Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

First World War centenary: Still in his kit, an Inniskilling fusilier found after 97 years

16-year-old Lee Dunion re-enacts the conditions in the trenches as a soldier in Thiepval Woods during the First World War
16-year-old Lee Dunion re-enacts the conditions in the trenches as a soldier in Thiepval Woods during the First World War
A monument at Ulster Tower erected to the men of the 36 who won the Victoria Cross saving lives
Teddy Colligan gives a tour to schoolchildren at the Ulster Tower
Sgt David Harkness Blakey who died in 1916
The Royal Ulster Rifles cap badge discovered during excavations in Picardy

He was found with his full kit - rifle and bayonet included.

For over 97 years, the remains of an 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusilier shot down in the fierce fighting of the First World War lay undiscovered beneath the soil of France.

It was only when work began to widen a road in time for this year's 100 year commemorations that the land which still hides the bodies of thousands finally gave up another long lost soldier.

Sgt David Harkness Blakey was 26 when he died during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His family knew his fate but, until recently, had no idea where his resting place lay.

All they knew was that his name appeared on the massive Thiepval memorial which commemorates 72,500 missing Somme soldiers who have no known graves.

But that will now change after Sgt Blakey's remains were one of two soldiers from Irish regiments found during excavations to improve roads in Picardy in preparation for today's centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.

The young Englishman joined an Irish regiment because his wife was from Londonderry. It's thought the other man will never be identified although the glint of a Royal Ulster Rifles cap badge coming through the soil last autumn hinted at his background.

It was reported in October that one body had been found near the Ulster Tower, the memorial to the thousands of Ulstermen who died at the Somme, but it's only been confirmed now that a second one was discovered soon afterwards.

The resident curator of the Tower, Teddy Colligan, described the finds as "absolutely amazing".

But he added: "There are thousands of bodies here which have lain undiscovered for all these years.

"They are found sometimes when people are building new houses or installing new pipelines. They are treated with dignity.

"The first of the latest remains were found just to the left of our entrance. My wife Phoebe and I had been walking across his grave for years. The workmen only went down about six inches when they found the remains. All we had were a cap badge and a shoulder flash so we knew he was in the Royal Ulster Rifles. But we will never know who he was."

Sgt Blakey's remains were unearthed shortly afterwards on the other side of the D73 road just outside the Connaught cemetery. They were found six inches under the road surface as workmen prepared to install new paving stones.

Metal identity tags revealed that he was the 26-year-old father-of-three from Gateshead in the north east of England.

Teddy Colligan said: "The second remains were better preserved and they were found in front of the Connaught cemetery. He was lying at a hedge with his feet facing out onto the road. He had all his kit with him, his rifle, his bayonet, everything."

Mr Colligan said further research showed that Sgt Blakey, a former coalminer, was one of 50 men from his area who joined the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers after a recruiting advert appeared in the Newcastle Chronicle looking for soldiers with Irish links.

Mr Colligan said: "Blakey's wife came from Londonderry and he enlisted at the Fusiliers recruiting office in Grey Street in Newcastle going on to win not only promotion but a military medal for his courage."

By a horrible twist of fate Blakey's son Henry was also killed in action in France in the Second World War during the evacuation from Dunkirk on June 1, 1940.

The Somme Association is hoping to bury Sgt Blakey in the Connaught cemetery with full military honours on July 1, 2016 which will mark the centenary of the start of the Somme.

But it's likely the sergeant's name will be removed from the Thiepval memorial once he is buried in a grave with a headstone on which he will at last be formally identified. Descendants of Sgt Blakey who was posthumously awarded a military bravery medal for his courage on the first day of the Somme, were traced after appeals from the Ministry of Defence were published in newspapers in the north east of England. His great granddaughter Jackie Coleman said: "We couldn't believe it. It was a real shock but he had always been a part of our family."

She revealed her father Norman had travelled on two different occasions to Thiepval years ago and on his last visit attended a memorial service to the soldiers who lost their lives in the war.

The service was held only a short distance from where Sgt Blakey's remains were found.

However, Jackie's father died before the discovery was made.

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