Almost three years before the start of World War II Winston Churchill attended a funeral at the Holy Trinity Church, Cuckfield on 4 January 1937. It was for a personal friend and confidant Ralph Wigram who Churchill was later to describe as ‘the unsung hero’.
Wigram was a civil servant in the Foreign Office. From his in-depth knowledge and travels in Europe had became concerned about the British government’s moves for appeasement with Hitler. At great personal risk, he secretly briefed Churchill about the Germany's remilitarisation of the Rhineland.
Armed with this accurate picture, Churchill spoke out to warn of this threat and argued that Britain needed to strengthen its military power to oppose Hitler. With characteristic Churchillian delivery, he concluded that the Government’s appeasement policy was ‘an unmitigated disaster’.
Thanks to the powerful rhetoric, factual accuracy of his sources, and worsening turn of events Churchill eventually forced parliament to act, and put himself in No 10 as PM - a position that he held until 1945.
Churchill's correspondence reveals the impact that Wigram's death made on him. 'I was deeply shocked and grieved', he wrote to Clementine, 'to learn from Vansittart by chance on the telephone that poor Ralph Wigram died suddenly on New Year's Eve in his wife's arms. I thought him a grand fellow. A bright steady flame burning in a broken lamp, which guided us towards safety and honour …
… Brendan and I are going on Monday to the Funeral which is at Cuckfield, near Haywards Heath. Afterwards I shall bring him and Van back to luncheon at Chartwell. I am taking a wreath from us both. Poor little Ava is all adrift now. She cherished him and kept him alive. He was her contact with great affairs.'
Ava, Ralph's widow, wrote to Churchill: 'Van says you rang to ask about Ralph's funeral. If you'd like to come I'd be very glad - as it's only for people Ralph specially cared for.'
In the Gathering Storm, the first volume of Sir Winston Churchill's definitive account of the Second World War, Churchill summed up:
'He saw as clearly as I did, but with more certain information, the awful peril which was closing upon us. This drew us together. Often we met at his little house in North Street, and he and Mrs Wigram came to stay with us at Chartwell.'
Churchill added, “My friend took it too much to heart. After all one can always go on doing what one believes to be his duty, and running ever greater risks till knocked out. Wigram’s profound comprehension reacted on a sensitive nature unduly. His untimely death in December 1936 was an irreparable loss to the Foreign Office, and played its part in the miserable decline in our fortunes.”
Wigram was a crucial informant for Churchill, but others were feeding him with vital facts too. The film 'Gathering Storm', focuses on Wigram but the film's director, Richard Loncraine, admitted that, 'in reality there were four 'Wigrams' – two Army officers and two civil servants.'
Ralph Wigram died on 31 December 1936 aged just 46. The circumstances surrounding his death have been much debated. Some say he suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage, others that his ongoing battle with polio was a contributory factor.
Churchill believed he was suffering a bout of severe depression, and it was suicide. This is supported by the knowledge that he went home and told his wife Ava: "War is now inevitable, and it will be the most terrible war there has ever been. I don’t think I shall see it, but you will. Wait now for bombs on this little house … All my work these many years has been no use. I am a failure. I have failed to make the people here realise what is at stake." Could it be that his parents believed he took his own life - which would possibly explain their absence at the funeral.
The Cuckfield funeral service was attended by leading figures of pre-War Britain: Churchill, Lord Vansittart, Anthony Eden, Viscount Bracken and a number of peers and knights of the realm.
The grave's position in the churchyard was chosen by Ava was just 20 yards away from her father’s grave whose monument looks very similar.
Ava stayed in close contact with Churchill, writing to him about her travels to Germany before the outbreak of war and her letters show that she supported her husband’s attempts to alert Winston of the extensive German rearmament.
Joyce Donoghue, Cuckfield author of ‘a history of the parish church of Holy Trinity, Cuckfield neatly concluded: “After the funeral, Churchill took a distraught Ava and her young Down’s Syndrome son back with him to Chartwell. In 1941 she married Sir John Anderson, Home Secretary in 1939-40 … Without the information Churchill received from Ralph Wigram, and others in those years of appeasement, he would not have been as effective in his quest for rearmament. For Wigram, his colleagues and successors, faced with where their duty lay, it was a matter of conscience - their political masters or their country. Theirs was the greater loyalty.”
Cuckfield Life, January 2017:
Wigram’s lament: from ‘Churchill, Winston, The Gathering Storm’, Rosetta Books, Kindle
Wikipedia entry for Ralph Wigram: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Wigram
Martin Gilbert, 'The Wilderness Years', Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1982. https://archive.org/details/winstonchurchill0000gilb
Photos: all under Creative Commons Licence, except grave stone by Malcolm Davison.