There is hardly a town or village in the UK which does not have a war memorial to honour those of its citizens whose lives were sacrificed in the name of democracy during two terrible world wars. The majority bear the names of all those who died to preserve freedom for those of us who survived and we still gather to honour their memory on Remembrance Day each year. Wantage is no exception. We have a War Memorial in the Parish Churchyard and twice a year there is an impressive parade - headed by the Town Silver Band - which ends at a moving Remembrance service at the memorial.
In September the parade is organised by the Royal Air Force Association in commemoration of those who died during the Battle of Britain and in November the Royal British Legion organises the town's tribute to those who fell in all theatres of war.
Sad to relate, members of the local ex servicemen's associations have long been troubled by the fact that our acts of remembrance are performed for anonymous comrades. The Town War Memorial for some reason bears no names. Our Standards are dipped in honour of the dead but their names which should be publicly blazoned forever are not recorded. Indeed, until four years ago no one in the town even knew how many of their fellow citizens had perished between 1939/45 - much less who they were.
Mr Trevor Hancock a local archivist who specialises in researching war memorials explains that after 1939 a wooden memorial - without names - was erected in one of the streets in the town but that it was not until many years later that public subscription raised funds for a more permanent stone memorial to be erected in thechurchyard. But again it bore no names. We cannot establish that any list of war casualties was in existence in the town at this time......which probably explains this. The Parish church Council had kept a manuscript record in the church (which still exists) but it was pitifully incomplete with respect to those who were not regular church members - and even contained some names of men who were not citizens of Wantage.
After the 1914/18 war a memorial placque was erected inside the Parish church to commemorate the fallen and this DOES bear names but apart from a few who are named on a small memorial in Charlton Village churchyard - erected before Charlton was included in Wantage Parish - those who fell between 1939/45 are not recorded anywhere in the town.
This state of affairs continued for many years before some members of the Town Council (including H Brew who was then a councillor) decided that something should be done to remedy the situation. A local academic, Dr Rosevear who was interested in local history was persuaded to do some research to compile the list of names - which still did not exist. After contacting the Imprial War Graves Commission and other national bodies including the MOD he discovered that the only valid source of the information needed was in the archives of the local press. In most cases relatives of the war casualties informed the local papers when sons or husbands were wounded or killed in action and by searching the files Dr Rosevear eventually had a list of some 40 names but there was no guarantee that this list was complete. The local branch of the RBL was interested in getting the names added to the memorial but Ken Leach remembers that he was advised by RBL headquarters that it was most unwise for the RBL to become involved. They feared that the organisation would have "egg on its face" if Dr Rosevear's list was used to add names which could lead to public furore when angry relatives pointed out that it was incomplete.
The project was suddenly dropped at this stage , most probably because of this unease in RBL headquarters. Nothing further was progressed for about ten years. At this stage the members of Wantage Branch RNA became determined to discover the names of Wantage men who had joined the RN or RM and became war casualties. The branch had its HQ in a room kindly provided by Paul Hexter, mine host of the Royal Oak Inn in Portway. The Inn sign was the ill fated battleship torpedoed in Scapa Flow diring early 1939 and there was a large photograph of the ship in the public Bar. Branch. Members had established a tradition of holding a private memorial service to the 800 men who died in Royal Oak in the bar after the Remembrance Parade in November each year. They were determined to discover the names of all Wantage Naval casualties in order to read them out during these services so that at least our Naval comrades would have their names mentioned each year..
As Hon. Sec. I discovered that subsequent to Dr Rosevear's researches things were much Changed at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They had built up a computer data base which could be searched on payment of a fee. The branch funds paid up and we sent for a global search for all casualties with next of kin in Wantage.
When it arrived we realised that it contained casualties of all three services and was therefore a very useful document which could be used to help compile the list of names of Army, Navy and RAF casualties to finally add to the memorial. This project became our main interest from that time onwards.
Ex councillor H Brew heard of our interest and persuaded us that as he could get the Town Mayor interested in forming a working party to progress the project.