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Pte Alex Done: The first soldier

buried in Darwen Cemetery

THERE are almost a hundred war graves in the two Darwen cemeteries, most of them marking the last resting place of members of the armed forces who died during or soon after the Great War.

Of course, hundreds of Darwen soldiers, sailors and airmen died in that conflict, the first in which combatants were killed on an industrial scale. Most are buried where they fell, in corners of foreign fields. Nearly all the ones interred at Darwen died back home from their wounds, disease or sickness.

The first burial here took place just four months after Britain mobilised on August 4, 1914. Private Alexander Done, who lived in Lord Street and who had married Sarah Turner that June in Railway Road Methodist Church, 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 was left to grieve and bring up their daughter, Alexandra, conceived just before he answered his country's call.

The funeral was a very grand production. "Never before in the history of Darwen has there been such an affair," said the local paper. Everyone was there and Darwen folk turned out in their hundreds to pay their last respects. Looking back now, nearly a hundred years later, it is clear that the occasion was hijacked by the popular campaign of the time which encouraged every young man to join up.

The Darwen News 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." Yeah, right. And then came the "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 ... We say deliberately that it is a sin and a shame for any man who stops at home for any reason, however good, to do simply nothing for his country."

It was a call to arms 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 wholesale slaughter 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 obscene 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 the early major engagements of the British Army, the battles of Ainse and Ypres. He was wounded in November and brought home for treatment. By early December he was dead.

At the time of writing, the daughter he never knew, was living in Darwen as a sprightly 96-year-old.

Alex Done's grave is in the northern corner of Section 2, just behind the children's playground.

Click on the below link to see the Plan of Private Alex Done in Section 2
Plan of A Done Grave

                                                       Harold Heys: October 2011.
A longer feature on Alex Done, written by Harold, is in the November issue of Lancashire Magazine.

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