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Battle of the Somme soldier finally buried with full military honours

Published 08/10/2015

The coffin of First World War soldier Sergeant David Harkness is carried by six pallbearers from the Royal Irish Regiment into Connaught Cemetery in Thiepval, northern France
The coffin of First World War soldier Sergeant David Harkness is carried by six pallbearers from the Royal Irish Regiment into Connaught Cemetery in Thiepval, northern France
Sergeant David Harkness Blakey of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was killed aged 26 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 11916 (Family handout/PA)

A decorated British soldier killed in action in the First World War has finally been laid to rest with full military honours almost 100 years after he died.

Sergeant David Harkness Blakey, of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was killed aged 26 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1 1916.

In November 2013 - 97 years after he died - his remains were found during work on a road widening project near Connaught Cemetery in Thiepval, northern France.

Identifying fallen First World War soldiers is rare as tags were commonly made from paper or compressed fibres, which rapidly decomposed.

But a home-made metal identity tag believed to have been created by his wife with "18634 Sgt David Harkness Blakey MM of the R Innis Fus" etched on it helped to confirm his identity, along with the discovery of an "R Innis Fus" cap badge.

Army chiefs said Gateshead-born, married father-of-three Sgt Blakey is only the fifth soldier in 10 years to be identified using personal items.

An appeal to trace his relatives last year resulted in a number being found in the North East of England.

And today, three generations of his family attended Connaught Cemetery for the burial, which was arranged by the Ministry of Defence's joint casualty and compassionate centre.

Among the relatives were his granddaughter Helen Coleman, 77, his great-granddaughter Jackie Coleman, her daughter and Sgt Blakey's great-great granddaughter Emma Coleman, 16, Mrs Coleman's sister Gill, 40, and her two sons and Sgt Blakey's great-great grandsons James, 13, and Jack, nine.

Police officer Jackie Coleman, 51, from Alnwick, Northumberland, said: "I was amazed that he was found after all these years.

"David's memory has been kept alive in our family since he went missing. This is a very special and fitting end to our search for him and one we will always treasure.

"Sadly my father is not here to share in this. He and my mother spent many years trying to find David."

Two unknown soldiers - one from the Royal Irish Rifles and another from the Cambridgeshire Regiment - were also buried alongside Sgt Blakey.

Six pallbearers from the Royal Irish Regiment carried Sgt Blakey's Union flag-draped coffin into the cemetery where hundreds of fallen soldiers are buried.

The folded flag was then presented to his granddaughter in front of other relatives, some of whom were moved to tears by the occasion.

The Rev Robert Birnie, padre of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, led the service during which he read The Bidding Prayer, praising "the courage, conviction and sacrifice".

A poem written by Sgt Blakey's father in memory of his son was read by his great-great- grandchildren.

And The Last Post was sounded, followed by a gun salute and wreath-laying by military figures, dignitaries and members of Sgt Blakey's family.

Joint casualty and compassionate centre officer in charge Steve Brown said: "It is a very rare occurrence to hold a military funeral for a fallen World War One hero when the event is attended by the soldier's living family."

Born in Felling, Gateshead, on November 9 1889 to coal miner Henry Blakey and his second wife Isabella, David Blakey became a miner at Stargate Colliery near Ryton, after leaving school.

After marrying Sarah Kendall in October 1908, they settled in her home town of Winlaton. They had a son, Henry, who was killed in service in 1940, and two daughters, Vivian Winifred and Isabella.

A skilled rugby player, Mr Blakey enlisted in January 1915 in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which ran a series of recruitment adverts in the Gateshead press.

By 1916, he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant, serving with D Company, 11th Battalion.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the battalion formed part of the 109 Brigade of the 36th Ulster Division and assembled at the edge of Thiepval Wood.

Sgt Blakey was among scores who died that day. And in subsequent letters to his wife, it emerged he had last been seen seriously wounded in No Man's Land.

He was awarded the Military Medal for "bravery in the field", according to a citation in the London Gazette of December 14 1916.

During a concert organised by the Winlaton Welcome Home Committee in August 1917, the decoration was pinned to the chest of Sgt Blakey's seven-year-old son.

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