Pte-Alex-Done.... but for how much longer?

As another Remembrance Day passes, journalist Harold Heys wonders how long the tradition will last, as 'we that are left' grow old and why many of today's youngsters don't seem to show as much interest.

It will soon be the Centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, the first conflict in which combatants were killed on an industrial scale.

This was the war in which horse and lance finally gave way to tank and heavy artillery. Plumes and scarlet tunics made way for steel helmets and khaki; dirty, muddy, stinking and bloodied. Old-fashioned rifles and early machine guns became rapid-fire, super-efficient killers; poison gas hung in the choking air. Zeppelins and aeroplanes added a new dimension to the wholesale slaughter.

I asked the teenage son of friends the other day what he knew about the Great War. 'Oh, we don't do that at school,' he told me. How sad, I thought. When I was his age I knew all about the First World War, after which my grandfather died in agony from blood poisoning. His left knee had been shot to pieces and he had been patched up with carpenters' nails driven criss-cross through the bones. And I knew all about the Second World War. A previous generation to mine had fought their way through more than one.

But now, apparently, schools don't 'do' that sort of thing in any depth. Another young student on work experience told me they didn't actually have any history lessons!

Organisations such as the Royal British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission must sometimes despair. The CWGC looks after the graves of the many hundreds of thousands who died in the two world wars and the memorials to those who have no known grave. Overall, it is responsible for 1.7 million graves and memorials in 23,000 sites in 150 countries.

There are several thousand war graves in the UK. Nearly everyone else who died abroad during the Great War was not repatriated home during the four years of that first conflict, although most of them are commemorated on family, village, town, city, or churchyard memorials.

A Great War cemetery near YpresBritain mobilised on 4 August 1914. and the first burials here took place within weeks. I decided to look closely at the story of just one of those who gave their lives in service to King and Country: Private Alexander Done, who had married Sarah Turner that June. He was a reservist and joined his regiment, the Loyal North Lancashires, at Preston the morning following mobilisation. Less than a month later he was fighting in France; by early December he was dead. His wife, back home in Lord Street, Darwen, Lancashire, UK was left to grieve and bring up their daughter, Alexandra, conceived just before he answered his country's call and born three months after his death.

Mud and bullets: the diary of Alex Done

Private Done wrote several letters to his sister during his few weeks at the front, as he didn't want to worry his pregnant wife. She put them all together after his death as a memoir of his exploits. It tells a harrowing tale of bravery and endurance.

"September 10: Raining hard. Marched out 3am, coming into contact with the enemy [at Priez] about 10am. We fought hard with about 30 casualties including Colonel Knight."

For the next two months Private Done and his colleagues were heavily involved in the desperate struggle. It was only a matter of time before he was wounded. Here are some more extracts from his diary. Incidentally, he was a bright lad. He writes of his unit being 'squandered all over the battlefield.' How many, today, would know that a secondary meaning of the verb after 'waste' is 'to extravagantly dissipate'? Not many, I would suspect.

"September 14: Pouring rain ... We marched out of the village at 3am under heavy fire, taking what cover we possibly could. At 10am we advanced on the enemy under very heavy machine gun and artillery fire, losing 180 out of 230 officers, NCOs and men. We had to retire about 6pm having run out of ammunition. We were squandered all over the battle field. We came into contact with the remainder of our company which numbered only 40. It was a day which none of the 40 will ever forget. The sights were terrible."

The days wore on. Rain, mud, trenches; sniper, artillery and machine gun fire were incessant. Attack after attack from the German lines was repelled.

On 2 October the diary reported plenty of snipers. On the following day there was artillery and sniper fire; a friend, Pte Ellison, died after being shot in the neck.

On 4 October he wrote: "Severe attack about 1am. Drove them back. German artillery got the range of our trenches about 7am and caused a good few casualties."

And so it went on. Pte Done mentions the cold and the wet and the artillery and the snipers and the attacks but not once does he show any lack of resolve.

7 October

"There was more heavy shelling and about 20 casualties including Capt Allason who was killed. A couple of days later ... there was heavy artillery fire on our trenches burying some of our men. The Germans tried to advance but we held them in check."

A few days later, after more trench warfare, Pte Done's company was relieved by the French and they were moved by train and arrived in Belgium on 19 October for a few days in reserve.

By 23 October they were back in action again at Ypres in Flanders.

"Fighting very hard under heavy fire with no cover. A fine charge on the German trenches captured 1000 prisoners. Our total casualties being 150 men and 6 officers."

24 Saturday:

"Fighting like maniacs. Relieved by the French but we nearly got blown the distance with their shells arriving 6am."

25 Sunday:

"Raining. We got a jolly nice rest for the remainder of the day and night."

26 Monday:

"Moving on about five miles, driving the enemy back then awaiting orders till 4am."

27 Tuesday:

"Advanced in woods some distance on flank under severe fire. The following day: Fighting all day and night. It was the same story the day after: Fighting all day, forcing the enemy back. The weather rotten.

30 October:

"Fighting hard all day. Weather still bad."

31 October:

"A fierce fight from 3am, losing a great many, having to retire. Quietened down about 8pm. Digging fresh trenches remainder of the night. Very cold and wet."

November came with no let-up for Pte Done and his comrades. More attacks, one of which cost 100 British lives. "Weary but with whole skin yet," he reported cheerfully.

3 November:

"Moved 4am about three miles. Dug more trenches. Raining torrents. Stuck in our trenches. Next day: In the same trenches under very heavy artillery fire. More casualties. Hand to hand fighting. Relieved by the Gloucesters 10pm. We crept away under cover of a wood, taking what sleep and rest possible in the open."

5 November:

"Drenched, weary, cold. Could have slept on a clothes line without pegs."

They were soon back on the firing lines of the trenches but on 7 November he was buried alive:

"I was buried in my trench about 10am and was very lucky to escape it being daylight gave every assistance, thank God. Several attacks ensued during the day but we drove them off each time."

And so it went on.

On 8 November Pte Done was seriously wounded in the groin and pelvis, as he recorded in a brief, matter-of-fact diary entry. He didn't even complain about being left badly injured for over seven hours before he got any help: "Serious fighting, losing a lot, myself being seriously wounded about noon and being picked up by the stretcher-bearers about 7.30pm, taken to hospital and by degrees coming back to England."

That was the last entry.

Pte Done's funeral was a very grand production. Everyone was there and local folk turned out in their hundreds to pay their last respects. Looking back now it is clear that the occasion was hijacked by the popular campaign of the time, which encouraged every young man to join up.

The local paper wrote of Pte Done's 'loyalty and devotion'. He 'heard the call of his King and saw his Country's needs'. He 'has given his life for honour and freedom'. His death 'was full of lustre and splendour,' apparently. And then came the recruitment advert. 'Private Done's death is a challenge to every able-bodied youth in Darwen; his sacrifice, his untimely end make a call upon his fellow townsmen. Need the picture be drawn further?'

The vicar of St James', the Rev J Blackburn Brown, took over the whole show after the sounding of the Last Post. He didn't pull any punches. 'Are we at home doing our duty? Are we doing all we can?' was his theme. It's enough to say that any young man there on that desperately sad occasion would have held his head in shame, if he had not already 'answered the call'. The vicar even had the gall to tell those assembled on that wet, wintry afternoon that, as Pte Done lay wounded, he called out: 'Oh, if we had more men; if only we had more men.' Really?

The Rev Blackburn Brown warmed to his theme in the next parish newsletter. In a report of Private Done's funeral he rages: 'The cowardly, the selfish, the idle and the self-indulgent are not doing their duty at this critical time ... '

Field of Poppies in France

The call to arms was repeated by politicians, civic leaders, writers and poets in the early months of the Great War. But slowly, as the desperation of year after year of trench warfare and slaughter on a vast scale took hold of the country, the rallying calls became more muted. The early confidence of 'It'll be over by Christmas' and 'Don't miss the fun, lads,' became sick jokes.

Alex Done, a shunter on the railways, was 29 when he reported for duty early that August. Within a few weeks he was in the thick of the fighting in some of the early major engagements, the battles of Aisne and Ypres.

In early November 1914, Pte Alex Done was shot and badly wounded; on 2 December he died in hospital at Aldershot from pneumonia which resulted from his wounds. He had been among the very first to join up and was one of the first of the Lancashire lads to be killed.

He was also among the first to be buried, not in the muddy fields of northern France and Belgium, but at home. He might have considered himself one of the lucky ones.

WFA Alexandra Youd

 Image: Alexandra Youd, aged 96, daughter of Alex Done (pictured at the top of this page). Alexandra never knew her father.

The daughter he never knew? As I write this, Alex Done's daughter, widowed Alexandra Youd, was living in Darwen aged 96.

Submitted by Harold Heys


A version of this article first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Lancashire Magazine and our thanks are due to the Editor for permission to use it. Harold Heys is a local historian (among the talks he gives for charity is one on Poetry of the Great War).

Postscript 1: The Old Lie:

As the Great War wore piteously on, the jingoist mood changed. In 1917 Wilfred Owen, a serving soldier, wrote of the horrors of war in his memorable Dulce et Decorum Est, from the opening words of an ode by the Roman lyric poet Horace which said, in effect, that it was wonderful and sweet to die for one's country. Owen describes a young soldier dying in a gas attack and dismisses 'the old lie'. The poem ends:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Postscript 2: a comrade in arms - Pte William Youngs

WFA Young_W

Image: Few holders of a Victoria Cross won in the Great War are buried in the UK. One of them is Pte William Young of the East Lancashire Regiment who was hit with bullets to the jaw and chest while saving the life of his wounded sergeant. Pte Young died a few months later at Aldershot while undergoing an operation on his shattered jaw. This father of eight children is buried in Preston Cemetery and his VC is in the Queen's Lancashire Regiment museum.



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