Marple Remembers..

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This page appeared as an article by guest writer Ian Rice, in the November 2002 issue of the Community News. It was cunningly disguised as part of a large feature about Marple Business Forum, rather than under our regular banner of "Local History & Heritage with the Marple Website". This has been taken up with the paper and hopefully will not be repeated.

The article is an abridged version of a journal written by Ian that is also featured on the web site. To visit this, and to learn more about the author, click here.

(or "Great War's tragic seeds of change" as it appeared in the paper.)

Queues to enlist in Manchester

I may not have been born here but after thirty years of living and working in Marple I feel that I may now call it home. When I arrived, as a young inexperienced teacher, I was welcomed into a community that still thought of itself as a village. I drank in the local pubs with old men who had worked with the horses in the stables behind the Co-op in Marple Bridge or as hands in the mills or even in the tannery off Church Lane. I lost count of the number of times I was told "I can remember when all this was just fields". It's not too long ago that Marple really was just a village with cobbled streets and doors that were never locked; days when an outing to Stockport market was a full day trip and a journey by steam train to Blackpool for Wakes Week was a real adventure.

Marple's Memorial

All that started to change in the summer of 1914. The talk in the pubs then was of the gallant retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons as it tried to stem the German advance into France and save Paris from the dreaded Hun. To the young men of that time France was the other side of the world, a place offering danger and excitement and suddenly they were offered the opportunity to go there – for free! All they had to do was to join the army. They could remain with their mates, train and fight alongside the lads with whom they worked or those from the same football team or social club. After all, it would all be over by Christmas, so if they didn't jump at this chance to go out and see the world they might never have another one. And so they went, young men from every town and village in the country, and Marple men and boys were not to be left out. They went to places some of them had never heard of – Gallipoli, Salonika, Iraq, Palestine – but most of all they went to France, where too many of them stayed among the millions of men from all the countries of Europe and the old Empires.

Last April a group of people from Marple went over to the old battlefields to visit some of the men that did not return. The trip was organised by Andy Cook and Peter Clarke who, along with Jon Bintliff, have written the wonderful book, "Remembered", in which they have traced the story of every man named on the Marple War Memorial. Some of the party were descendants of the men who left their safe homes in Marple to go on the great adventure. During the few days that we were in France we visited only the sites of the great Battle of the Somme. This battle, commencing on July 1st 1916, dragged on until November of that year and accounted for the lives of hundreds of thousands of men on both sides. Fifteen Marple families received the dreaded telegram informing them that their man would not be coming home. To make matters even worse, only eight of these men have known graves. The other seven disappeared into the mayhem and mud of the battle and have no grave for their descendants to visit.

The Caribou in Newfoundland Park

As we traversed the battlefield, Andrew and Peter explained the history of the battle. They took us to the sites of several of the major actions and brought to life the long-dead heroes of this struggle. We walked through the remains of the trenches in Newfoundland Park where hundreds of men from Canada and Britain struggled to come to grips with their enemy. Above this now peaceful scene, the memorial depicts a Canadian mother caribou endlessly and fruitlessly calling for her lost young. We passed the enormous Ulster Memorial, the monument to the Irishmen who fell on the first day of the battle. We paid our respects at other monuments to men from every corner of the Empire, from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. But most of all, we bowed our heads over the graves of our own men from Marple.

John Ingham points
to Charles's name on
the Pozières Memorial

One of the most enduring memories I have brought back with me is the sheer numbers of cemeteries. In many cases, while standing in one it was possible to see two, three or even four others stretching off into the distance, following the ebb and flow of the battle's front line. Some were small, containing only a handful of graves, like the narrow burial ground at Mansell Wood, the last home of the men of the 8th and 9th Devonshire Regiment, who died on July 1st. Others staggered us with their immensity, like the one at Pozières where five Marple men are commemorated. Here, around the thousands of neat, white graves, is a wall upon which are inscribed the names of yet more men whose remains were never found. The family of one of these, Charles Ingham, paid their respects here and laid a wreath to his memory.

It was somehow very comforting to see the way the graves are still maintained, even after such a long time. In every cemetery the white headstones range off, perfectly upright and in immaculately straight lines, as though the men that lie under them are still standing in their ranks, awaiting the order to advance. The grass around the stones is meticulously mowed and weeded and in between the graves the gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission plant and tend small flowerbeds. Over each cemetery, large or small, towers a stone cross upon which is superimposed an inverted bronze sword. Most cemeteries include a large, altar-like stone, plain except for the inscription 'THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE'. Each gravestone bears, where known, the name, rank and regiment of the man beneath it. Sadly, however, a large number bear only the inscription 'KNOWN UNTO GOD', indicating that the occupant could not be identified.

Stanley Proctor's nieces lay the wreath at Thiepval

All the men who disappeared during the Battle of the Somme and have no identifiable grave are commemorated on a truly gigantic monument at Thiepval. Around the base of several interlocking arches, on plaques of white marble, are inscribed the names of all the 73,000 men who died during the battle and have no known resting-place. Here it was that the nieces of Stanley Proctor - who disappeared on the very first day of the battle - were able to see his name at last. Under the great central arch is an altar and it was here that these two ladies placed a wreath of poppies on behalf of all the people of Marple. In a simple ceremony we used this opportunity to remember all our fallen townsmen wherever they may now lie.

As I stood there, I wondered what these men would make of the world they left behind. We are told that they fought and died in 'the war to end wars' for freedom, for the Empire, to build a world fit for heroes. If this were true, how disappointed they would be. War did not end - there has only been one year in the past century when a British serviceman has not lost his life. Wars have gone on interminably all over the world and, seemingly, no amount of death and suffering will ever stop them. The Empire, as the men of the Great War knew it, has faded and gone. The war in which they fought started the change and the next one, that they fought to prevent, settled the matter. And as for a land fit for heroes…

I choose to believe that even if they left Marple with these aspirations, even if they realised the futility and impossibility of these aims before they met their untimely deaths, they had already found something nobler and more worthy for which to fight – each other. I truly believe that the real cause for which the men of Marple, and all the other soldiers of all the other armies, eventually fought that terrible struggle, was humanity. They enlisted as friends, fought side-by-side as friends and, ultimately, they fell together as friends. When we remember their sacrifice, and we should never, ever forget it, we should see them not as the unfortunate, unthinking cannon fodder of an unfeeling and ungrateful nation but as the fathers, brothers and sons that they really were; men who left the warmth and security of their familiar village and home because it was required of them; and the men of Marple have always done what was required of them. Only a short generation after the end of the Great War the names of yet more Marple men had to be added to our war memorial to mark those who gave their life in the Second World War. In almost every conflict since then, men and women from our village have played their part. It is to commemorate their sacrifices that we still set a day aside every year. It is for their sakes that we should still wear our poppies, not with pride, for theirs alone were the achievements, but with humility and gratitude that they were prepared to give their lives for our greater good.

Click here to read a more detailed account of the trip.

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