At the end of the First World War the Allied nations faced a mammoth task recovering, identifying and burying the hundreds of thousands killed across the previous four years. Author Kevin Shannon considers the lost men of one Lancashire regiment
Of the 564,715 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in France or Belgium during the Great War, approximately half have a known grave.
Of the others, roughly half lie in unnamed graves in war cemeteries, the remainder yet to be found.
The post-war task of finding the fallen was mind-numbing in its scale, the men of the Graves Retrieval Units (GRU) and volunteers from Labour Companies facing three gargantuan tasks:
Firstly, to prioritise the clearing of an estimated 160,000 isolated graves; secondly, to concentrate the thousands of small cemeteries into larger ones and, lastly, to locate and identify the missing.
Squads carried out line searches across squares of 500 x 500 yards, looking for tell-tale indications, such as rifles, partial remains, equipment, or the remnants of crosses protruding from the ground; small bones or fragments of equipment adjacent to rat holes; and discolouration of grass, earth or water.
The longer a body had been buried, the fewer the surface indications were. Identification of remains was complicated by the Army ID disc, made out of a compressed fibre, which did not stand the test of time; many identifications coming from names and numbers scratched on to personal effects.
The 1/5th King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, which recruited from Lancaster and the Fylde, suffered 742 fatalities during the Great War, 331 of whom have no known grave.
Although many received a proper burial at the time, their graves were later lost and either never located, or individual identification was impossible. Their sister battalion, the 1/4th, who recruited from Barrow and the Furness peninsula, suffered worse; 415 of their 835 dead having no known grave.
On August 8, 1916, the 1/4th lost heavily in an abortive attack against Guillemont on the Somme. It was September 3 before Guillemont finally fell, and by then the battlefield had been pounded into an unrecognisable mess.
Of the 107 killed in an area little bigger than a football field, only five were later identified. The fragmented remains of the missing probably still lie there.
In April 1915, the 1/5th buried 12 of their dead in a little cemetery to the north of Polygon Wood in Belgium; a cemetery started by the Guards, who buried 18 there.
Accounts confirm these graves were at least four-and-a-half feet deep and a surviving sketch map details individual graves. This information was almost certainly forwarded, as the GRU map for this square has the number ‘32’ pencilled upon it.
A search through all 177 pages of Burial Return Forms for nearby Buttes Cemetery reveals that only one British soldier, of unknown name and regiment, was found when this square was searched in 1920.
The cemetery, some distance behind German lines by the end of 1915, was far enough away from later trench systems not to have been targeted by high explosive and, though a stray shell may have destroyed some graves, the crosses were most probably lost to shrapnel fire, or even ended up as firewood (German huts were situated close by in 1916).
The site was never built upon, so it is possible the graves survive to be found at a later date.
Buried there were Reginald Blackhurst (20) from Fleetwood; John Churchouse (19), Fred Eltoft (23), Joseph Nash (17), John Ogden, Thomas Robinson (20) and Christopher Whiteside (22) all from Lancaster; Tom Clarke (26) from Ulverston; Matthew Farrell (16) from Scotforth; John Harper (21) from Carnforth; Thomas Hesketh (23) from Fleetwood and Frank Holding (19) from St Annes.
The recent digitisation of Commonwealth War Graves Commission records allows historians and researchers opportunity to try and match unknown burials to names.
In July 1916, a draft of 87 men from 6th Cheshires was transferred to the 1/5th King’s Own; a group nicknamed the ‘Unlucky Draft’ as almost all became casualties by Christmas.
For reasons unknown, the battalion took longer than usual to process these men, and some were still badged as Cheshires when they were killed. On August 3, 1916, a large working party from the 1/5th was tasked with digging a trench behind the lines, near Trones Wood on the Somme. On their way forward, they were caught by shellfire and suffered 56 casualties in a few minutes, 20 of whom were killed outright or died from their wounds.
Despite this, the survivors continued forward to successfully complete their task. Although some of the dead were interred in a little battalion cemetery near the Briqueterie, others were buried where they fell.
In 1930, a farmer discovered five bodies buried along the route the battalion travelled that night. Three were identified as men from this working party, another was an unidentified soldier from the battalion (sadly, he could be one of five men) and the fifth wore 6th Cheshires insignia.
The 6th Cheshires never served there as a unit, so the latter has to be from the Unlucky Draft. The only Cheshire fatality from that night without a known grave is 18-year-old Stockport soldier, Pte Albert Walker. The odds are that he is the occupant of Plot 26, Row M, Grave 5 in Serre Road No. 2 Cemetery.
Another working party, operating in No Man’s Land on the night of August 15, 1916, suffered 25 dead, 15 of whom have no known grave.
When 26-year-old Lancaster officer, 2Lt Robert Higginson, learned that his friend, 31-year-old Sgt Joseph Towers, a prominent Lancaster athlete, had been shot and killed as the parties withdrew at 3 am, he returned, telling CSM George Barrow that he was going to bury Towers.
Towers and Higginson enlisted together as privates in August 1914. Robert Higginson was never seen again. Initially posted as missing, the battalion scoured the dressing stations next day in the hope that he’d been wounded, but to no avail.
It was a year before his wife, whom he had only recently wed, had his death officially confirmed.
In 1931 a farmer unearthed a common grave containing three skeletons, one of whom was wearing officer’s boots and King’s Own insignia.
He was reinterred in Plot 34, Row N, Grave 8 in Serre Road No. 2. While not proving that this is Robert Higginson, the location yards to the rear of where Towers was killed is significant, as he is the only King’s Own officer missing in this part of the battlefield.
There are seven missing from the 1/4th, but these were 600 yards further north; and another three from 8th King’s Own, but their line of attack was further east.
The Lion and the Rose series of books by Kevin Shannon is available from Fonthill priced £17.50 each. www.fonthill.media