• Discover Hidden Britain

VISIT | Maurice Darby - One of the Few Brought Home From the Great War | Shropshire

The Grave of Maurice A. A. Darby in Little Ness churchyard
The Grave of Maurice A. A. Darby in Little Ness churchyard

One of the few men of the Great War to die on the Western Front and be buried back in Britain

Uncover the true history of a young officer of Coalbrookdale heritage Maurice Darby

His grave lies at Little Ness church in the Shropshire countryside

One of the few men of the Great War who died on the battlefields of France and was repatriated home to be buried not with the glorious dead but in the family plot

Maurice Darby's Grave overlooking the Shropshire countryside
Maurice Darby's Grave overlooking the Shropshire countryside

"...where the Great War came home..."

Description |

We’ve all seen them. The row upon row of white Portland headstones of our war dead. The rank and file. Treated all the same. Colonels next to Privates. Corporals next to Captains. Each a reflection of national mourning and grief. Rudyard Kipling’s legacy to the fallen first of the Great War of 1914-1918 and then on those of the Second World War and beyond.

This was begun for the quest for remembrance after the First World War. Begun as an answer for the fact that all those faces of Britain and the wider empire would never be repatriated. The bodies would lie as a collective amongst those whom they had stood shoulder to shoulder with. They would never return.

Amidst national mourning, a few protested. Groups like the British War Graves Association under a grieving mother from Leeds called Sarah Smith tried to force the British government to repatriate the fallen but to no avail.

So where men and women fell from the First World War, nearby graves took their names and their memories. And when then the Imperial War Graves Commission Registration Unit took up their work during and beyond the war, those white Portland headstones appeared to replace the temporary crosses and personal memorials to unite them all in memory.

But if you happen to cross the tiny village of Little Ness outside Shrewsbury in Shropshire, a sleepy place of no particular purpose except for those who live there, there lying in a grave is a man who was killed on the battlefields of France during the First World War but whose body was brought back home. His name was Maurice Alfred Alexander Darby.

Believe it or not there were examples of people who went over to France and Belgium with the sole intention of digging up their loved one’s remains and shipping them back. It was illegal and frowned upon particularly by the Commission, but it still happened.

Maurice Darby came from a family best known in Staffordshire and specifically Coalbrookdale for being the innovators of iron production; he was the great-great-great grandson of the original Quaker ironworker Abraham Darby who invented a new process for iron casting and built the first iron bridge at Ironbridge.

Lieutenant Maurice A. A. Darby served with the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, a frontline regular division from the famed Guards Division. He was the only son of Alfred Edmund Darby whose family seat was nearby at Adcote, the chairman of the Coalbrookdale Company.

Maurice had been at the front since October 1914; having spent that first winter of the war on the Western Front in bitterly cold and freezing conditions. His last stand was at Neuve Chapelle in France. Advancing on the new German lines outside the village, he had clambered his company over a wooden bridge, over a stream to hold to await movement, Maurice stopped to light a cigarette maybe with a bolstering comment to his men. He was shot through the heart and died instantly. His life left him there. He was just twenty years of age.

His remains were brought via train from London and then by hearse with an escort of ten cars to Adcot. It was brought to the church at Little Ness covered with a Union Jack. Present at his funeral were tenants and local villagers, Officers and men from the Grenadier Guards including General Sir Francis Lloyd (then in charge of the defence of London from zeppelins) and Major Ponsonby, eight Grenadier sergeants carried his coffin, and twenty-two drummers drummed his final salute. His mother, father, and sister as well as his uncle and aunt Sir and Lady George Arthur all attended.

It was chiefly down to Sir George Arthur that Maurice had found his way home. Sir George was the Personal Secretary of Lord Kitchener whom at the start of the war in 1914 became Secretary of State for War. His uncle retrieved his nephew’s body from the front. But Maurice Darby’s grave rather tells the story more eloquently than any other explanation.

In proud and loving memory of
Maurice Darby
whose body having lain for four days on the
battlefield of Neuve Chapelle, was after a long
night search in front of the enemy’s lines,
recovered and brought home by his uncle George Arthur
to be laid at rest on this spot

It would appear that his men – the men of the Grenadier Guards - searched no man’s land for the body of their fallen leader. A family plea carried out by respectful men.

Maurice Darby’s case is possibly best explained by his early death and by his family rather than a desire to break away from the unilateral decision of war graves. But it does tell us a tale about how class, position and money led to his body being brought home where others did not. This is not reflective of everyone from aristocratic and wealthier classes; most families were of the opinion that these soldiers, nurses and airmen would want to be buried near their comrades. That their own feelings came second next to the war dead.

His parents placed memorials inside the church at Little Ness – a stained glass window and brass plaque – their only son to a grieving family. Did they ever think as the years passed whether Maurice should have been left to stay with his comrades on the Western Front? His grave may well have been destroyed in later years of the war. But he would have stayed one of the silent millions.

Maurice Darby was a young man with future ahead of him. A keen sense of humour and a man who despite his youth carried a determined sense of duty. Maurice Darby would have made an interesting life for himself. A man who died in battle on the Western Front and yet was buried back in Britain. But one of the few who came home. Sleeping quietly in this little place at Little Ness.

Directions and Map |

Find the little church of Little Ness off the A5 heading north west from Shrewsbury in the village of Little Ness

Longitude: -2.879541

Latitude: 52.773408