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Remembered Today:

Six Scottish Soldiers in a Shellhole


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An interesting article reporting the finding of six Scottish soldiers just a few weeks ago at the construction site of the new hospital in Lens, in the context of a new 'behind the scenes' CWGC centre opening:


Commonwealth War Graves: how one organisation is still burying the First World War dead 100 years on

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission will next week open a behind-the-scenes visitor centre to explain its work

The muddy field that will soon host a new hospital for the French town of Lens gave up its latest grim secret six weeks ago. Lying in the ghost of a shell hole gouged from the earth during one of the costliest battles of the First World War lay the skeletons of six British soldiers.

In September 1915, the men, most probably members of a Scottish regiment, hadadvanced with a number of their comrades deep behind enemy lines during the Battle of Loos only to meet their deaths as their advance – like so many others in a conflict to be defined by deadlock – faltered.

Shell hole

It is likely that after their fellow soldiers withdrew back to British lines and the fighting lulled, German troops unceremoniously buried these fallen by stripping them of anything useful and tossing their bodies into the shell hole.

Some 104 years later it fell to Steve Arnold, an exhumation officer with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), to bring these men – as yet unnamed and unidentified – back to the light.

The six sets of remains will be among an average of 40 partial or complete skeletons of British and Commonwealth soldiers that Mr Arnold and his CWGC colleagues will be called up to recover in France and Belgium this year.

A soldier a week

A century after the guns fell silent, the battlefields of the Western Front are still yielding the fallen at a rate of up to one soldier a week.

Artefacts found beside the remains of soldiers provide the first clues as to their possible identity. In some cases, the equipment is found in remarkable condition despite being buried for more than a century. (Photo: Cahal Milmo)


Mr Arnold, a 32-year veteran of the commission whose father also worked for the organisation, said: “It sounds callous doesn’t it – that these men were stripped of whatever they had that was useful by the Germans and thrown into the nearest hole.

“But this was the reality of war – it was normal. The truth is that something similar would probably have happened on their own side. There was often only very limited time for burial after the fighting had stopped and they had to work quickly.”

Tangible and sobering evidence

Remains such as those found at the Lens hospital site are the most tangible and sobering evidence of the continuing work of the CWGC, whose role it is to preserve the memory of the 1.7m Commonwealth dead from both world wars by running the 23,000 cemeteries around the world containing their remains – as well as conducting the process of recovering and reburying the steady trickle of newly discovered remains.

At present, Mr Arnold and his three exhumation colleagues have 160 sets of remains recovered in France and Belgium in their custody as efforts are made by the governments of the CWGC members (led by the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India) to identify them.

Most will be re-buried within an 18-month deadline as unknown soldiers in one of the commission’s famously verdant and regimented cemeteries dotted across the French and Belgian landscape with their lines of identically-shaped Portland stone grave markers.

Painstaking work

The task of maintaining these cemeteries to the same level of exquisite craftsmanship and planting with which they were built according to the design of architects including Edwin Lutyens consume the majority of the CWGC’s annual income from member governments of £62.5m (some 80 per cent of which comes from Britain as the Commonwealth country with the highest number of war dead).

But alongside the painstaking work of conserving these poignant burial grounds in perpetuity, the organisation has to take care of the warriors who, despite a comprehensive effort after the First World War to locate and bury the dead, still lie lost in the fields and towns of the Western Front.

Across this landscape from Ypres to the Somme, some 280,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers from the 1914-19 war – ranging from Britain’s pal battalions to the feared Sikh units of the imperial Indian army – remain unrecovered, making the task of attaching an identity to the remains of those found three weeks ago beyond daunting.

Reunited with their name

And yet – via a process of dogged detective work by the CWGG among artefacts found with the remains and documentary records, alongside modern techniques such as DNA matching with their descendants – as many as a third of the recovered “unknown soldiers” will be reunited with their name, and ultimately their family.

Earlier this month, the descendants of Private Henry Wallington and Private Frank Mead looked on as the two infantrymen from the 23rd County of London Battalion were laid to rest with full military honours in a British cemetery in northern France some three years after their remains were found on the battlefield where they were killed during the Battle of Cambrai in December 1917.

Chris Mead, Pte Mead’s great-nephew, said: “We had the letters from the trenches but did not know where Frank was. We are just grateful for the opportunity for his story to be told. We never dreamt of anything like this.”


The identification of the two men was carried out by the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), the branch of the Ministry of Defence which takes on the task, including DNA testing, following preparatory work by the CWGC.

The CWGC is responsible for the upkeep of 23,000 war cemeteries world wide. (Photo: Cahal Milmo)

In the case of Ptes Mead and Wallington, the only artefact found with them that offered any clue as to their identity was a single “shoulder title” or metal badge indicating their unit. But by careful cross-checking of regimental diaries, the location of bodies and other databases it is increasingly possible to produce a shortlist of possible names for recovered remains which can then be verified using the DNA of descendants.

Mr Arnold said: “Achieving an identification is always the ultimate aim and it is satisfying when it happens. It often depends on the artefacts that are found. In Belgium, the artefacts tend to be a lot better preserved because of the composition of the soil. In France, these materials tend to be a lot more degraded.

“But even when you find something which points to an identity you have to be very careful. You might get a spoon which has a service number scratched onto it but how do you know it applies to that individual? It’s quite possible that soldiers would have swapped spoons – we have to be very certain.”

Minimal fanfare

Whether it be sieving soil on a hospital building site for the personal effects of a lost warrior or mowing the border in a cemetery to its regulation distance from each headstone, it is work that the CWGC has hitherto carried out with minimal fanfare.

But now the organisation, which was founded by royal charter in 1917 amid much controversy about how best to honour the dead from a war which at the point was far from won, is seeking to reveal more about its labours.

Next week a £1.2m visitor centre will be formally opened by the Princess Royal at its French headquarters near Arras which will put on permanent display its daily work – from computerised engraving machines producing several thousand new gravestones a year to replace eroded markers to the efforts of Christian Cousin, the CWGC’s dedicated blacksmith of the last 30 years whose job it is to fix and replace items such as the bronze sword set into the distinctive, Lutyens-designed Cross of Sacrifice that adorns nearly every cemetery.


The CWGC Experience will allow visitors to watch its craftsmen and experts at work through windows placed in front of workshops. The only area that is permanently out of bounds is the mortuary holding the remains of recovered soldiers, which according to a longstanding principle are never available for public view, nor photographs ever published.

Many CWGC cemeteries continue to carry the names by which they were known by the soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars. (Photo: Cahal Milmo)

Behind a closed door in a small exhibition explaining the work of recovery and reburial, Mr Arnold and his colleagues continue their work, carefully cleaning and cataloguing the skeletal remains and the physical clues – recently ranging from a pristine pair of handmade officers boots complete with the name of their Northampton maker to a rifle bowed by the force of the explosion that killed the man carrying it – that might one day help identify another lost soldier.

And then, sooner or later, will come a call announcing the discovery of another addition to this solemn repository, requiring the CWGC exhumation officers to travel to a foreign field to collect another victim of the industrial-scale carnage of the First World War.


Recalling the recent discovery of the six soldiers, Mr Arnold said: “Sometimes when I get to a recovery site I feel a bit of guilt. A hundred or so years ago there was a family that was waiting for these guys that never saw them again. And a century later, I am the first one to see them again. It reinforces that sense of responsibility to do the best job we can for them.”




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And what ever comes after seconded. Thanks Mel.



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I posted a few days ago, in another thread, my own experience of the cemeteries being so well maintained, with reference to a particular WW2 cemetery. I heartily agree with the sentiments already expressed.





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