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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 April 2006, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
The ghosts of Ypres past return
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News in Ypres, Belgium

Wooden crosses at the section of preserved trench known as Hill 62
Wooden crosses mark the spots where some men fell
Nearly 90 years after the guns fell silent, the mud of Flanders is still giving up its secrets.

This week, in a farmer's field near Ypres, a group of amateur historians found the remains of three soldiers from the First World War.

Two of the bodies bore no identification, although one still had half its uniform, as well as a spoon, fork and a bayonet.

On the third, the historians found an identification tag. The chain had been broken and the tag pushed forward into the skull, probably by a farmer's plough passing over it.

The tag was badly corroded, but they were able to decipher a number, 8372, and a surname, Lancaster. They also found a cap badge and shoulder titles.

'Great feeling'

The historians have provisionally identified the body as that of Private Richard Lancaster, of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Based on information from the 1901 census, they believe he was born in Preston in 1883 and died on 10 November 1914, during the First Battle of Ypres.

Emmanuel Bril, who first found the remains, says the identification is a real breakthrough.

"That's great news, a great feeling, because I think maybe he had a son and a wife. It's very important for me, but also for the family."

Amateur historians Emmanuel Bril, Patrick Roelens, Philippe Roelens, Frederic Seynave
This group of amateur historians made the discovery

However, it will be up to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Ministry of Defence to make a final identification.

Such finds are not uncommon, although identifications are rare. The battlefields around the Ypres Salient covered 25 square kilometres.

More than 250,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers died there in three major battles. Around 90,000 are officially missing.

Their names are listed on three major memorials to the missing. Private Lancaster's name is on the memorial at Plug Street Wood, as the British Tommies dubbed the village of Ploegsteert.

A looming rotunda of white stone, guarded by the statues of two enormous lions, it bears the names of 11,447 missing soldiers.

Cross and poppies

One of them is that of Harry Wilkinson, like Richard Lancaster a private in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Six years ago, his remains were found near the site of this week's discovery and identified.

A small white-painted cross and a wreath of red paper poppies now marks the spot where he fell. His family have come over to visit his grave.

Every five years, the stone plaques on the memorial are replaced to take account of newly identified bodies.

British battlefield guide Iain McHenry has seen the way such identifications affect the families.

Gravestones at the Ypres cemetery
Some 12,000 bodies are laid to rest at Tyne Cot cemetery

"You hope that if this soldier is identified as Private Lancaster, that he does have surviving family out there. This is something that means a lot to people.

"It's amazing to be able to point out a name on a memorial or a grave to family who have never visited before. Sometimes you have people visiting their great-grandfather and they are the first members of the family to have visited."

Only a handful of survivors of the First World War are still alive. The director of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Piet Chielens, says the recent find at Plug Street Wood reminds people of the impact of what was called the Great War.

"It gives the war a face again. Hopefully they will be able to trace the family and a photograph, and all of a sudden, the stones will speak up again. We are surrounded by those stones, but they are silent, until you can tell a personal story."

'So moving'

The biggest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world is at Tyne Cot, near the site of the Third Battle of Ypres (1917), also known as Passchendaele.

There are 12,000 headstones there: some with names, some without. The names of the missing are carved on a wall at the back. The wind whistles in off the North Sea. The clouds hang low over the land.

Three British visitors are walking up and down the rows, reading the inscriptions on the stones.

"It's so moving because of the conditions they had to endure," said Simon Shields of Grantham, Lincs.

Crowds at the Menen Gate in Ypres where
Many gather each year to pay tribute to the fallen

"It's the whole thing of they thought it would be over by Christmas. They died so we could have the freedom we've got today, and at the end of the day, people seem to forget that.

"I honestly believe politicians ought to be brought to places like these to see what happens when wars are fought. We need history. It helps shape the future."

It was the first time John Swann from Nottingham had visited any sites from World War I.

"All I can see is a mass of graves here: 12,000 men in this cemetery alone. You look at the headstones and you see they're all 19, 20, 21 years old, these young men in their prime, who came overseas. In those days it was a million miles away from home."

Jonathan Parry from Liverpool had been interested in the war since his school days. Two of his great-grandfathers fought in the war. One was underage when he joined up. Both survived.

"People rush to certain graves and yet there are soldiers who've never had a visit," he said.

"It's important that people visit those graves as well."

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