Intriguing memorial in burnished brass to a soldier who died in the Great War.
At the top we see the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet together with a laurel wreath.
Below these symbols is the text:
In Loving Memory of Charles Robert Watkins, born Sept 29th 1891, killed in action on the Belgian Frontier Feb 3rd 1915. He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time.
How should we decode this commemorative tablet?
The Greek letters represent Alpha and Omega, a symbol for the eternity of God. Within this eternity is placed a laurel wreath, symbolic of victory. The brass plaque is saying that the victorious death of Charles Watkins will be hallowed for all time.
The Belgian frontier in February 1915 was where the German Schlieffen Plan finally failed when confronted by the French army and the British Expeditionary Force – the date indicates that Charles Watkins was not a conscript but a volunteer.
The line of scripture (“He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time”) is from the Apocrypha, a non-doctrinal book of the Bible. It means that we should not judge the value of a person’s life by how long they have lived, but by how much virtue they have possessed. Charles Watkins was so virtuous (so the memorial tells us) that he should be considered perfect.
There is no indication who commissioned this memorial but one supposes it was his parents (it could have been a wife, but a wife would presumably have chosen other qualities than virtuous perfection; it could have been a comrade, but the “perfection” descriptor seems too intimate for that).
“Perfection” is of course an ambiguous definition to make of a young man of 23.
Moral perfection? Physical perfection? Perfectly loyal? Perfectly courageous? Perfect as a fighter? Perfect as a (perhaps sublimated) lover?
We don’t know – although perhaps he was all of these things.
There is also a hint of bitterness in the choice of religious text.
As the casualties mounted into hundreds of thousands there was a feeling that the best of the population was being slaughtered and that as a result the country would fall into the hands of the second-rate or third-rate (the cowards, the war profiteers, the pacifists, the disloyal, the communists, the foreign aliens, the likers of atonal music, the writers of defeatist poetry, the daubers of abstract paintings etc).
“He, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time” comes from the so-called Wisdom of Solomon.
The parents of Charles Watkins were obviously deeply religious to have chosen such an obscure quotation from the scriptures. They did not choose one of the more traditional epitaphs. Instead they went for a line from an eschatological sequence.
The section it is taken from goes on to say: “Thus the righteous that is dead shall condemn the ungodly who are living”.
And then it delivers a terrible warning about what is going to happen to the seditious elements of society: “God shall laugh them to scorn; and they shall hereafter be a vile carcass, and a reproach among the dead for evermore. For He shall rend them and cast them down headlong, that they shall be speechless; and He shall shake them from the foundation; and they shall be utterly laid waste and be in sorrow, and their memorial shall perish.”
As an implicit curse against the filthy forces of modernism this seems fairly strong.
And as a curse it came to nothing, for as we know, the seditious elements of society have more or less triumphed in every sphere.