Our battle to restore the Somme's unknown heroes to their families

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The Independent Online

Over the last 20 months, The Independent has published more than 400 images of Tommies, Aussies and Canadians of the period 1915-16 rescued from a rubbish skip in northern France. The images, which include many group photographs, show the faces of maybe 500 British and Empire soldiers pictured by a local French photographer – or photographers – just before and during the most murderous battle of the 1914-18 war.

Since the first batch of 400 images appeared on our website in May 2009, they have generated astounding interest all over the world. Another 40 images were located and published in May last year. The two batches have now attracted more than four million visits.

From the beginning, we appealed for anyone who thought that they recognised a father or a grandfather or great uncle to come forward. So far, just three of the 500 or so "lost soldiers of the Somme" have been identified with any degree of certainty.

That is disappointing but not surprising. We have now reached the 95th anniversary of the battle of the Somme (July-November 1916). The last Somme survivor died a decade ago. Many of their children are also no longer alive.

It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that the three soldiers who have been identified survived the war and went on to have grandchildren. Many of the other soldiers in the "lost pictures" were perhaps not so lucky. They left no descendants to identify them.

The US Civil War occurred almost exactly a half century before the 1914-18 war and foretold many of its horrors, from barbed wire to trenches and machine guns. Photography was, however, in its infancy in the 1860s. The chances of any of the Civil War photographs being recognised by descendants or matched by images in private or public collections are very slim indeed.

By 1916 photography was widespread. It is believed that the "lost" Somme snaps were taken by a local, French amateur photographer. He probably charged the British and Empire soldiers a few coppers for a print to send home.

The historical value of the plates, as a record of the British army during, the most murderous battle in its history, was first grasped by two local men: Bernard Gardin, a photography enthusiast, and Dominique Zanardi, proprietor of the "Tommy" café in Pozières in the heart of the Somme battlefields.

The cache of photographs, preserved on 9 by 12cm glass plates, lay undisturbed for nine decades in the attic of a ramshackle barn at Warloy-Baillon, 10 miles behind the battle lines of 1916. When the barn was restored in 2007, the plates were thrown into a rubbish skip. Passers-by rescued some of them. Others were lost. In 2008, Mr Gardin, 62, was given a batch of 270 glass plates by someone who knew of his hobby. He approached Mr Zanardi, 49, who has a museum and collection of Great War memorabilia at his café. It turned out that Mr Zanardi already had 130 similar plates which he had been given by other local people.

The two men scanned and digitalised and, in some cases, lovingly restored the combined batch of 400 images. Some were printed out and displayed in Mr Zanardi's café, where I spotted them in the spring of 2009.

The first story in The Independent Magazine was followed up by the French media. Local people came forward and gave Mr Zanardi more glass plates – 40 in all – that they had bought in boot and jumble sales in the Somme in the last couple of years.

The three soldiers who have been confidently identified by relatives are Sergeant (later Captain) Walter Wheeler, of the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, Gunner Jim Mundell from Dumfrieshiere, of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and James Henry Hepburn from Aberdeenshire, a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Click here to see some of the images from the original appeal