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11.11.2011 brings back to life the Armistice tragedy of a family’s missing grandfather

Three red poppy wreaths were left at the foot of Marlborough’s war memorial to the town’s “own” 7th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment in yesterday’s traditional Armistice Day ceremony.

One was laid by the Mayor, Councillor Alexander Kirk Wilson, on behalf of himself and the town council, the second by Lt. Col Austin Pearce of 4 Military Intelligence Battalion, who were honoured with the freedom to march in Marlborough last June.

But it was the third wreath, laid by 73-year-old retired schoolteacher David Chandler, that evoked the poignancy of the moment on what was the remarkable date of 11.11.2011 watched by dozens of students from St John’s School.

It was Mr Chandler’s tribute to his grandfather, Private Andrew Ferguson, the gamekeeper who went to war and never returned, his body never found in the fighting fields of far-off Salonika, in northern Greece.

He laid his wreath on the stone World War 1 memorial on his behalf and that of two other grand children, Carolyn and Christopher, who last month, together with their spouses, went to see the battlefield for themselves.

As the memorial inscription recounts, the 7th Battalion, formed in September, 1914, was sent to billets in Marlborough in April, 1915, and trained on the Common, hence its local link.

After going initially to France, it was then sent to Salonika, to protect the Serbs from the Ottoman Turks who together with the Bulgarians had joined the German cause.

But Private Ferguson, gamekeeper to the Marquis of Aylesbury who volunteered for the army, aged 39, was killed at the front a year later, on April 24, 1917, his body one of many never recovered.

“He was my mother’s father, my grandfather,” Mr Chandler told me at his home in Alma Place, Marlborough. “He left a widow and seven children. We have no information as to where and how he died.”

Last month Mr Chandler led the family party of six to Salonika, visiting the town of Doiran, on the border of Macedonia, where there is the main Commonwealth war grave but no memorial to Private Ferguson.

“He was one of 2,000 soldiers who just disappeared without trace, lost forever,” said Mr Chandler. “But we were delighted to make the journey and to be there.  It was a moving experience we shall always remember.”

He was equally pleased yesterday to see so many students from St John’s School, Marlborough, and a few from St Peter’s School, taking part in the ceremony of two minutes silence outside Marlborough town hall, then walking down to hill to the London Road memorial to see the wreath laying ceremony take place.

It was a reminder for him of a similar Armistice event that used to be staged at a school where he taught.

“It is important for them to know what happened is all part of life,” explained Mr Chandler. “It was very moving to see them all there.  I never ever thought it was something that would take off in its own momentum and still be appreciated today.”  

That is thanks to Dr Patrick Hazlewood, St John’s headteacher, who was there supervising the event along with colleagues.

“We had two representatives from every tutor group in the school,” he told me.  “We talked a little bit about the event before we went down, about the importance of remembrance and what the two minutes silence actually means.”

“They found it to be a very moving experience.  On the way back to school, we talked about how they felt. It was a tingle down the spine for them. One or two said they were close to tears.”

And he added: “It was part of their education.  It is really important that every generation remembers.”

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