Unknown soldiers laid to rest as war detectives puzzle over identities


To the mournful sound of the Going Home bagpipe lament, the remains of three soldiers – one from the Lancashire Fusiliers and two members of the Australian combined forces – were lowered into the ground at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium, with full military honours on Tuesday, more than a century after they fell.

As with more than 8,370 of the nearly 12,000 buried in this famous Flanders field, they remain for now unidentified, soldiers “of the Great War, known unto God”.

A smoking pipe and inscribed pencil by the British fusilier’s body had offered tantalising evidence of his identity, but the crucial piece in the puzzle has yet to emerge.

What had been discovered about the British soldier nevertheless provided what the UK’s defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, who attended the burial, described as a potent illustration of the millions of individual stories of bravery and loss that lie behind this coming weekend’s events to mark the centenary of the 1918 armistice.

Inscribed pencil

A pencil found on the British solider has offered hope of his identification in the future. Photograph: David Levene/for the Guardian

The unknown soldier, discovered in 2016 by engineers laying water pipes, had been found next to the two Australians in what is believed to have been a field grave, hastily made in a shell crater, in the centre what was then a muddy battlefield. Today the site lies by the periphery wall of the cemetery.

Tyne Cot, a nickname given by the Northumberland Fusiliers, who thought the German bunkers under the moonlight looked like the cottages at home, had been the high ground from where machine gunners ravaged British and Commonwealth forces during the 100-day Battle of Passchendaele, which accounted for 500,000 casualties.

The British soldier’s shoulder titles, found next to his almost intact skeleton, along with service buttons, boots, and a leather belt with four cap badges, suggested he was one of the four battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers who had joined battle with the Germans in the autumn of 1917. Scraps of material appeared to be the remains of his greatcoat.

War diaries of the period, and the location of the bodies, suggested the men had died on 9 October, when 200 fusiliers were killed.

The three men had not been killed on the spot where they were found; their rifles and tin helmets were missing. But along with the fusilier’s smoking pipe, there were two pencils, one of which had an inscription from Eagley Cricket Club, near Bolton, Lancashire.

The fusilier is estimated to have been between 23 and 29 years old. Tracey Bowers, who leads a team of six so-called “war detectives” at the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, which investigates the remains of the 40 or so first world war bodies found every year in Belgium and France, said the artefacts offered hope of identification, and appealed for any information from Guardian readers that could help.

Bowers said: “The weather was awful on 9 October. They were all going to convene early in the morning, but some were late coming and commanding officers said, ‘Those who are fit, carry on,’ so it could be that he was just waiting or coming forward – we don’t know.

icola Nash, left, an archaeologist and “war detective” at the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, Tracey Bowers, at the burial ceremony Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ypres in Belgium.

Archaeologist Nicola Nash, left, and ‘war detective’ at the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, Tracey Bowers, at the burial ceremony at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres in Belgium. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

“In some cases, there is a part of the uniform giving the rank to help us narrow it down even more, but in this case there were just a few fragments – winter clothing. But because of the pencil, we had to give it a go. Our contractors from the UK came out and took a DNA sample, and we looked for family and a match.

“There was a candidate who we though it might be. We found the family quite quickly and they were keen to give us a DNA sample, but that came back two weeks ago, unfortunately as a negative … We have that DNA held now. So we can keep going.”

Nicola Nash, an archaeologist working with Bowers, said: “They were right on the starting line of that battle, with Australia on one side and British on the other. We are pretty certain about the date and the offensive they were involved in.”

Ellwood, who was a captain in the Royal Green Jackets before his political career, had been visibly moved by the burial, which was in a plot both within sight of where the three men had been first found and under the nose of the machine gun slits from where the fatal bullets may have flown.

Tobias Ellwood plus soldiers

Tobias Ellwood at the commemoration and burial service for an unknown British soldier who was killed at the battle of Passchendaele 101 years ago. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

“The symbolism for me is the importance of Britain’s role in the world,” he said. “I believe, because of our heritage, our connections, our history, there is almost a higher purpose for us to act as a force for good on the international stage.”

Ellwood added that he believed the young needed to appreciate the sacrifices made, and vowed to bring his sons, Oscar, four, and Alex, nine, to Tyne Cot.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Lamb, the commanding officer of the First Fusiliers, who was awarded the Military Cross in Iraq 12 years ago, said his men were proud to escort their unknown comrade to his final resting place. “We are all aware that in 100 years, that could be any one of us,” he said. “The bond between us and him – one of our own – is solid. Today was a huge honour for all of us.”