Jhe ground – barely larger than two football pitches – has been described as “the Pompeii of the First World War”. But many secrets of those who fought and died on this Flemish field are still destined never to be revealed.
The burial of 13 British and Commonwealth soldiers at Wytschaete War Cemetery near Ypres at 11 a.m. Thursday morning ended a nearby archaeological dig tasked with uncovering the remains of 110 men, an intricate network of trenches and of tunnels, and arguably the most complete snapshot. changing fortunes and the horror of the 1914-1918 war.
The plot in question, on the edge of the village of Wytschaete, close to the cemetery, changed hands several times during the war and the misshapen jagged land left behind, unusable by a farmer or town planner, meant that archaeologists took advantage of his near-untouchability when they arrived in 2018.
More than a hundred mourners looked on in an autumn sun at three coffins draped in the Union Flag, containing British Empire and Commonwealth soldiers found on the ground at Wytschaete – Whitesheet for British Troops – were buried side by side.
One coffin was for an unnamed British soldier, identified by his nationality due to his dentures bearing the “Leeds” stamp. A second contained the skeleton of a soldier whose specific nationality is not known, and the third contained the partial remains of 11 lost men, all identified as British and Commonwealth Army due to the scattered parts of the ‘Military uniform, including general service buttons of greatcoats found. by their bones. Most are believed to have been killed in the final months of the war.
At the end of the burial, conducted by Father Patrick O’Driscoll, chaplain of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the last post rang, drawing the attention of the cattle on the farms on either side of the rows of white Portland Gravestones.
An orchestra and choir made up of young men and women from Theodorianum Paderborn school in central Germany, Mildenhall College academy in Suffolk and St Joseph’s College Ipswich, sang In the fields of Flandersrun by 17-year-old Wilfred Kensley.
The Anglo-German chorus was a recognition of the very special story of the excavation of the so-called Hill 80, formerly the site of a windmill, which became an entrenched German firing position when the village was captured in 1914. It was taken in the Battle of Messines in June 1917 before being retaken by the Kaiser Wilhelm’s army in 1918 during the Battle of the Lys. The village was not restored to Allied hands until September 1918 at horrendous cost on both sides.
Three French soldiers and a South African found will be buried later. The nationality of 20 other men has not been assigned.
On Friday, 73 German soldiers, found with British and Commonwealth soldiers, will be buried in one of the nearby German cemeteries. Among these will be the only soldier identified by name: Pte Albert Oehrle, 17, a volunteer in a Bavarian battalion.
Simon VerdegemHill 80’s chief archaeologist, who worked with London South Bank University Professor Peter Doyle on the project, first came to the site in 2015 when he was asked to survey the area by a promoter, as required by Belgian law.
It became clear that there were remains to be recovered but it was only thanks to an international crowdfunding campaign, backed by historian and television presenter Dan Snow and comedian Al Murray among others, that the 250,000 € necessary for the work, carried out last April to July, has been found.
Verdegem said: “When we started, the farmer next door told us that he had always been told, from generation to generation, that an entire army was buried in the field. And at 110 men, we’re not far off. Everything was in place as at the end of the war.
“We found the original floor of the miller’s house which had been integrated into the trenches, the threshold, the paving of the interior courtyard and the cellars. We found stairs leading to the tunnels, but they had collapsed. As for the remains, some had been buried by their comrades but the graves had been lost.
“Others were found where they had died in the trenches. Some were just scattered bones under a few inches of soil. Pompeii is, of course, very different, but it comes down to this idea of finding everything where it was left.
Verdegem said identifying the Britons had been difficult given the lack of artifacts around their remains.
“We believe most of them died in April 1918 during the German Spring Offensive,” he said. “Ninety percent of the Germans were the first victims from October to November 1914. Many reserve troops inexperienced in combat for the first time were decimated. There were wedding rings, wallets, glasses, rosaries – many had them – and Bibles.