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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 July 2007, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
The long goodbye
The burial of a British soldier 90 years after his death reminds us that World War I remains are still being found, although few are identified, says military historian Peter Caddick-Adams.

The earth of the Somme and Ypres gives up its dead reluctantly, but every year bones are uncovered by farmers or builders going about their work.

Private Richard Lancaster and son Richard
Private Lancaster with son Richard, who later fought in World War II
It is a rare event when the remains can be identified, even as British, French or German. Rarer still are the times that a name can be confidently attached to the find.

The burial yesterday in Belgium of Private Richard Lancaster of the Lancashire Fusiliers was one of those unusual occasions.

He was found with two unidentified companions in 2006 and buried in the presence of his 69-year-old granddaughter, 90 years after the battle which claimed his life - the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.

It meant that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission could cross another name off their long list of the "missing" and add another named headstone, in this case to Prowse Point Cemetery in Belgium.

The commission, and their counterparts of the German Volksbund Deutscher Kriegsgraberfursorge, or VDK (who have 1.6 million dead and 103,000 missing from 1914-18 to record and commemorate) take the business of identification extremely seriously.

For both organisations, a substantial proportion of a soldier is needed for the remains to be linked to one person - scattered bones could just indicate hurried field surgery, one researcher grimly reminded me.

On my first visit to the Somme, I hardly noticed the muddy brown stick propped against the fence in the corner of a field.


My companion, being a medical student, promptly identified the "stick" as a human femur - a thigh bone.

I've never forgotten the shock of the moment; a very human reminder of the currency of war and the particularly sad fact that one third of Britain's war dead, or 360,000 souls, were never found and posted as "missing".

The euphemism can mean many different things: often it is a polite way of saying that a soldier was blown to pieces and nothing remained to be buried.

Prowse Point Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
Lancaster was buried with two unknown solders

In other cases "missing" can evoke a lonely death in No Man's Land and subsequent discovery, but long after any means of identification had gone.

Typical of the work undertaken by both the CWGC and VDK was the discovery in 2003 of three soldiers at a German position called the Heidenkopf, near Serre on the Somme.

One was identified as British by his buttons, boots and a brass shoulder title, which provided his unit, the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, but no name.

The boots alone were not conclusive - soldiers have always "borrowed" the kit of their opponents, especially if it is of better quality, I was told, but the other items suggested he was British and this was supported by research which showed his regiment had attacked the Heidenkpof in 1916.

So this soldier was buried in a British War Cemetery as an "Unknown", but at least identified by regiment.

A positive result is a rare event, despite the soils of France and Belgium yielding up to 70 sets of First World War remains each year

I learned from the Finding the Fallen exhibition at the National Army Museum in London that the remaining two were identified as German by their buttons and personal items; extensive laboratory analysis by the VDK on a corroded identity disc, which provided half a name, was supported by Imperial German records and revealed the second soldier as Jakob Hönes, who died in 1915.

His companion was also named as Albert Thielecke, through lab analysis of the remains of his paybook. This work - to prove a soldier's identity - is costly, time-consuming and can take years.

Even so, a positive result is a rare event, despite the soils of France and Belgium yielding up to 70 sets of First World War remains each year.

Before Lancaster, the last identified British soldier to be discovered was Private John Robertson Thomson of the Gordon Highlanders, who also died at Passchendaele in 1917, but was buried in 2004 in the presence of his niece.

Their identification is a huge tribute to the work of bodies like the CWGC and VDK, who not only provide closure for a lucky few descendants, but prove that we still care what happened to those caught up in the maelstrom of 90 years ago.

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