Readers of the WFA's website may be interested to learn of the WFA's recent engagement with various media outlets, which has done much to increase the association's profile; this exercise has also helped to fulfil our remit of 'educating the public about the Great War'.
Towards the end of the First World War some 1,000 British prisoners of war were held at one of Germany's most easterly PoW camps: Heilsberg in East Prussia. This was a vast camp, with the majority of those held being Russian. Due to the insanitary conditions many prisoners died, including 39 of the British PoWs. The British soldiers were buried by the Germans; the graves were not separated but were incorporated within the mass graves that comprised the extensive (mainly Russian) cemetery.
The Imperial War Graves Commission realised in the 1930s that the 39 British burials could not be located amongst the mass graves, but nevertheless the men were commemorated on the site.
After the Second World War, the commission came to the conclusion that the site at Lidzbark Warminski (it had changed from Heilsberg when East Prussia became Poland) was no longer maintainable (the Iron Curtain had descended) and, as a result, the men were named on a panel at Malbork Commonwealth War Cemetery.
In recent months the CWGC came to an agreement with the Polish authorities that enabled the cemetery at the Heilsberg PoW camp to be reinstated.
Following an appeal for information by the CWGC I contacted the commission about one of the men, Private Bower, born in Huddersfield and brought up in the nearby village of Ravensthorpe. Following an enthusiastic response from the CWGC about Bower, an offer was made to use the WFA's web site to assist the CWGC to spread the word about their search for relatives of these 39 men.
The resultant article was published on the WFA web site and was also sent to nearly 1,000 newspapers and other journalists via the WFA's brand new Press Release database, recently established for the Association by David Henderson.
Because the article concentrated on Bower, not surprisingly this was picked up mainly by newspapers in the West Riding of Yorkshire, with the larger regional Yorkshire Post also running the story.
Whilst the article and press release were being prepared, further investigation into the names revealed that one of the men, named as Private Seymour Blewitt by the CWGC was - in fact - Private Blewett. Evidence, from his Medal Index Card and his enlistment papers (which had survived) clearly showed that at some stage in the past (probably when the army handed details over to the Imperial War Graves Commission) his name had been mis-spelled. With commendable alacrity, the CWGC took steps to correct this 90 year old error.
A few days after the press release was issued, I was contacted by the BBC radio station on the Channel Islands about one of the men who was from Alderney. Some rapid local research by the BBC revealed a few more details about James Grier (who served with the artillery of the 50th Division) which, with some equally rapid reading of the 50th Divisional History enabled me to talk with some confidence about Grier on BBC Guernsey. This was followed up with an interview for BBC TV on the Channel Islands.
Despite having prepared for the interview and answering a large number of questions, only a small clip was actually used. Although the broadcast was short, it was successful, because, as a result of this, relatives of James Grier came forward and got in touch with the CWGC.
At this stage it would have been reasonable to consider this a useful outcome, but I felt that there was probably more that could be achieved. Part of the problem that had become apparent was that the media wanted the story from the angle of "relatives of soldier found" rather than "relatives of soldiers being sought". This was something that could not be achieved without media co-operation. A Catch-22 situation.
To try to resolve this, using the WFA's Pension Record Cards Archive the details of the addresses of the men were identified (this exercise reinforced the value of the WFA's archive as this information was not available for the vast majority of the 39 men).
With two of the men coming from Wales, and learning from the CWGC that relatives of one of these men (William Jones of the DLI) had come forward, a further interview with BBC Wales was offered, which I accepted. As with the earlier interviews, despite being prepared for questions about Jones and the Chemin des Dames (he had been captured during this attack and, luckily for the research, his service records survived which gave this information), this 'live' interview was very brief and sandwiched between a newspaper review and a traffic report.
The research into Grier and Jones led me to realise that over half of the 39 men commemorated were from the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. Although it has not been possible to identify in which of the three actions of 1918 (Operation Michael, the Battle of the Lys or the attack on the Chemin de Dames) the men were captured in, this seemed like a useful angle to work on.
A second article was therefore prepared in anticipation of the rededication ceremony.
At this point, the many hours of work suddenly paid off, as I was contacted by a journalist from the BBC who wished to feature the story on the BBC's web site.
Discussions ensued as I wanted to ensure the WFA's name was as prominent as possible within the article. Eventually, an agreement was reached which enabled the WFA to receive the maximum publicity and also provide the BBC with all the material it could use for a web article.
Somewhat 'out of the blue', as a result of the articvle featuring in the WFA's eNewsletter, two contacts also came forward which enabled even more publicity to be provided, both for the event and for the WFA.
The first contact was WFA member Virginia Mayo, who works for the Press Association on the continent. I supplied Virginia with a summary of the research so far and she arranged for a PA photographer to cover the rededication ceremony. By this time, I had unearthed a surprisingly large amount of information about a lot of the men and indeed about the camp (and even a couple of stories of escapes from the camp). Only a small portion of this could be used in the PA release.
The second contact was Trevor Hill, who lives in Poland. We were delighted to accept his offer to represent the WFA at the ceremony and a WFA wreath was hurriedly despatched. Trevor also provided much more background and photos which could only be obtained from someone who lived in the country.
The rededication took place on Friday 16 May 2014. Immediately following the ceremony, two articles, one (by Trevor Hill) about the ceremony itself (which includes a video made of the event and photos from the CWGC), and a second about the 39 men were published on the WFA web site.
These two articles dovetailed in with the Press Association's story which that weekend went to thousands of newspapers around the world (over 50 newspapers published the story online - all of which referenced the WFA web site at the foot of the story). The articles also provided further background to support the BBC news story, which was covered in two web articles published on the day of the ceremony.
All accounts suggest that the ceremony at the 'new' cemetery went smoothly. Whilst not as high profile as the Fromelles (Peasant Wood) opening of a few years ago, it was an important event. It is unusual for new cemeteries to be opened by the CWGC and it is very pleasing that the WFA were able to play a part in generating information about this event.
The results of the WFA's appeal has enabled the families of James Grier, Joseph Shall and Alfred Warner to be located. In addition, valuable information was made available to the family of William Jones. Even now, the ripple effects of this news story continue: not only have details appeared in local and regional newspapers from Yorkshire (the Huddersfield Examiner) to the West Country (the Western Gazette), it has appeared in Britain at War, and been mentioned on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Linked In). With this now being disseminated around the world and with the BBC articles and of course our own web articles, permanently available it is likely that the story may well rumble on for some time yet.
My thanks (in no particular order) go to: Trevor Hill, and Victoria Mayo. To Christine Connerty and Peter Francis (of the CWGC). Neil Brison WFA Northumberland and WFA Executive Committee colleagues David Henderson and David Easton. Also my thanks to Prof Gary Sheffield and Dr Spencer Jones for re-tweeting this story from the WFA's Twitter feed.