Here I am on a Saturday evening in honeyed sunlight casting itself over Gorton Cemetery. I keep a couple of jackets in the car and as the jaundiced sunlight was so pretty I chose the brown beige jacket to blend in with nature's colour scheme. I was on limited time though: the sun dipping behind the huge industrial building on the horizon renders the headstones illegible.
Here I am by the grave of John Readitt who was born not far away in Clayton. After school he joined his dad working as a clogger in the family business. They secured a ten-year contract to make and repair the football boots at Manchester United Football Club, exciting stuff for John who was football-mad. World War One broke out he wanted to “do his bit” unaware of the bloodiness of war. Aged 17 he volunteered for the Army and joined the 6th South Lancashire Regiment which had been formed on the first breaking waves of the war. Soon he was sailing to Avonmouth to Gallipoli to fight (suffering severe frostbite) and later onto Egypt.
Aged 20 he was fighting in Mesopotamia (now Iraq.) On Sunday 25th February 1917 he and his battalion were under heavy fire from machine guns. Over about an hour they advanced five times along a water-course, all the time under walls of bullets splayed from close-range. They drove the enemy back about 300 yards. John's officer was killed though and John used his own initiative to advance further. Sadly every soldier who advanced with him was killed. On reaching the enemy barricade he was forced to retreat but continued lobbing bombs as he went. Support reached him and he helped bomb the enemy until they defeated their barricade. All this when he was only 20 - at that age I was a dopey lad living in my bedroom, playing records and wrecking my eyes on slow computers.
When the war ended John returned to clogging (he'd eventually take over the business.) Aged 24 he got married and brought up two sons and a daughter. This quiet unassuming man was too modest to talk about his Victoria Cross nor the gallant deeds that deserved it. Nevertheless he liked to attend VC social events and, for 40 years, attended meetings at Buckingham Palace garden parties, the House of Lords, Mansion House and the Dorchester Hotel. He died at his Clayton home on 9th June 1964 aged 67 after a long illness was buried with much ceremony. I found his grave tucked away just off a path. There was one red poppy wedged into a crack on the headstone but that was it. The brave dude is buried here with his wife and son.
As I walked away from the grave the dipping sunlight seem to illuminate another war grave and I did a salute for Private John Andrews who died aged 19. The carved letters read: "He died for a good cause". There were two wooden crosses in front of it. One said "Thank You" on it - can we thank these lads and lasses enough? I did a salute with a trilling starling watching me and left.