Coventry and Czech Presidents, Kings and Queens

In Coventry, a meeting was called in November at the invitation of the City’s Lord Mayor, Cllr Alec Turner, to discuss the organisation of a series of events to raise funds to help rebuild the village of Lidice. Held on the 1st December, at the Council House, it was addressed by Dr Barnett Stross and Mr Frank Hampl, Chairman and Secretary, respectively, of the Stoke-on-Trent Lidice Shall Live committee.

Dr Barnett Stross

In his address, Dr Stross said the movement was formed to give the only answer which could be given to the Nazi method of trying to instil fear through brutality. He explained that plans were to be prepared for a “model miners’ village” including an “international research institute for the investigation of safety measures in mines.” Frank Hampl, who was now organising secretary of the movement, explained what had been done in other places to organise special efforts for a week: the special services and parades, with their entertainments in which prominent Czech musicians, vocalists, and speakers took part; special film shows at cinemas; specialist gift shops and stalls; meetings at factories and other places.

Together it was decided to go ahead with the scheme and February 1944 was originally suggested as the most convenient month for high officials of the free Czechoslovakian Government-in-exile to take part, though this was later put back to mid-March. A fund total of £1,000,000 was the target to be raised at the time. Cllr Ben Mason, Chairman of the Coventry Czecho-Slovak – British Friendship Club, told the meeting that campaigners had organised events with success in Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham, Sheffield, Derby, and other places. Dr Stross further outlined the possibility of holding events such as church services, special film shows, meetings in factories, the visit of a Czech leading statesman, and a concert of Czech music by one of the best-known Czech orchestras. A parade of Civil Defence personnel, a visit to Coventry by the Czech Army Band and Choir, and a Sunday theatre concert were also suggested. After a lengthy discussion, the meeting appointed the following committee with the power to co-opt, discuss details, and decide on a date:

Ben Mason (Chairman), the Rev G. W. Clitheroe (Vicar of the Holy Trinity), the Rev W. H. Cookson (Minister of the Central Hall), Monsignor Laurence Emery, Captain N. T. Thurston (or his deputy), Mr J. A. Harrison (Editor “Evening Telegraph”), Mr F. H. Harrod (Director of Education), Dr A. H. Marshall (Deputy City Treasurer), Mr James Taylor (City Development Officer), Mrs W. F. Strickland, Mrs Fretton, Mrs Bendall, and A. D. Perry (Secretary Coventry Czecho-Slovak – British Friendship Club)

On Tuesday, March the 14th 1944, President Edvard Beneš presented a cheque for £1,000 to the Lord Mayor as a personal gift to Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. For two years the city had stood up to particularly heavy attacks because of the number of ordnance firms, engineering factories, and motor companies running in the immediate area. The attack which occurred on the evening of the 14th of November 1940 and continued into the morning of the 15th wreaked terrible trauma upon the city. Dr Beneš gift was emblematic of the empathy and fraternity the Czech people felt for the people of Coventry and their resilience in the face of Luftwaffe bombing. It was the start of a reciprocal arrangement built around the widening of cultural understanding and international peace and friendship which would thrive to this day.

Beneš was in Coventry for the launch of its Lidice Week. There had now been several Lidice campaigns in support of the National Lidice Fund, but Coventry’s was regarded as one of special significance, not only for Britain but for the people of Czecho-Slovakia: for these industrious provincial people had faced the same weight of TNT as the residents of Warsaw, Stalingrad, and London, yet were still prepared to support a fellow community 1,000 miles away. The week of dedicated events organised by the newly formed Coventry sub-committee, set out to raise a £2,000 contribution towards the construction of a new Lidice. It was launched on the afternoon of Sunday the 12th of March with a memorial service, symbolically held at the City’s bombed-out Cathedral. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reported the occasion of the launch:

The event was conducted by the Provost, Richard Howard and was attended by the President of Czecho-Slovakia, Dr Edvard Beneš; and Czech leaders, including M. Nemez, Minister of Commerce and Industry; M. Pecko, Minister of Social Welfare; Mr. Maxa, President of the State Council: and General Rudolph Viest, Minister of State. The Soviet Union was represented by the Minister-Plenipotentiary, Mr Vasily Valkov, and the Russian Military Attaché, Colonel Zizov. The Mayor of Coventry, Cllr Alec Turner, and the Mayoress accompanied the visitors together with the Mayor of Leamington, Captain W. F. Strickland, MP, Dr B. Stross, Chairman of the Lidice Committee, aldermen, Cllrs, and Corporation officials.

Coventry Cathedral – Sunday 12th March 1944

The congregation which attended the service at Coventry Cathedral was so large that it overflowed the cleared portion of the ruined building. The lesson was read by Squadron Leader L. Vit, Minister of the Protestant Church of Czechoslovakia, and a hymn, “Through all the changing scenes of life”, sung by the Czechoslovak Army Choir, who also sang their national anthem, “Kde Domov Můj.” The flags of the United Kingdom and Czechoslovakia were then ceremoniously and sombrely laid upon the altar. There then followed the Hussite Choral including the hymn “Loving Shepherd of Thy Sheep” sung by a child, before the congregation prayed silently for the surviving children from Lidice and for all the children of Czecho-Slovakia. Prayers for the United Nations by the Provost preceded the service’s conclusion with the hymn, “Fight the Good Fight,” and the national anthems of the United Kingdom and Czechoslovakia.

As the nation looked tentatively towards a different future, with the growing domination of the Allied nations working together in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan, there was a feeling that the week had a wider significance. Perhaps offering more cause for reflection than other Lidice Weeks, this one offered the citizens of Coventry and Great Britain more space to consider what the world should be like after the war. It felt as though the Lidice Shall Live campaign in its current form was at a zenith – as it suggested the need for collaboration in friendship and construction with the people of Czechoslovakia, as much in the peace to come as in the present war.

“Immediately following the service, the salute was taken by Dr Beneš at a march past. The parade was led by the City of Coventry Band, and consisted of contingents of Royal Naval Ratings, W.R.N.S., Units of the British Army, USA. Troops and Band, Czecho-Slovakian Troops, the Standard Pipe Band, The Home Guard, the Sea Cadet Corps, Army Cadet Force, Air Training Corps and their respective bands; the Girls’ Training Corps, the N.F.S., the W.V.S., Police Messengers, C.D. Messenger Service Band, C.D. General Services, Fire Guard Service, Public Utility Services, British Red Cross Society, St. John Ambulance Brigade, St. John Cadets, The British Legion, the Women’s Land Army, the Church Lads’ Brigade and Band, the Boys’ Brigade, Sea Rangers, and Girl Guides.”

The Hippodrome Theatre

In true Chartist style, the parade marched to gather at Pool Meadow, a historic location used for fairs, rallying, and open-air meetings; and from there representative detachments made a parade entry into the Hippodrome Theatre, preceded by Civil Defence personnel bearing flags of the United Nations, where they were enthusiastically greeted by a large assembly. Here, the Mayor of Coventry introduced the visitors to the meeting and said the event was unique in the history of the city. He mentioned Coventry’s age-old connection with Czechoslovakia referencing King John and “The Winter Queen” of Bohemia – Princess Elizabeth, who spent some time in the city.

In his speech, Dr Barnett Stross outlined the progress of the movement, and compared Coventry’s experiences with those of Czech towns:

“Your voice is all the more loud and significant.” He expressed strong hopes for the immediate future and said, “We hope to wipe from the pages of history the shameful passages written in 1938…The Czech Day of Liberation is at hand, and soon our friend will be a free and independent nation.”

Dr Stross reminded the assembly that the British people accepted liberty as naturally as they did fresh air, and he compared this with Czecho-Slovakia’s fight against the stranglehold of Nazi oppression. Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovak Deputy Prime Minister, was unable to attend. Cllr Ben Mason read a message from him in which he said: “I am convinced that the friendships that are being formed today will be permanent.”

According to the Coventry Evening Telegraph, Soviet representative Vasily Valkov received thunderous applause when he rose to greet the meeting on behalf of the USSR. He referred to the continual defeat of the German Forces on the Eastern front, and to the part played by units of the Czechoslovakian Army fighting with the Red Army.

In his address, Dr Beneš reminded the audience that March the 15th marked the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, and although his people had been oppressed for five years they would continue to resist until Germany’s unconditional surrender. He expressed the gratitude of his countrymen for what Great Britain had done under the leadership of Mr Churchill. He paid tribute to the Fighting Services and the Merchant Navy. If the Germans had invaded Great Britain, the President believed that the Royal Navy would never have allowed sufficient supplies to reach them. He came from a country without a Navy, but after his stay here he would return with unforgettable memories of Britain’s “sea power.”

Beneš spoke of how Czech troops in Warwickshire had always been taken into the home life of the people, and of the opportunity they had had of becoming acquainted with Shakespeare’s country, and with characters similar to those immortalised by that great woman whom Coventry loved to honour, “George Eliot.” The President said it was his first speech outside London since his return from Russia, and he described his visit to Stalingrad, which, together with Lidice and Coventry, was a great symbol of the sufferings of all three countries.

Later, the Deputy Mayor, Alderman George. E. Hodgkinson, proposed a vote of thanks to Dr Beneš and revealed that during his visit the President had presented the mayor, on behalf of the Czechoslovakian Government-in-exile, with a cheque for £1,000 towards Coventry’s new voluntary hospital. A selection of Czech music and songs was given by the Czech Army Band and Choir, who were especially appreciated for their rendering of a Russian folk song, for which an encore was demanded.

The Lord Mayor, Cllr Alec Turner, then handed President Beneš a sheet of the crested notepaper which the council used for its official communications. He said there was something on the crest that he would recognise. Feathers at the back of the shield were those of King John, the famous Blind King of Bohemia, who gave his life at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The victor, Edward Woodstock, he said, had taken the dead King’s body to his tent and adopted his crest and his motto, “Ich Dien,” as his own and as the inspiration for his life.

Also known as the Black Prince, Edward had been invested as the first Prince of Wales by his father, King Edward III in 1343 and for generations to come, until the mid-16th century Coventry would now become the property of the Princes of Wales. The Lord Mayor observed that for the last 785 years the “vulture crest” of old Bohemia had graced the City’s coat of arms.

The Lord Mayor also spoke of the Czech Winter Queen:

Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia, the Winter Queen

“Some years before she became Queen she was in danger and the citizens formed a bodyguard to keep watch and ward over the house until the danger had passed.

Hence, we in Coventry had special reasons to remember Bohemia…Princess Elizabeth was known as “the Winter Queen” because she only remained in Prague for one winter.

Upon leaving Bohemia Elizabeth settled down at Coombe Abbey, where a collection of Bohemian glass is still preserved.

Our present Queen is a direct descendant of a Bohemian King through the House of Hanover.”

The week of events held a range of exciting cultural, social, and artistic happenings designed to attract those from all social spheres and backgrounds to Czech heritage and culture:

On Monday the 13th of March, a concert of traditional Czech music was given in the Central Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Vilém Tauský, the prominent conductor and composer who at the time was serving for the Czech Army. Tuesday the 14th saw an adaptation of Louis MacNeice’s radio play, “A Town Without a Name,” performed by a selected company of Coventry amateurs at the Sports and Social Centre – this was repeated on Thursday. The Czech Army Choir gave a selection of songs, and a gymnastic display was given by the Czech Army Sokol Team on Wednesday the 15th. A Women’s Rally was held in the Central Hall on Thursday the 16th – among the speakers was Mrs Kathie Beckmann, of the National Council of Czechoslovak Women in Great Britain; the Mayoress, Mrs Alec Turner presided, and Madame Lisa Fuchsová, the well-known Czech pianist, gave a recital. Every day during the week, lunch-hour concerts and meetings were given at various factories and hostels by the Czech Army Band, Choir, Sokol Team, and prominent Czech speakers.

On the 9th of May, the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported how Coventry’s Lidice Shall Live Campaign held in March “to raise funds for the rebuilding of the Czech village destroyed by the Germans”, had resulted in their £2,000 target being exceeded. The final figure was £2,078 9s. 11d. all of which had been handed over to the national account for the campaign. The total included £386 from the flag day, £348 in donations, and £222 17s. 2d. from a gift shop that sold Czech goods. The dance, play, and concert produced £76 17s. 1d. The rest was made up of collections taken at Coventry Cathedral, Coventry Hippodrome, churches, hostels, schools, works, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert, and the women’s rally, Central Hall. The works collection was £579 12s. 2d.

You can find out more about the role Coventry played in reconstructing Czechoslovakia and Lidice, in particular, by reading The Path to Lidice – the definitive account of the Lidice Shall Live campaign.
Available now, online from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and in ebook formats – free with Amazon Unlimited.

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