Opening speech by Mr John Mole, chairman of Oakley VC Committee
Good morning Lord Lieutenant, Monsieur Donnette, Ladies, Gentlemen, Girls and Boys. Welcome to Oakley.
The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the honours system. It is awarded for gallantry ‘In the face of the enemy’ to members of the British armed forces. A 2014 Department of Communities and Local Government initiative, to honour all First World War recipients of the Victoria Cross, stipulated a commemorative paving stone should be laid in the birthplace of each of the recipients, 100 years after the respective award. Commemoration ceremonies had three major guidelines: to be respectful; reflective; and inclusive. Over six hundred VCs were awarded during World War One; just two were awarded to Buckinghamshire-born combatants. This ceremony is to honour Edward Brooks, who was awarded the VC 100 years ago today, AND the other men of Oakley who fought in that war.
Planning for this day and the associated exhibition has involved over seventy people over the last eighteen months. I wish to thank publicly all those who have been involved.
Edward Brooks was born in an Oakley very different from the present-day Oakley. In 1911, Oakley and Little London had 124 houses. There were 512 people: 275 males and 237 females. Four hundred and two of those people were born within two miles of Oakley. There were twelve farms, four pubs, two grocers, two bootmakers, a baker, a wheelwright and a blacksmith. Seventy-six per cent of working males worked in agriculture. The school had 110 pupils on its roll; Walter Charles Allward was headmaster. Reverend James Skinner was in the 17th year as Chairman of the Parish Council. Parish Clerk was Arthur Brooks and Arthur Hawes the sub-postmaster. Prominent families were Hawes (60 members); Nixey (31); Brooks (30); Eborn (28) and Shirley (25).
War was declared in August 1914. At that time, there was no conscription and only seven men in the village had served in the Armed Forces – Edward Brooks being one of them. The young men of Oakley might have travelled to Thame or Oxford, but none would have travelled to France. However, many enlisted immediately and joined the British Expeditionary Force and were in France or Belgium by September 1914. Over the next four years, many more Oakley men joined up. In total at least 83 Oakley men served in France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Palestine. Seven Oakley men became prisoners of war, four of whom died in captivity. In fact, a total of 23 Oakley men died.
On 28th April 1917, Edward Brooks was close to the small village of Fayet in Northern France. To him, and the rest of the 2/4th battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, Fayet was a name on a map, near the front line. On that day, Edward Brooks’ brave action ‘in the face of the enemy’ earned him a Victoria Cross. Edward returned to Oakley in July 1918 and a decorated wagon in the centre of the village was the focus of a celebration of speeches and songs. The village presented Edward Brooks with inscribed watch “from Oakley Friends.’. The village party, depleted by the 80 men serving their country ended with the hymn “God be with you till me meet again”, which you will hear after this ceremony.
I will finish with a quote on bravery from the 5th century BC Athenian general Thucydides “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet, (notwithstanding), go out to meet it.”