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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
LBSG archaeologists at work
Surveying – all finds were plotted using a total station
Head archaeologist Cameron Ross at work
Original dugout roof timbers in situ before their removal
Section within the dugout showing the complex strata created by the mine debris