the garrison at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia in April 1916.

The memorial window

The grieving families of Great St Mary‘s installed the east window in the St Andrew‘s Chapel in 1922, in memory of those who died in the First World

The Crucified and Risen Christ in the centre represents the universal theme of self-sacrifice for the redemption of others.  Other details have specific links to the fallen soldiers of Great St Mary‘s, and would have been a powerful reminder of their roles in the conflict.

In particular, the scenes showing Reims, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli represent areas where Great St Mary’s men fought and died.

Download a First World War Window information sheet as a pdf here.