British First World War soldiers identified through DNA testing

The remains of First World War soldiers – the missing – are uncovered every year on the old battlefields of France and Flanders, but the story of two men of the Essex Regiment found in late 2013 on the Somme is unlike any other, for both were for a century believed to have lain beneath headstones bearing their names in a nearby Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery.

The two soldiers were part of a group of eight men buried alive as a result of the explosion of a massive German underground mine in the Somme village of La Boisselle. In the early hours of 22 November 1915 their bombing post and dugout was engulfed by hundreds of tons of falling earth. Only now, after meticulous archaeological recovery, detailed research in British and German archives and the use of DNA analysis can the entire story be told.

British steel helmet found alongside one of the Essex Regiment soldiers

British steel helmet found alongside one of the Essex Regiment soldiers

 
In 2010 an excavation by the La Boisselle Study Group (LBSG) began near the village of La Boisselle. The project came about as a result of the landowner approaching historian Peter Barton to request his assistance in the study and preservation of a three-acre piece of undisturbed battlefield known during the war as the ‘Glory Hole.’

Over the decades the landowners had gradually sold off portions of land for house building, but as this symbolic and historic site was in danger of being totally lost to construction, opposition from the United Kingdom led them to reconsider. Finally, because of concerns over the existence of wartime tunnels beneath the land, and the threat of subsidence and consequent liability, one of the landowners decided to re-purchase a sold plot. She then approached Peter Barton to help prove the historical significance of the land to prevent her coming under further local pressure to sell land for development.

As a result, Barton formed the La Boisselle Study Group with the aim of carrying out a detailed long-term study of the site. An initial three-year contract with the owners was agreed, and the team came to include historians, archaeologists, engineers, mine-rescue specialists, ordnance-disposal consultants, surveyors, anthropologists, conservators and osteologists.

Funds were raised through voluntary donation, and in 2010 the LBSG commenced a three-week period of work at the site. The surface archaeology included French, German and British trenches plus vestiges of a farmhouse and stables; beneath them lay an extraordinary eight-kilometre complex of tunnels; this too was accessed. In 2013 the project was the subject of a BBC film: The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars.

The archaeology soon produced evidence of the bitter warfare that characterised the site. Bone fragments lay everywhere and the remains of four French soldiers were found. By May 2011 the remarkable results of the first season had already ensured that the Glory Hole had been de-classified as building land, and thus protected and preserved for posterity.

The first discovery of the remains of British soldiers came in summer 2013 during the penultimate work period before the expiry of the LBSG’s three-year contract.

Associated artefacts such as badges and rifle markings indicated the first soldier belonged to the 10th Battalion of the Essex Regiment. LBSG historian Simon Jones quickly concluded that there was a strong likelihood that he was one of a group of eight soldiers buried alive as a result of the explosion of a massive German underground mine: in the early hours of the morning of 22 November 1915 their bombing post and dugout was engulfed by falling mine debris. Barton’s research in Stuttgart in 2011 had also supplied a comprehensive German narrative of events. Before the discovery of the remains, therefore, a wide-ranging history, both operational and personal, had been compiled.

The eight men were:
13392  Harry Carter, b. 1894, West Ham, estate agent’s assistant
10352  Harry Fensome, b. 1896, Luton, moulder
13333  Albert Huzzey, b. 1897, West Ham, errand boy
13370  William J. Marmon, b. 1894, St Pancras, London
13517  George E. Pier, b. 1890, Dagenham
13350  Charles Ruggles, b. 1892, Halstead, Essex, farm labourer
13263  Edward Toomey, b. 1889, Walworth, Surrey, restaurant kitchen porter
14998  Charles C. Aldridge, b. 1888, Caxton, Cambridgeshire, farmer’s son

But there was a problem: all the men were recorded as having been ‘killed in action’, and had graves and headstones in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in the nearby town of Albert. LBSG historians, however, could find no documented evidence of the recovery of their bodies, nor indeed of their burials.

The five headstones of the Collective Grave I.DA. in Albert Communal Cemetery

The five headstones of the Collective Grave I.DA. in Albert Communal Cemetery

The mistake over the burials, understandable given the conditions in the front line at the ‘Glory Hole’, was not that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but of British Army recording at the time. The descendants of Harry Carter have in their possession the official War Office notification, dated January 1916, erroneously confirming that Harry had been buried in Albert Cemetery.

In order to properly recover the remains, the CWGC allowed the LBSG to carry out a full archaeological excavation around the location of the dugout. This took place in November/December 2013 during the final weeks of the three-year contract with the landowner. A highly experienced team of archaeologists, finds specialists and conservators was assembled, led by archaeologist Cameron Ross.

Before archaeological work could commence a protective timber structure was erected over the work area

Before archaeological work could commence a protective timber structure was erected over the work area

The site was covered by a specially-designed and constructed temporary building that incorporated space for the excavation, study of the remains, and cleaning and listing of associated artefacts. The bodies of two Essex Regiment soldiers were recovered and taken to the CWGC headquarters in Beaurains near Arras.

LBSG archaeologists at work

LBSG archaeologists at work

Importantly, both had been found in a trench, fully armed with rifles with fixed bayonets, carrying bags of grenades and flares, and with flare pistols close to hand: they had clearly been on duty. The search for their six comrades then continued, but the project had already become further complicated by the discovery of two French soldiers buried barely half a metre from the British. Excavated by archaeologist Brian Powell, Louis Heurt and Appolinaire Ruelland (118th Infantry Regiment) had been killed in early January 1915. The men were wearing their identity discs, and both have since been reburied. To make matters more complex, the remains of a German soldier were then partially uncovered.

Essex shoulder title associated with HR9

Essex shoulder title associated with HR9

Two metres further along the trench, the timber remnants of the dugout in which the remaining six Essex soldiers were believed to have been sheltering, awaiting their turn of trench duty, was found. A mass of archaeological evidence at the collapsed entrance such as rifles, stacked helmets, personal items and boxes of hand grenades left LBSG specialists in little doubt that the excavations had brought them close to the bodies of the six entombed men.

A poignant reminder of the men still entombed in the bombers dugout - stacked helmets at the collapsed entrance

A poignant reminder of the men still entombed in the bombers dugout – stacked helmets at the collapsed entrance

Butt disc from SMLE rifle stamped with 10th Essex

Butt disc from SMLE rifle stamped with 10th Essex

But time was now no longer on the side of the team, and to their bitter disappointment, not only was it impossible to explore the dugout, but the German soldier also had to be left in situ: the depth of the archaeological cutting through the high lip of the mine crater made excavation unsafe without further earth moving. The LBSG was unfortunately unable to agree terms with the landowner for a new contract to complete the recovery.

Cleaning of small finds

Cleaning of small finds

Finds specialist Anna Gow documented many hundreds of individual artefacts found with the four soldiers, with expert post-excavation conservation by Pieta Greaves. As well as their equipment and weapons, the personal possession were poignantly preserved in their entirely but it was not yet possible to identify the two British soldiers. One had three small ceramic figurines, usually found in cakes traditionally served in France at the festival of epiphany, a French bullet head finely-carved with a heart symbol, a metal slot-machine token, some French coins and the remains of a pipe and lighter. The other soldier was wearing a ‘trench-art’ ring on a finger of his right hand, and was carrying a lighter, coins and writing paper. The possessions, however, gave no clue as to their names and their fibre identity discs had long since decayed. It could not yet be said which of the eight lost soldiers the two men might be.

Simon Jones recording the finds

Simon Jones recording the finds

An osteoarchaeological analysis by Hayley Forsyth showed that their ages were between 18 and 25 and that their skulls showed impact trauma at the time of death. LBSG genealogist Glen Phillips produced family trees for all eight soldiers which enabled the Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) to locate and make contact with the all the descendants. DNA analysis carried out for the JCCC finally identified the first man to be found as 21 year-old William James Marmon aged 21 from St. Pancras, London, and the second as Harry Carter, also 21, born in West Ham, Essex. This confirmed that they were indeed two of the eight men killed by the mine explosion of 22 November 1915.

The reburial of William Marmon and Harry Carter will take place at 1100 hours on 19 October 2016 in Albert Communal Cemetery Extension – the same cemetery in which the men were believed to have lain for a century. Further details will be released by the CWGC, JCCC and LBSG nearer the date.

View of excavation site with protected area constructed over exhumation area

View of excavation site with protected area constructed over exhumation area

The LBSG would like to extend their gratitude to all those who worked on this project. Particular appreciation must go to sponsors and donors who enabled the work to take place in November/December 2013, most notably JCB and Thwaites who provided brand new machinery for the excavation and Margaret Beach and her colleagues at Multi-Limn who provided laser and site surveying.

Additional Images

LBSG archaeologists at work

LBSG archaeologists at work

Surveying - all finds were plotted using a total station

Surveying – all finds were plotted using a total station

Head archaeologist Cameron Ross at work

Head archaeologist Cameron Ross at work

Original dugout roof timbers in situ before their removal

Original dugout roof timbers in situ before their removal

Section within the dugout showing the complex strata created by the mine debris

Section within the dugout showing the complex strata created by the mine debris

21 Responses to British First World War soldiers identified through DNA testing

  1. Hello, my mother was born and raised in England, I live in the US. Both of my Great Grandfathers were disabled in WWI. One of them had two brothers who were killed in WWI. One of those killed, had two children. I have been doing much genealogy research trying to see if I can make contact with lost relatives. I find myself blocked by only having the 1939 census. How did the genealogist involved in this article create family trees for all 8 soldiers and identify their living relatives without having access to the 1921 and all later census (except 1939)? Any tips you could offer would be much appreciated.
    Regards,
    Joshua

  2. My late grandad rather Carter his brother James Carter lost a brother in the First World War all from West Ham Iam wondering if Harry Carter was their brother

    • Dear Thomas,
      Many thanks for your comment. I do not think that James was the brother of Harry Carter. We have his family tree and there is no mention of James. Harry’s elder brother, Charles, died of wounds in July 1916 received on the Somme. He is buried in Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.
      Best wishes,
      Jeremy Banning (Admin)

  3. I know there are lots of complex legalities etc that are difficult for most to understand but please can someone explain why, if there are known bodies on a piece of land, the landowner can decline permission to exhume? IN a way though I wonder if it is better to leave the fallen in their last resting place? I don’t know just a thought

    • Dear Alison,
      Many thanks for your comment. We agree that it is a great shame that the remaining men of the 10th Essex cannot be recovered. However, that was the decision of the landowner which we have to abide by. Whole tracts of northern France and Belgium contain human remains from the Great War and it would be impractical to have legislation that forced landowners to agree to ‘compulsory recovery’ of these.
      Having met the families of Marmon and Carter along with family members from two of the men whose remains are still likely at la Boisselle we know their strength of feeling with regard to a wish that the remaining men are recovered.
      Best wishes,
      Jeremy Banning (Admin)

  4. beste
    dit werk is uitmuntend goed en zou in iedere geval verder moeten gebeuren,ook in het vlaamse klei zijn er nog zovelen die nog niet gevonden zijn,ofwel geen geld ofwel geen interresse,maar dank zij deze jongens zij het frans -brits -anzac-canadese-belgische-of andere die streden voor de vrijheid en democratie,zijn we nu waar we moeten zijn.
    zal de site zeker komen bezoeken,hopend dat ze bewaard blijft voor eeuwig

  5. Pingback: DNA Tests help identify WW1 British Soldiers buried at The Glory Hole - Scott Addington

  6. You have done great service at The Glory Hole over the years. It is a huge pity that the owners have not supported further work.

  7. What are the laws in France relating to human remains? How is it lawful for the German soldier to be left in the ground ? The passage of time surely is irrelevant.

    • The work was carried out under the full permission and with monitoring and assistance of the DRAC Picardie (the regional archaeological authority) and the CWGC. As the News item explicitly mentions, the height of the mine crater lip over the excavation made any other work unsafe without needing further earth moving. This was something for which we did not have the landowner’s permission. Even if we had received permission, there was not time to archaeologically recover these remains. This working period ran for three weeks and the partial remains of what we believed was a German soldier (based upon the design of the heel of his boot) were uncovered close to the end of the working period.

  8. Hi to all, I have just seen this on a msg on facebook, Of the 5 headstones in Albert cemetery, the 2nd in from the left with 4 people names on, are we sure that these were buried there at all after the bombing on the 29th Sept 1915. I raised some queries a few years ago at the beginning of the LBSG project with Simon, reference the bombings being incorrectly dated on here as 1916, where in fact as I pointed out they were 1915, as I have proof & seen copies of the mistakes made by the MOD, the paperwork for the engraving of these headstones was miss-matched with wrong rank to name etc, If anyone has any more info please could they share it.. as I am still trying to find out more about Pte 2588 A E Brewster my great uncle. regards Marc Brewster

  9. one thing to say you’re doing a good job.

  10. That’s fantastic but who’s remains remain in the graves of Albert communal cemetery then? Or are they completely empty?

    • The collective grave actually commemorates 13 men, eight of whom were killed on 22 November 1915, four on 29 September 1915 and one on 3 November 1915.
      An examination of the circumstances of the deaths of the five other soldiers raises the possibility that in fact the bodies of none of the thirteen men named were actually recovered from the battlefield. The deaths of four men killed on 29 September 1915 and one man killed at the start of November all occurred when dugouts were collapsed by trench mortar bombs.

  11. my father served with the 10th Bn The Essex regt in WW1
    it is sad but pleasing to know these men that laid together for so many years will be buried together at last so relatives can visit and wonder at their sacrifice well done the team and landowners

  12. An excellent and highly lucid account without hyperbole. Thanks.

  13. The body of my great uncle Lewis Harol Perez of the Coldstream Guards has never been found. There is just his name engraved on a panel at Ty Cot. My whole family would love his remains to be found. His elder brother my Maternal Grandfather went missing in the South China Seas about the same time. He was 1st Officer acting Captain in the Merchant Navy on the food convoys. His name was Manuel Thomas Perez. This again devastated our whole family.

    • Likewise Sheila, my Great Uncle’s body was never found. He was in the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, he was killed 16th September 1916, his name was Thomas Lees Young. Until the day she died in 1931 my great Grandmother would not accept that he had been killed, she would leave the door on the latch, just in case he came home.

  14. I was proud to have been a small part of the project and to have seen the incredible professionalism of all concerned. The dignity that was afforded all soldiers was trust moving. So glad these brave men have finally been ide tidied and will be properly laid to rest.

  15. I visited the site with friends at an open event in the summer and was very impressed by the dedication of those involved. I hope you will be allowed to continue your work. We were happy to leave a donation to support the project.

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