First World War crucifix rescued from Somme battlefield returned back to Doingt-Flamicourt in France by Tinwell parishoners on emotional anniversary
A crucifix rescued from a First World War battlefield finally returned home to France on Saturday after more than a century away thanks to parishioners of a village church.
The bronze figure of Christ on the cross was believed to have been discovered in 1917 by the Rev Percy Lane Hooson in the ruins of Doingt church which had been shelled during the Battle of the Somme.
He is thought to have brought it back to Easton-on-the-Hill and then taken it to All Saints Church, in Tinwell, where it has spent the last 90 years.
A 14-strong party travelled over from Tinwell on Thursday to formally return the crucifix to Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption - the church built on the site of its ruined predecessor.
The visitors took part in a moving wreath-laying ceremony at the nearby war cemetery for British and Commonwealth troops on Saturday before a service was held in the church, jointly in French and English, to formally hand over the crucifix.
“Returning the crucifix was the right thing to do,” said the Rev Olwen Woolcock, priest-in-charge of Ketton and Tinwell, who supported Father Jean-Louis Brunel in conducting the service.
“As it stood in its new place in the chapel, it was the completion of the story.
“It symbolised the triumph of hope over the destruction of war. It stood for the future.
“But above all it was joyful. The church was full and there was a great sense of celebration.”
The five-day visit marked the end of more than four years of organisation and hard work on both sides of the Channel, co-ordinated here by June Dodkin, a former churchwarden at All Saints.
"It has been an amazing experience, almost indescribable - it has been a great privilege to do it all,” she said.
"It was overpowering in some ways. We were really overwhelmed by their generosity.”
However, it may also be the start of a new chapter, with both communities keen to formally ‘twin’ the two villages.
The day of the ceremonies was made all the more poignant by its date, July 1.
Exactly 107 years earlier, British troops had gone over the top to begin the Somme offensive. Around 57,000 of them were killed or wounded that day.
“Without forgetting past tragedies, from now on, July 1 will have a double resonance in everyone’s heart,” said the Mayor of Doingt-Flamicourt, Romuald Helfried.
“It will celebrate the day we met and the beginning of our rapprochement with our friends from Tinwell.
“That’s why we’re delighted to welcome back the crucifix and why we’re keen to develop a twinning arrangement between our two towns.”
The Mayor also thanked the Rev Hooson for his part.
“He had the presence of mind to save from the rubble this symbol of love, hope and rapprochement between our two communities.
“He is the starting point of this wonderful story. It’s up to us to build on it and enrich it.”
Members of the French Legion of Honour led a parade from the town hall to the cemetery which contains 419 war graves, all but two of them for British soldiers.
Chas McDevitt, whose wife Katharine was the group’s translator and came up with the idea of returning the crucifix, played the last post, while Tinwell parish clerk David Jarvis led the epitaph.
Alain Barbier, from the Association Mémoire de Doingt Flamicourt, then recited a war poem by Siegfried Sassoon in English and French before young people from Tinwell and Doingt laid a wreath of poppies and flowers at the memorial.
The story of the crucifix’s remarkable journey was told on the steps of the church before the service.
Chas and Katharine’s daughter Antonia carried the crucifix into the church, while Imogen McDevitt with Beth and and Niamh Jarvis led the prayers before the crucifix was placed in the chapel and blessed.
“This crucifix has a very strong symbolic value as a pledge of peace and hope,” said Father Brunel.
“This resonates all the more strongly as the war in Ukraine reminds us that freedom is a value that must always be defended.
“To see this crucifix picked up in the ruins of the church return to the church of Doingt after having been preciously kept for more than a hundred years in Tinwell is a message of hope.”
It was an emotional moment for June, more than four years after its ‘journey’ began.
She said: "The crucifix is in a wonderful position - we think it looks better where it is in Doingt than it did here. It looked right in there somehow."
A reception was held afterwards at the town hall, hosted by Mayor Helfried.
The return of the crucifix has attracted media interest around the globe, and particularly in France.
The News In France website ran the headline – ‘Jesus returns to Doingt-Flamicourt after 106 years of absence’.
“We were treated like VIPs the whole time,” said the Rev Woolcock.
“The whole trip was extraordinary and moving.”
Photos from the trip as well as more details of the story will be displayed at Tinwell Village Hall on Sunday, July 16, from 2.30pm, as part of a fundraising cream tea.
There will also be a raffle and white elephant stall, with proceeds going to support the Tinwell Church Restoration Project.