In Stand To! 81 (and with follow up in ST! 84) there appeared an excellent article about the possible identification of ‘The Lion of Houplines'. Also in ST! 84 there appeared an article about the remarkable work being undertaken by the ‘In From the Cold' project, which aims to ensure the commemoration of Great War casualties that have somehow been missed off the CWGC's records.
No one can be unaware of the discovery of a mass grave at Fromelles which contains the remains of several hundred British and Australian troops from the ill-fated attack on July 1916.
In view of these articles, and the massive amount of work that is being undertaken at Fromelles, it is appropriate to look at recent examples of the discovery of soldiers' remains and explain the mechanics behind the identification process that takes place.
The Discovery of bodies of Great War soldiers
More than thirty sets of human remains are found and recovered every year in France and Belgium. Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify the majority of these by name. Depending on the condition of the remains and the artefacts found with them it is sometimes not even possible to identify the regiment they served with or their nationality.
Until the Fromelles discovery the most poignant in the last few years were in 1997 and 2001. In the earlier case, the bodies of 27 British soldiers were found during an archaeological "dig" undertaken as part of the preparations for road-building near Monchy-le Preux. The men were buried together in a shallow mass grave. From their equipment it was possible to verify that the men were members of the 13th Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers. They were probably killed on 12 April 1917. In the cases of 24 of the soldiers, there was no possibility of identification, and their remains were buried in a quiet ceremony. However, it was felt there was a chance of identifying three of the remains. Despite research, one of the men could not be identified (despite his remains suggesting he was unusually tall) but the other two were identified as Private Frank Harold King, aged 21, who came from Hampton, South-West London and Private George Hamilton Anderson, aged 32, who was from Paddington, London. These three bodies were buried at Monchy-le-Preux British Cemetery on 15th April, 1998.
In 2001, during the excavations for a new car factory, the bodies of twenty soldiers were found. Some had Lincolnshire Regimental collar badges, leading to speculation that they may be Grimsby Chums, but nothing could be proved. The men were buried at Point-Du-Jour Military Cemetery, Athies in 2002.
Other than the two cases mentioned above, some other examples of the discovery of Great War remains are detailed below:
On 21st March 1916 HM Submarine E 24, commanded by Lieut-Commander George Naper, left Harwich, to lay mines in Heligoland Bight. The submarine was not heard from again. The crew of 35 were lost. In 1974 a German-led attempt was made to recover a Second World War submarine that was supposed to be transporting valuables to Japan, but was sunk leaving port. A wreck was found and was taken to Cuxhaven where she was raised - only for it to be discovered that it was the long-lost HM Submarine 24, which was identified using the ship builders identification plate and specification. Following the recovery of HM Submarine E24, the remains of 25 of the crew were found. It was not possible to individually identify any of them. The men were buried collectively in Hamburg Cemetery, Germany on 18 July 1974 in a special plot adjoining Plot 2, Row A.
A double headstone marks the grave, bearing the inscription
OF THE ROYAL NAVY
FROM THE CREW OF HM SUBMARINE E 24
SUNK BY A MINE OFF HELIGOLAND
25TH MARCH 1916
KNOWN UNTO GOD
The names of these 25 and the other 10 members of the crew are recorded on the Naval Memorials at their manning port which commemorates those with no known grave but the sea.
The remains of Private Jack Willoughby, of Lord Strathcona's Horse, were found at Moreuil on the Somme in 1986. He was identified by his identification disc and was reburied in Terlincthun British Cemetery on 11 March 1987
Private Russell Bosisto 27th Battalion AIF was found in January 1998 by the farmer who owns the field. The remains were found at Pozieres, close to the Windmill site, between the memorial and the village. A considerable amount of artefacts were found with the body including ammunition, his rifle, remains of uniform, webbing and buckles and a razor. Identification was made possible by his I.D. Disc. The Australian government managed to trace his two nieces. Private Bosisto was buried in Courcelette British Cemetery, on 5 July 1998.
The remains of two Canadian servicemen were discovered by workmen excavating a pipeline in the village of Avion which lies between Lens and Vimy. Amongst the artefacts found were Canadian buttons and insignia indicating that they belonged to the 49th Battalion Canadian Infantry. Based on historical research, it was discovered that sixteen members of 49th Battalion went missing in this region. Using genealogical research Canadian government agencies were able to trace the families. Following an investigation by the Canadian government, the remains of Pte Peterson were identified using a combination of historical, anthropological, genealogical and genetic methods. DNA was used in this case - the condition of the remains, the range of potential candidates being small and the fact that the Canadians were able to trace families, made this a viable proposition. The process was eased by the fact that both the Canadian and Australian service files still exist whereas the British have to contend with the "burnt records" held in The National Archives.
It is hoped that the remains of the second soldier will also be identified; this case is still under investigation. Pte Peterson was buried in La Chaudiere Military Cemetery on 7 April 2007.
The process adopted on discovery of remains
First of all, it must remembered that France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands each have different laws regarding the digging for and discovery of human remains, but generally speaking once a body is discovered, excavation should stop and the find reported to the local police. They should confirm that it is a war death and not a present day homicide and give permission for recovery. This recovery is undertaken either by the CWGC, local Army, or archaeologists. In some cases the "finder" is permitted to complete the recovery should they be deemed to have an appropriate level of expertise. The remains and all artefacts will be taken and held by the CWGC, on behalf of the member governments.
Commencement of the identification process
The CWGC completes a report on the find and submits it to the member government (in the case of British casualties the notification is passed to the Joint Casualty & Compassionate Centre). Should the remains belong to a non CWGC member government (e.g. German) the appropriate authority is informed. DNA is used by member governments if they think it will help lead to an identification. Obviously there is no point taking it if there is nothing to test against. The decision whether to use DNA also depends on factors such as the condition of the remains (certain bones are more likely to produce results that others) and the type of soil they were buried in (as this can destroy DNA). Similarly, forensic archaeologists are used when considered appropriate.
If the casualty is identified it is the responsibility of British Ministry of Defence (see below) or member government to trace the family and to arrange a funeral. The Family will decide if they want a military funeral or something quiet, they will also decide on the personal inscription for the headstone. If the casualty is not identified, the CWGC will arrange the funeral - with governmental and regimental (if known) representation.
Whether or not identification has proved possible, the CWGC decides on the cemetery to be used. The cemetery would be chosen from those nearest to the find, and would also be one containing other men from the same regiment (if this can be identified from the remains), as well as the obvious matter of space being available within the cemetery in question. A headstone is produced showing as much information as known and verified.
Wherever possible notice is given on the Commission's website of forthcoming funerals - although this is sometimes at short notice.
Responsibility for identification
The Service Personnel & Veterans Agency (SPVA) is part of the Ministry of Defence. Within the SPVA is the Joint Casualty & Compassionate Centre (JCCC). The JCCC's primary function is to arrange the notification of next of kin and emergency contacts whenever a member of the armed forces is taken ill, injured, or dies in military service today, whether in the UK, or overseas, as a result of natural causes, an accident or during active service operations. In the event of a death in service, they are also involved with the repatriation of bodies and preparing letters of condolence; they also offer to mark the grave with a headstone and initiate the involvement of welfare support to bereaved families.
The JCCC contains a Historic Casualty and Deceased Estates Casework (HC & DE) office. This has specific responsibility for offering advice on funeral entitlement, marking and maintenance of (post war) graves and settlement of issues relating to the deceased's estate. Unfortunately, given current operational commitments, they are rather busy. However, in addition to these tasks, there is a small team of two people responsible for answering enquiries on historic casualties and arranging funerals, or a dignified burial, whenever human remains are recovered from historic battlefields or aircraft crash sites. Assuming any human remains can be identified as a member of the British Armed Forces, the team will set about tracing the next of kin to inform them of the discovery and seek their views on re-internment, with the option of a full military funeral in the country where the death occurred. Three or four commemorative funerals for named casualties are usually arranged each year, with a number of smaller events to bury unidentified remains. The JCCC also consider claims as to the identity of personnel buried as unknown soldiers. However since earlier this year, the main focus of the historic casework team has been on the Fromelles project.
Under the Fromelles Project, which is being managed by the CWGC, the Australian and British governments are funding excavation work on several large burial pits adjacent to Pheasant Wood, at the site of the Battle of Fromelles in Northern France. These are believed to contain the remains of between 225 and 300 British and Australian Soldiers who were buried in mass graves by the German Army after the battle in July 1916. A whole range of information is being used to try and afford the individuals recovered from Pheasant Wood an identity: the identification of an individual will be arrived at through a panel of evidence such as anthropological, photographic, artefacts, and historical resources.
DNA samples are also being taken from the remains in the hope of these being viable (after so long, it is not guaranteed that this will be the case). It would appear, following a pilot study during which samples were taken from the teeth and bones found in different parts of the burial site, that despite the delicate state of the remains, the prevailing soil conditions and the high water table, viable DNA has been obtained. Thereafter by examination of the physical evidence and obtaining comparative DNA samples from relatives of those who may be buried at the site it is hoped that some of the remains may be positively identified. The work to identify, trace and brief relatives of those killed at Fromelles is being undertaken by the JCCC (and officials in the Australian Defence Department). To facilitate this task, research has already been undertaken at The National Archives, whilst media appeals have been launched in the UK and a list of those possibly buried at Fromelles has been published on the CWGC website. The British soldiers were mainly from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Gloucestershire Regiment, and Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, but also include small numbers of personnel from other regiments including the Cameron Highlanders and Royal Munster Fusiliers.
The WFA has been asked by the JCCC to help publicise the search for relatives and if any WFA member wishes to view the lists of soldiers missing from the Battle of Fromelles (which have been supplied by the JCCC), these are available to download below.
Write to: Fromelles Project Team
Historic Casualty Casework,
Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre,
Services Personnel and Veterans Agency,
Gloucester GL3 1HW.
Phone: 01452 712612 Ext 6256 or 7330
Using information those contacting the JCCC provide (at the time of writing - August 2009 - relatives of 138 UK casualties had come forward), it is hoped to establish who the closest surviving relative of the deceased is and keep that individual, and other interested parties, informed of developments at the site. This will include updates on efforts to identify the dead, the plans for reburial in individual graves in a new CWGC cemetery being built alongside the site and arrangements for commemorative events in 2010. Guidance will be given to help the enquirer draw up a family tree from which experts will determine the most suitable relation to provide a DNA sample. Providing they are willing, individual's details will then be passed to the project's DNA contractor who will supply an easy to use kit and instructions on how to take a mouth swab in order to obtain a sample for DNA testing. A prepaid envelope will be provided to allow the return of the sample.
We hope that a future article will be able to highlight some of the successes of the JCCC's work.
Further useful information can be found on the CWGC Fromelles website.
This page has links to Progress Reports (you can also register to receive their Newsletter) and a Questions and Answer page
I am very grateful to Peter Holton the CWGC's Records Manager and Peter Francis Head of External Communications at the CWGC, as well as Ian Wilkins of the Historic Casualty & Deceased Estates Casework Team at the Joint Casualty & Compassionate Centre who have all given their valuable time in providing information for this article.
Contributed by David Tattersfield, WFA Development Trustee.
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