UK

WWI soldiers finally laid to rest after 96 years

  • 23 April 2013
  • From the section UK

The remains of two World War I soldiers who were killed in action in France nearly 100 years ago have been laid to rest at a military cemetery.

The remains of Lt John Pritchard and Pte Christopher Douglas Elphick were discovered in 2009 by a French farmer clearing his field.

The men were killed on 15 May, 1917, during an enemy attack near Bullecourt.

Descendants of the two soldiers attended the ceremony in which the men were given full military honours.

Salute fired

Pallbearers from the men's regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, carried their coffins, and the regiment's band also played. The hymn Jerusalem was sung.

A military firing party fired a salute during the service and afterwards two of Lt Pritchard's great-nieces and their husbands read the poem Crossing The Bar, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The families were presented with the flag covering the coffins, as well as Lt Pritchard's identity bracelet and Pte Elphick's signet ring - the items which had identified them.

Lt Pritchard's family were also given his officer's sword by an American collector who had come across the sword in the US, and donated it back to his family.

Two further sets of remains, which could not be identified, were re-interred at the same time as "HAC soldiers known unto God".

Lt Pritchard and Pte Elphick were identified by jewellery which carried their initials

Speaking ahead of the ceremony, Lt John Pritchard's great niece, Janet Shell, says it will be a "very emotional moment, but we'll all be there to support each other".

She says "as a family we'll all be thinking of our nan and great-grandmother knowing that we are doing the job for them".

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale says the story of John Pritchard and Douglas Elphick will perhaps give hope to dozens of families who even now may be trying to find out what happened to not too distant relatives who fought in the Great War.

"Perhaps faded sepia photographs in old family albums are still a constant reminder," he says.

Lt Pritchard's nephew John "Harold" Shell laid a wreath on behalf of the family during the ceremony.

The 89-year-old, from Winchester, said it was an "incredible" experience which he could "hardly put into words".

He said despite knowing about his uncle's death during World War I, they had never expected his remains to be found.

"It never entered your head, after all these years why should it?

"It seems silly to say it but the feeling I had was that he is coming home. He isn't of course, but that was the feeling."

Simple headstone

About one million British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed during World War I.

Matthew Lucas, historical officer of the Western Front Association, says about half of those were never identified.

Some were given graves with the words "A Soldier of The Great War, Known Unto God" engraved on a simple white headstone. But with no name.

Christopher Douglas Elphick sent this card at Christmas time in 1916

Many had even less and were never found, often lost in makeshift graves that were soon swamped by mud and the continuing battle.

Just to give a sense of scale, the names of 34,725 British soldiers "missing in action" are commemorated on just one memorial at Arras.

That loss of identity affected the losing side too. Estimates suggest as many as 80,000 German soldiers have never been identified.

Discovery for the great niece of John Pritchard started with a trawl through the internet to research some family history

Ms Shell was in fact trying to find out details about another relative, when she found a website, the Great War Forum.

It mentioned that the remains of a World War I soldier called Pritchard had been found and wondered whether his family had been contacted.

Recalling that moment, Ms Shell says: "I couldn't believe my eyes."

She called out to her husband and daughter to confirm that it was indeed her great uncle.

The discovery in the earth was made in 2009. Ms Shell found it on her computer in early 2012. She feared she had missed her chance to say goodbye.

Family tree

Christopher Elphick's discovery was no less extraordinary. The grandson of Pte Douglas Elphick - who died at Bullecourt - had been contacted by a stranger who wanted to find out if they might somehow be related.

Curious as to whether the family might have a hidden dark secret, he went to research his family tree.

He found no evidence of a family scandal, but there was still a surprise - the discovery of the forum that mentioned the grandfather whose name he now bears.

Mr Elphick will be at the ceremony along with his brother. He says there will be a sense of "putting everything to rest" but tinged with sadness.

He says his biggest regret is that his father, the only son of Pte Elphick, will not be there. He died in 2000.

The remains of Pte Elphick and Lt Pritchard had been found in a farmer's field in Bullecourt, near Arras.

The farmer in question had left the field alone on the advice of his father. He was told it contained the remains of hundreds of soldiers.

But in 2009 a friend of the farmer decided to bring out his metal detector. He came across a canister from World War I. That is when the authorities were called in.

The remains of a number of soldiers were eventually unearthed. John Pritchard and Douglas Elphick were each identified by a bracelet and a signet ring which carried their initials.

Two other remains could be identified as members of the Honourable Artillery Company but there was no way of finding out their names.

Cruel name

They too will be buried but as "Soldiers of the Great War, known unto God". DNA samples though have also been taken in the hope that one day their identities might be revealed.

Douglas Elphick wrote that he hoped he would be reunited with his family

Pte Elphick was 28 years old when he was killed on the 15 May 1917. He was born in Dulwich and attended Alleyn's School.

He had been a clerk with an insurance company before he signed up to fight with the Honourable Artillery Company in 1916. He left behind a wife and young son.

John Harold Pritchard was a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral school. He joined the HAC soon after war was declared. Injured early on he was sent home. But he insisted on returning to the front line again. He was 31 when he was killed.

They both died at Bullecourt. A name as cruel for Australia as the Somme and Paschendale were for Britain.

Australia lost thousands during two battles at Bullecourt which marked a salient, or bulge, into the German defensive line.

Though largely forgotten in the UK, Britain too suffered many casualties. On the morning of 15 May, the Honourable Artillery Company lost more than 250 men. The battle ended a few days after the two soldiers fell.

Lt Pritchard and Pte Elphick will join those soldiers who already have graves marked at the HAC cemetery at Ecoust-St Mein.

For their relatives it means a lot.

As Ms Shell puts it: "We'll now have a grave the family can always visit. He will never be forgotten."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites