A large crowd, including a member of the Royal Family and a French farmer, gathered in the corner of a wheat field yesterday to bury four British soldiers they never knew, who were killed in the First World War nearly a century ago.
Relatives came to shed a tear for the uncle or the great-grandfather or the great-great-grandfather they had never met. The four men died together in a German attack on British lines south-east of the French city of Arras on 15 May 1917.
Yesterday, they were re-interred with full military honours in a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery three miles from the field where their bodies lay undiscovered for 92 years.
A military band in red coats and bearskins played hymns and national anthems. A bugler sounded “The Last Post”. Soldiers fired a salute. The village church of Écoust-Saint-Mein, 800 metres away across the bleak fields, tolled its bell.
The bodies were dug up accidentally by a farmer, Didier Guerle, in 2009. He came along yesterday to pay his respects to “my boys”. So did Prince Michael of Kent, the honorary colonel of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), to which the men belonged.
It is not unusual for the bodies of missing British soldiers of the 1914-18 war to turn up in the former battlefields of northern France. Another seven have been discovered this year. What was unusual, and deeply moving, about yesterday’s ceremony was that two of the four soldiers had been identified.
Three generations of relatives, aged between seven and 89, came from Britain to pay their respects to Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard and Private Christopher Douglas Elphick. The other, unidentified bodies were buried with equal ceremony in graves marked: “Known unto God”.
At the end of the ceremony, two of Lt Pritchard’s great-nieces and their husbands stepped forward to sing “Crossing The Bar”, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The song – “May there be no sadness of farewell, when I embark” – was performed around the family piano in Wandsworth, south London, by John Pritchard, his mother and sister during his last period of leave.
Lt Pritchard’s oldest living relative, his nephew Harold John Shell, 89, told The Independent: “He was killed before I was born but he always remained alive in our family. I was given his Christian names and I became a kind of living memorial. At each of my birthdays, my mother and her sisters would remember their missing brother with great sadness, especially his prowess as a chorister at St Paul’s School.
“To find him, and then say goodbye to him, for my mother’s sake, and to sing for him after all these years has been very moving.”
Pte Elphick’s great-granddaughter, Jody Elphick, 33, said: “My father and grandfather often spoke about him. We all think that we know about World War One but it takes an extraordinary occasion like this to make the whole thing come alive.”
“I couldn’t help shedding a tear for the two unidentified soldiers. They had families, too. They died together so they were probably my great-grand-father’s comrades.”
The elaborate nature of yesterday’s ceremony, organised by the Ministry of Defence and the Honourable Artillery Company, may seem excessive after almost a century. But the trouble taken reflects a rising tide of public interest in the 1914-18 war as its centenary approaches.
John Pritchard, who was 31, and Douglas Elphick, 28, died in the final stages of the Battle of Bullecourt – part of the British offensive west of Arras between March and May 1917. After breaching the German “Hindenburg Line”, British and Australian troops were thrown back by a series of counter-offensives. Another 41 men of the HAC died on 15 May, just before the fighting petered out.
The name of their unit – the oldest formation in the British army – implies that they were gunners but, like most HAC soldiers in the Great War, they fought as infantrymen. The four bodies were discovered when Mr Guerle used a metal detector to remove scrap, including old nerve gas canisters, from his land. Lt Pritchard was identified from a bracelet, and Pte Elphick from a signet ring.
Very few bodies which surface on First World War battlefields are identified. Official ID tags of the period were made of leather and rapidly rotted.
Officialdom, it turns out, is kinder to relatives of the recently discovered dead. In the 1920s, families had to pay 3 and a half “old pence” per letter to put private inscriptions at the foot of war graves. On new ones, they are free.