War memorials are such a familiar part of the village scene that it’s easy to take them for granted. Practically every settlement in the country has one, a monument to the supreme sacrifice made by men from all walks of life, all social classes, in the First World War, the war that was supposed to end all wars. Villages are far from unique in this respect; institutions of all kinds-from city councils and regiments to railway companies and factories-wanted to commemorate the ones whom they had lost. However, the village memorial is often especially poignant. So many names, and so great a contrast between the peaceful, rural scenes amid which those who bore them lived, and the horror of the Western Front. Who were these men, and what did they do?

I’ve been researching one war memorial at Lydford in Devon to find out. Lydford lies on the edge of Dartmoor, five miles north of Tavistock. It was quite a place in Saxon times, having been one of the fortified burghs founded by Alfred the Great, in a superb defensive position next to a deep gorge; a rampart known as the Town Bank survives from that period. Prosperity was maintained into the Tudor period by tin. The castle became a notorious prison for the Stannary court. Thereafter, the town decayed, until, in 1900, the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, squire-vicar of nearby Lew-trenchard (as well as the author of more than 100 books and the hymn Onward, Christian Soldiers) described Lydford as looking like ‘an Irish village’-if you were an order-loving clergyman of the Church of England, supported by a large private income, nothing worse could be said.

Lydford war memorial takes the form of an unadorned giant cross, carved from a single piece of Dartmoor granite. The form was not completely inevitable. Across Britain, war memorials also took the shape of monumental arches, cottage hospitals, bus shelters, park benches, wall tablets, parks, recreation grounds, bowling greens, scholarships for the children of the dead and relief funds. There was a degree of variety among the 2,000 memorials in Devon. Chudleigh Knighton built an archway over the gate to the church. Crediton purchased a field to use as a recreation ground, which became the subject of a government inquiry; it also found the money to erect an octagonal stone, sheltered by a tall, tiled roof and spire, supported on an oak frame, strongly in the Arts-and-Crafts spirit of Godalming.

One of the most beautiful Devon memorials is the stained-glass window in Ringmore church, the background of which shows scenes from the trenches, including field artillery, a Royal Flying Corps aeroplane and soldiers in No Man’s Land. Shaldon went for a clock-to the irritation of the vicar, who had hoped to reroof the church. In some parishes, feelings ran high.

The advocates of ceremony and religious imagery fell out with those who thought that the memory of working people would be better honoured by a village hall. Lydford had originally hoped to rebuild the Reading Room that served as a kind of club for the menfolk of the village, but the funds wouldn’t stretch to it. The cross, designed-in that age of deference-by the Squire, Tom Radford, was an appropriate compromise. Dartmoor is a land of stone crosses, raised to guide travellers across the moor. In this spirit, it was placed at a crossroads: a location in the parish churchyard would not have appealed to the village’s strong Methodist congregation.

There are 23 names on the plinth on which the cross stands, including eight from the Second World War and one each from the Falklands and Iraq: names and initials only, not even rank or regiment to hint at their personal histories. I had assumed that the 13 from the First World War would have been village lads, and some were.

Archie Huggins was a strapping young stone mason, the stalwart right back of the Tavistock Football Club, and a corporal in the Royal North Devon Hussars-a yeomanry regiment, the equivalent of the modern TA-which he joined at 18. After a year based in the seaside town of Clacton, defending the Essex coast against what the Admiralty believed could be an imminent German invasion, the North Devons were dismounted and sent to Gallipoli. Sgt Huggins, as he now was, arrived in October 1915, one of a reinforcement to shore up an already hopeless position. In the thin soil, the dead from six months of fighting could not be buried properly, and the place was so thick with flies that soldiers could hardly see their mess tins when they opened them in the trenches. Like his commanding officer Maj Bayly, Archie went down with dysentery within a couple of weeks. He is buried in Alexandria.

Jim Stephens was also a local boy: his name was added in 1925, when he died from a disease apparently contracted from eating an infected camel liver in Palestine. By contrast, Charles Berry’s connection with Lydford was only a few months old when he died on the Somme, roughly where Lutyens’s Thiepval Arch now stands; the Arch commemorates the 72,000 British and South African soldiers whose bodies were never found, and Charles Berry’s name is on it. He had been a professional soldier, one of the tiny British Expeditionary Force that faced the German onslaught in 1914; pneumonia meant he missed the Battle of Mons, but he was one of the 2nd Worcesters who, with immense bravery, repaired a hole that German forces had opened in the British line at Gheluvelt outside Ypres.

Wounded at Gallipoli, he spent the spring of 1916 at Plymouth, where he retrained as a machine gunner. It was then that he met Elizabeth Hammett, daughter of the signalman at Lydford station, whom he married on July 8. He was killed on August 24. Others hardly knew the village, but were remembered by the families who mourned them. Young Dickie Turner was the Squire’s nephew, a brilliant scholar who had a knee injury-incurred when lugeing in Switzerland specially put right in case it prevented him from signing up. Dickie may have visi-ted his uncle, but never lived at Lydford.

And two of the 13 had already left. The tin, copper and even arsenic mining that offered employment until the 19th century had more or less finished; farming was on its knees, due to the agricultural depression that started in the 1870s. Samuel Voysey, a plumber, and Mansel Clark, a tailor, were among the many country people who emigrated to Canada for a better life; it was there that they enlisted-Voysey, who was two years too old at 43, faking his age.

This is only the beginning of the story encoded in one simple stone cross. Even in the early 20th century, the village world was more fluid than one might have expected, and-with the arrival of professional families attracted by the beauty of Dartmoor Lydford had acquired a new stratum by the Second World War. Three names stand out from that conflict: all have the surname of Herbert. They were the three sons of an Air Commodore who had been bailiff to the Duchy of Cornwall; all followed their father into the RAF, and all died when their planes were shot down or crashed. As yet, all I know about these young men is that they are remembered and honoured. The war memorial has done its job.

Many thanks to Howard Barkell, George Radford, the Rev Neil Barker, Adrian and Judy Bull and Graham Huggins for their kind assistance in my research