Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

90 year mystery of soldier riots

By Gemma Ryall
BBC news

Postcard of soldiers in Kinmel Camp
A souvenir postcard produced for general sale by the YMCA during World War I before the 1919 riots shows troops peacefully assembled at Kinmel Camp

In a peaceful graveyard in a Denbighshire village, five soldiers' graves have for decades attracted interest from both locals and historians.

They lie amongst 85 of their Canadian comrades who were buried at St Margaret's church in Bodelwyddan during World War I.

But these five soldiers were not killed battling the enemy or by the flu pandemic that claimed the lives of many of their fellow troops.

They were killed during riots in the town's Kinmel Camp in March 1919 after the war - and their deaths are still shrouded in mystery and confusion.

Despite much interest, historians still do not know exactly what happened and who killed the five men.

They also fear more people could have died in the riots than the official figures show.

The gravestone of one of the soldiers, Corporal Joseph Young, who died aged 36 of a bayonet wound to the head, bears the inscription "Someday, sometime, we'll understand."

But as the 90th anniversary of the riots is marked, researchers say they are still waiting for a complete answer.

Soldiers' graves at St Margaret's church
The graves of the five soldiers killed in the riots are in St Margaret's graveyard

George Owen, from London, who has researched the riots, said: "Ninety years on five graves at Bodelwyddan Churchyard are still the subject of some mystery.

"While most of the 85 Canadian troops buried in neat rows in St Margaret's Churchyard, Bodelwyddan, were victims of a global flu pandemic which in 1918/19 actually killed more people than were killed during the four years of the Great War, five deaths were even more tragic."

Research into the riots has revealed that on March 4, 1919, a two-day riot kicked off in Kinmel Camp, where around 17,000 Canadian troops were being held waiting to be returned to Canada after the war.

Mr Owen said that following months of delays in being repatriated to Canada, the soldiers, who were living in overcrowded conditions, suffering a severe winter and some dying of flu, started a two-day rebellion which left the five men dead and another 28 injured.

Soldiers' graves at St Margaret's church
Most of the 85 Canadian soldiers buried at St Margaret's were flu victims

He said a former Canadian corporal, Chester Arthur Greenfield, who was present during the riots, revisited the graves in 1978 and said that the officers kept promising the men they could go home.

The Canadians eventually became angry when they discovered that ships earmarked for them were sailing back to America with US soldiers on board, many of whom had apparently not seen action during the war.

"Two days of riots followed and gangs broke into the officers' and sergeants' messes and nearby shops were looted of food, drink and tobacco partially as revenge against profiteering shopkeepers," Mr Owen said.

"Prisoners were freed and it was reported that the red flag was hoisted by the rioters.

"Cavalry was used unsuccessfully in an attempt to regain control and random shooting injured many but eventually on March 5th order was restored.

"Forty one rioters were later Court Martialled and 24 were tried and convicted of mutiny though many sentences were later commuted."

Mr Owen has discovered the coroner's report on the five deaths stated that their 'assailants were unknown', and the deaths were not officially fully investigated at the time.

"By the end of the March most of the 17,000 soldiers were repatriated to Canada. Therefore the whole affair, which was subject to the 75 years rule of military secrecy, was officially forgotten in the aftermath of the world war," he said.

"Locally the story has remained the subject of speculation and in 1978 former Corporal Chester Greenwood, who witnessed the riots, when asked about the 'official' figures said he doubted there were only five deaths, 'at the time we believed on good authority that there were many more'," added Mr Owen whose search for answers, like many others, will continue.

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