A St Paul's embroidery and the recovery of soldiers after World War One

Published 30 March 2014

The whole altar frontal

A beautifully embroidered altar frontal that helped over 100 soldiers recover from the effects of fighting in World War One is to go on display at St Paul's Cathedral.

The unique piece was worked on by soldiers badly injured in the fighting as part of their recovery. Embroidery was used in the rehabilitation of soldiers upon their return to Britain as the intricate close work greatly reduced the effects of shell shock.

The embroidery features intricate floral and bird designs with the chalice of the Eucharist and the palm branches of martyrdom.

The soldiers were recovering in hospitals all across the UK and their individual pieces of embroidery were sent to the Royal School of Needlework in Kensington to be stitched onto the frontal as a whole.

Those who worked on the frontal were documented in an illuminated book that featured photographs, their regiments and handwritten names.

The frontal was made for the High Altar of St Paul's Cathedral, which was later destroyed during bombing in World War Two. It has not been used since the 1940s because the new High Altar was made of different dimensions.

The altar frontal features floral and bird designs

However, it is being taken out of the cathedral's Collections specially to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. 

It is currently being restored by the cathedral's broderers and will be used during a special service of the Eucharist on Sunday 3 August.

The cathedral has so far managed to identify 133 men who worked on the embroidery. They come from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Researchers are working hard to identify other contributors in the hope that their stories can be told alongside the altar frontal when it goes on display later this year.

The piece will be the main focus of a display that will include photographs and personal items of the men who worked on the embroidery.

The display will be situated in an area set aside specially in the cathedral over the next four years in memory of those who fought and died in the Great War.

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor of St Paul's Cathedral, said: "The hands that clung to life in the trenches of the First World War and which lifted the bodies of dead comrades into graves, came home to craft this beautiful altar frontal.

"It is a symbol of faith despite everything and a deeply moving tribute to those who did not return.

"It is our privilege at St Paul's to let it stand as a memorial to the sacrifice, courage and legacy of a world at war and we are very keen to identify some of these men and learn of their stories."

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