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Fields of Flanders continue to reveal remains of First World War fallen

‘War detectives’ try to identify remains when a new discovery is made.

A rose grows between the headstones at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Wytschaete Military Cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium (Gareth Fuller/PA)
A rose grows between the headstones at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Wytschaete Military Cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium (Gareth Fuller/PA)

By Michael Drummond, PA South East Correspondent

Despite it being more than a century since the end of the First World War, bodies of those who fell on Flanders fields are still being found to this day.

It can be extremely difficult to identify remains of war dead being found, but a dedicated team of “war detectives” has been working tirelessly to ensure they get the recognition they deserve.

On Thursday 13 unknown UK and Commonwealth soldiers, at least two of whom were British, were buried side by side with full military honours in Ypres, Belgium.

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Father Patrick O’Driscoll leads a burial service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Wytschaete Military Cemetery, near Ypres (Gareth Fuller/PA)

They were laid to rest at Wytschaete Military Cemetery on perhaps the same field on which they lost their lives in the First World War.

The poignant ceremony formed one of the final chapters of the Dig Hill 80 project, which discovered the remains of 110 soldiers.

But with so much time passed since the events of the war, and with many battlefields fought over more than once between 1914 and 1918, it can be a huge challenge to identify the remains.

This painstaking process is carried out by the Ministry of Defence’s specialist “war detectives” at the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre Commemorations (JCCC).

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Coffins arrive for a burial service (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Speaking after the service, JCCC case worker Rosie Barron said: “We tried to identify these soldiers and we have organised the service here today, working with Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and Commonwealth War Graves Commission to bring this all together.

“One of the challenges we faced in trying to identify these men was the location of where they were found.

“Hill 80 was fought over at least four times during the course of the First World War.

“There are also a lot of British and Commonwealth soldiers still missing at the site, so trying to work out the regiment of the individuals that are here was almost impossible.

“There were some shoulder titles found near the bodies but we couldn’t directly connect them to the actual casualties.”

But despite being unable to identify the soldiers individually in this case, she was pleased to see so many people coming to pay their respects to the fallen.

“People do come from all over the world and I know it means a lot to the Commonwealth nations to come over, even for some it’s travelling most of the way across the world to come to these services.

“I think particularly over the last couple of years with the centenary and various commemorations, we all join together regardless of nation, it’s a community.”

This week the JCCC has worked to organise the burial of 15 unknown soldiers, with two buried on Wednesday at New Irish Farm Cemetery, near Ypres.

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More than a century on, fields in Ypres are yielding secrets (A.C.H. Bennett/PA)

By the end of November the War Detectives team will have organised 16 full military honours funeral services for 34 casualties found on historical battlefields , five of whom have been successfully identified and matched with their families.

In the last 12 months the team has received reports on 30 new cases where remains have been found with over 70 individuals recovered.

In addition, they have also organised eight re-dedications where the war detectives team has concluded that new evidence submitted to them shows that graves marked as “unknown” can now be named with that of the service person.

PA

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