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How Many Times Can You Be Dead?
A Tale of Supreme Courage and Fortitude
How many times can you be dead?
A tale of supreme courage and fortitude against all odds.
This story has got to begin at the end. But not for the gentleman involved, a certain Ben Marsh, my very dear Uncle, living in a village near Winchester in England. He’s now 90 (plus a few months) and still working in his market garden of several acres, and has no intention of shuffling off this mortal coil!
The last tale of his death had been somewhat exaggerated to say the least and the culprit was the village pastor who 18 months ago stood in the pulpit of the lovely old village church at Easton and told the gathered parishioners that Ben Marsh had passed away. Such sadness in the congregation for the poor old chap that had lived all alone since the passing of his sister Alice, some 30 or more years ago. But he had been in hospital and he was very old, so no-one was surprised.
No wonder then that people passing Ben’s house many weeks later, which incidentally stood very close to the main road through the village, were amazed to see clear evidence of him being very much alive. Washing on the line, the dustbin out for collection, open windows, and his old car standing in the drive having obviously been recently used.
In the end, someone took their courage in their hands and knocked on Ben’s door, only to be greeted by a very-much-alive Ben, not a ghostly apparition. A rather confused conversation ensued and the ‘dead’ Ben chuckled loudly to himself.
Not only had the parish pastor never come to see Ben once when he was ill in the local hospital, he had never even bothered to check out the facts about Bens death. No wonder Ben had long ago given up being an active member of his much loved local church. Priorities had changed so much over the intervening years since Canon Malony and pastors of his ilk had taken it as their normal duty to visit all their parishioners at some time in the month, regardless of whether or not they where Christians. They were the pastors flock and treated as such with due care and reverence. Ben’s opinion on the church and all it’s pomp and ceremony was well founded in his case.
‘Egg on the face’ is an expression that comes to mind! So much for Christian love and charity.
Now we must go back a few years to 1942 and the war being waged in North Africa. Here we find a very young Ben fighting alongside his comrades in arms as a raw young soldier thrown into the midst of the most horrific fighting and in the most appalling conditions. This particular battle, the Battle of El Boulaida saw many of these young men died and Ben was included when a shell hit their emplacement. The orderlies that collected the bodies had little time to check that the casualties were in fact dead, but most were so horrifically maimed it was difficult to imagine anyone surviving. Ben was duly thrown on the dead cart with his fallen comrades and towed away. But an amazing coincidence then occurred; a young fellow recruit who had joined up with Ben, was in the detail to bury the corpses. As he moved the bodies he saw Ben and grieved for the loss of his friend, but as he did so he noticed a tiny, imperceptible movement from the corpse and with alacrity, dragged the nearly buried Ben off the cart, calling for a medical orderly for help as he did so. What a miracle! And what a miracle to be found by the lad from the village that you’d joined up with!
Ben was gravely wounded and sent from the field hospital to the safety of a hospital in Wales, where it took him over a year to respond to treatment for his terrible wounds. But respond he did, but not without far-reaching consequences that changed his life. His head and body were filled with shrapnel shards and so the medical profession had to tell him that any movement of these pieces of metal in his brain could cause instant death. So a fit and healthy 24 year old that had gone to war for his King and Country, was now saddled with this terrible ‘Sword of Damacles’ and psychological wounds that would never heal.
In consequence Ben never married and never knew the delights of having his own family. But his life has been rich and fulfilling. He and his spinster sister Alice inherited the family market garden and managed it admirably between them. On her death Ben, stoical as ever, carried on alone and does so til this very day. He grows the most amazing variety of fruit and vegetables and makes a comfortable living from selling his produce around the local villages and little shops.
Death has stalked this great old guy for such a long time that in talking to him you find him totally philosophical about his future. He will continue to enjoy his work, his pint at the ‘local’, his cricket, his family and his friends til the day the local pastor can honestly say, ‘our old friend Ben Marsh has finally passed away’ and say it sincerely. Hopefully it will not be the one who has already ‘buried’ him.
Ben Marsh. Still working at 90!
Ben Marsh - Ninety not Out!
Ben Marsh – Ninety not out!
The Easton Parish Magazine article written by my Father, (and Ben’s nephew) David Marsh, to celebrate Ben Marsh’s 90th birthday on 22nd January 2009.
Ben Marsh was born at the Old Manor House, Easton near Winchester in England on the 22nd January 1919. His real name was Ernest David Marsh, and he was the youngest of the 12 Marsh children, 4 boys and 8 girls. Albert, the eldest brother gave his young brother Ernest the name of Ben, as he was the youngest of the ‘tribe’. Now 90 years old, Ben is the only one left of that generation in that family, surviving his sister Mary who died in 2007 at the grand old age of 96.
Charles Marsh, his father, came to live at the Old Manor House in 1880 and started the market garden that Ben still works at today. Ben worked with members of his family cultivating the land, essentially by hand, until he was conscripted into the army at the commencement of World War 11. He was then 20 years old.
After completing his initial training on the Isle of Wight, he was then posted to Kent, where he was billeted in a brewery with his life long friend Pop. Ben and Pop were assigned to the Hampshire Regiment, of which he is still a valiant member, and very proud. Whilst recovering from his operation for bowel cancer, he was unable to attend their reunion, for the first time ever. Later, both friends were sent to Scotland to join a troop ship bound for Algiers and the North Africa Campaign. This was 1941.
Within a few weeks he was in the front line in the Atlas Mountains and approaching the town of El Boulaida. It was here that he sustained terrible injuries, losing a eye and suffering shrapnel wounds to his head and body. Parts of that shrapnel still remain to this day, as can be testified by both by security and medical scanners. Left for dead, he lay where he fell for 2 days. It was then that the orderlies collecting the dead, found that he was still alive! They carried him down from the mountain in a blanket to the field hospital and his back still bears witness to that journey.
After he was cleaned up, he was immediately recognised by 3 of his pals from Eason, Bert Rolfe, Sam Sankey and Jim the keeper from AvingtonPark – a merciful coincidence! Evacuated by Dakota (his first and only aeroplane flight) to the nearest Allied held port, he was placed on a hospital ship and taken back to England. He was sent to the main Hospital in Swansea and then, after further moves he found himself in the hospital at Basingstoke, much closer to home. It was here that he contracted a serious illness and was transferred to the CanadianHospital at HackwoodPark, still in Hampshire. A long stay of thirteen months, and treatment with early antibiotics, lead to his discharge and he finally came home again to his home at Easton. He has not left the old place since.
In his youth, Ben showed the early signs of being a top class cricketer. He coached the young lads at the PilgrimSchool in Winchester on two afternoons a week for many years. The HampshireCounty Cricket Club also had their eye on him, but like so many young men of that time, the advent of WW11 interrupted any possibility of that career. However, returning home after his convalescence he took up with his village cricket team once more. Ben was raring to go, after all, he had been practicing most of the time during his long convalescence in hospital! One eye made little difference to him; he was still a deadly bowler to the unfortunate batsmen! He still recalls the match when he bowled nine men out in one innings, amazingly, a record that still stands to this day! In fact, he says if it had not been for John Guest catching the last man out on the boundary, he would have “had the lot!” “You see, I had my eye in that day” he says with a smile.
Returning to normal civilian life after the war, his old original green transit van could always be seen delivering his home-grown fruit and vegetables around the villages and the City of Winchester. By now, Pop, his old pal from the army call-up days, and Ben were back in touch regularly and many of their tales could embarrass even the broadest minded person!
In 2006 Ben suffered a stroke from which he recovered well. Then in 2007 he discovered he had bowel cancer which necessitated a serious operation. But he came through with flying colours and whilst celebrating his 90th birthday at the local Pub, told everyone present that he couldn’t wait for the good weather to come so that he could get back on his old Fergie (Ferguson circa 1957)tractor and get the market garden back into full production again!
When asked the secret of his success, he said “His God and Good Luck have never deserted him”.
Happy 90th Birthday Ben!
D.M. (David Marsh)
The postscript to this story is, that although Ben has always lived in Easton, apart from his war years, many people were unaware of his past history and he’s now become a something of a local hero! He’s dined out and had many a drink with the local folk whilst recapturing some of his memories. They think he’s marvellous, especially when he’d been “dead” twice!