With a religious presence on the site reaching its thirteen-hundredth year upon the outbreak of war in 1914, St. Paul’s Cathedral (its latest iteration opened at the end of the seventeenth century) has been a feature of life in London, and on the City’s skyline, through the many wars and tribulations of British history – the First World War included. A tourist attraction, albeit one with a timely significance for those who may have been approaching the final stages of their lives, St. Paul’s featured in the London wartime experience of many Australian soldiers transported to the capital.
Iconic for visitors to London the world over, the scale of the building was for those visiting it nothing short of tremendous. Inside, the impression on Australians didn’t end – many a Melburnian being left particularly impressed after experiencing the famed whispering gallery. Alas, for some soldiers the exploration and amazement at St. Paul’s, whilst culturally enriching and enjoyable, could not alleviate entirely the weight of the real purpose of these healthy Australian men being half-way around the world. St. Paul’s is, inescapably, a tribute to life and death – of Jesus Christ, but also to figures such as Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington interred in the crypt. It is not outlandish to imagine that for some of the Australian soldiers visiting St. Paul’s, it would be their last visit to a Cathedral, or their last moment in peaceful worship.
Of significance in St. Paul’s’ wartime experience is the story of its embroidered altar frontal cloth, itself the work of injured First World War Commonwealth soldiers, Australians included. First revealed in 1919, at a thanksgiving for peace service at which many of the embroidering veterans were in attendance, the cloth adds a permanent presence of those Australians – and others – that visited St. Paul’s and were injured later in the war, including the tragic story of infantryman James Allen, sprinter in peacetime but double amputee following an explosion at Passchendaele. His story, commemorated at St. Paul’s, included an impressive post-injury career as driver for wounded Australian soldiers to hospitals in the Second World War – testament to the spirit of those Australians taking solace in the serenity of the whispering room before a stint in France or further afield, cut desperately short for some.