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from Daily Mail Saturday 23 June 2001

Revealed - the Chums own story (cont'd)

Maurice Venting was a Yorkshireman whose brother Barker survived the war and named his son after him. Now 76, Maurice the nephew lives in Hampshire.

He said: ‘My father rarely spoke about Maurice or the war. They didn’t tend to in those days and I can’t blame him.

‘Maurice went missing before I was born and no one ever knew what became of him. I became my father’s memory of his brother. I think it was his way of dealing with the grief.’

WILLIAM Buckley, 78-year-old son-in-law of the late Maurice Venting, added: ‘We are extremely relieved that his body might have been found. He’s been missing for such a long time now.

‘At least the family may now know what happened to him. We would like him to have a decent burial.’

Charles Smewin was a craftsman from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Maude Smewin, his niece, said he was 28 when he was killed, and been planning to marry before he went to France. ‘He had been making furniture for his wedding. I was only young when he went missing but I know everyone was very upset when it happened. He was the pet of the family since he was the youngest. Finding out about the grave has come as something of a shock.’

Lewis Holloway was among 13 brothers and sisters who grew up with their parents, Lewis and Lucy, In Kettering, Northamptonshire. The soldier, who was left-handed and used a left-handed revolver, was married with a daughter, Mabel - but never saw her grow up to become a teacher.

His nephew George Holloway, 86, who fought with the Royal Artillery in World War II and still lives in Kettering, said: ‘I was a very young lad when he went off to fight along with my father, William. ‘They fought in different regiments. My father went to Tripoli and came back all right, but Lewis went missing.

‘Personally I think that when they find things such as this grave they should just let it lie and not touch it. It just brings up painful memories for people.’

Others about whom some detail has emerged include Edmund Tasker, who enlisted on January 12 1915, aged 21, as Private 1262. He lived with his seven brothers and sisters in Cleethorpes.

And Sidney Woods, a 19-year-old groom who became Private 581, lived at Boston with four brothers and sisters. Other Chums who went missing on April 9 were: Arthur Alcock, from Leamington; Thomas Henry Bates, Walsall; George Bedgood, Middlesex; Henry Foulds, Bradford; Robert Stevenson Gould, Durham;

Charles Henry Hall, Horncastle; Arthur Harris, Boston; Harry Holland, Irlam; Thomas Kirsopp, Durham; Jesse Larder, Yarborough; Percy Thomas Miles, Edlesborough; Wilfred North, Great Wyrley; John Joseph Wickes, Leamington.

MANY of the early Chums were unmarried young men from large, working- class families. With their short-back-and-sides haircuts and matching height (military records show that most of the Lost Chums were just over 5ff 4in) they even looked like brothers in arms.

The exception was Wyllard Fleetwood Cocks, born in France on September 10, 1891 to wealthy British parents. The strapping six-footer was educated at University School, Hastings, apd Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was studying for a BA in mathematics when war broke out in 1914.

Cocks applied to join the 3rd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment on February 9, 1915, with a reference from his Cambridge tutor, the scientist and philosopher William Dampier Whetham (later Sir William Dampier). He spent a month in France but was sent home on sick leave in 1915, suffering from rheumatism and fever.

He rejoined the 3rd Lincs in November that year — but harboured a secret ambition befitting a dashing young officer.

In December he applied to join the Royal Flying Corps, stating somewhat hopefully: ‘I have had experience in driving cars and have a fair knowledge of their engines.’ His application was accepted but appears to have become lost in the bureaucracy of war and by April 1917 he was an officer with the 10th Lincs.

The official notification of his death simply states: ‘Died from wounds; Place of burial not known.’ The only personal item returned to his mother was a pair of field glasses.

It is this curious lack of personal possessions and identification marks among the 20 bodies in the Arras grave that has added to the mystery of the Lost Chums. Now it will also make the task of identifying them desperately difficult.

The most likely explanation is that the personal effects — pictures of family and sweethearts, dog tags, pocket-watches and penknives - were taken from them and kept safe until they could be sent back to England with a letter to next of kin.

Some probably arrived home via surviving friends — records show that Private Tasker’s wallet, photographs, steel mirror and wristwatch somehow got back to Cleethorpes. But perhaps in the chaos that dominated the almost ceaseless exchange of artillery fire, the official collection of goods was lost or blown up.

Almost certainly, weapons, equipment and re-usable material - even down to cap badges — would have been salvaged and passed on to other soldiers.

Such were the casualties in World War I that if every new regimental recruit had been given a brand-new cap badge, there would have been thousands of people tied up at home doing nothing but manufacturing the metal to make them.

Roy Hemington, of the War Graves Commission in France, said it was unusual, but not unique, for so few clues to be found. ‘Out of 24 sets of remains, we have four badges,’ he said. ‘Normally if we find bodies, even those that have been blown up, we find a few personal effects.’

There had been previous graves in which nothing else emerged, he said. ‘But except for their boots and a few scraps of uniform, these remains had been completely picked clean.’

Speculation that the men might have been shot as deserters after having their regimental insignia stripped from their uniforms is demonstrably unfounded.

Shrapnel and German machine-gun bullets were found with some of the sets of remains, and several had obviously fatal injuries. At least two had large sections missing from the skull, and two more were only partial skeletons — clearly victims of an explosion. Peter Chapman, author of Grimsby’s Own: The Story of the Chums, believes they were tragic casualties of British guns that were providing a rolling barrage under which they were to advance.

He said that a single gun is known to have been wrongly aimed. ‘Its shells were falling short. I believe it was this gun that killed these men.’

Arras archeologist Alain Jacques, whose team uncovered the bodies, said: ‘The fact that they had been arranged so theatrically suggests to us very strongly that they were from one unit.

‘By arranging them arm in arm, their comrades were saying, "These people were friends".

All the skeletons were found near the unfortunately-named ‘Joyous Trench’ (others were named Jingle, Jumble and Jolly). Historians know from battle maps that a regimental aid post was set up there.

The two strongest theories are that the bodies could have been laid one by one in an open trench as they died on a makeshift operating table or waiting for medical care; or that all 20 were recovered from the spot where the shell killed them, then formally buried.

Sadly, however, compiling a conclusive account of what happened to the Lost Chums might yet prove impossible.

A British Army forensic team will examine the remains in the next few days and attempt to match them to any dental and medical records of 10th Lincoln soldiers known to have been killed at Arras.

DNA testing is feasible, but is normally carried out only if there is already some evidence of identity, such as a dog tag with the remains. plus Army-record details such as height and build for comparison.

Without successful identification, the remains will be reburied as ‘unknown soldiers’ with full military honours at a nearby cemetery already filled with hundreds of names from a lost generation.

Hence, the full picture might never emerge. In the meantime, 21 families have a haunting photograph - and a few more clues to the fallen Chums of April 9, 1917.

 

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