Known unto God
It is almost a hundred years since the 'Great War' of 1914-18 yet still a small number of bodies are uncovered each year on the former battlefields of France and Belgium. Each set of remains is carefully recovered, identified if possible, and given a military funeral in the nearest Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery, attended by representatives of the Commission, the British Embassy and veterans associations.
Mark Whitaker attends the service for one of these soldiers and recounts the story of how the remains were found prior to widening the Canal du Nord near Cambrai in north-eastern France, a key part of the front line during World War 1.
A French archaeologist describes what he found and the care they have to take when there can still be unexploded grenades and shells under such remains. The CWGC Exhumation Officer describes his role and the satisfaction it gives him to be caring for members of his grandfather's generation. Identifying the soldier as a member of the Machine Gun Corps meant that the find was reported to the Ministry of Defence's veterans agency in Gloucester. They in turn involved the regiment's 'Old Comrades Association' whose historian explains how the MGC was formed and why it was known as 'the Suicide Club'.
He is certain the soldier will be one of ten men of the MGC who died in the area but have no known grave. Whitaker visits the Arras Memorial to the Missing where all those ten names are engraved, among over 35,000. But no more precise identification is possible so the casket is placed in a grave under a headstone that reads "A soldier of the Great War. Machine Gun Corps. Known Unto God."
Producer: Mike Hally
A Square Dog Radio production for BBC Radio 4.