Aftermath - when the boys came home

Saturday 11 June 2011

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from the Telegraph 27 May 2001

After 85 years, a hero's funeral for Pte Clarke
By Julian Coman in Paris

A WELSH soldier killed in the First World War has been given a proper funeral attended by a delegation of soldiers from his old regiment, French war veterans, and a guard of honour.
It brings full circle a story which began one weekend last year, when a French welder named Olivier Hancart set out with his metal detector to explore some fields near the northern village of Givenchy-lez-Bassee. Mr Hancart's plan was to rescue scraps of First World War memorabilia to add to his collection of helmets, mortars and bayonets.

Instead of picking up another piece of rusting weaponry, however, Mr Hancart was able to rescue the memory of a 19-year-old British soldier, who was finally buried yesterday with full military honours near where he fell. Pte Richard Thomas Clarke, of the 2nd battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was killed in action on June 22, 1916. He died with 50 of his comrades, blown up by one of the largest mines to be used during the war.

The crater left by the mine is still visible in the landscape near the village of Givenchy, in the Pas de Calais region. Pte Clarke's remains were the most recent of 2,017 Commonwealth soldiers missing in action whose bodies have been found in the fields of France and Belgium since the end of the two World Wars. They are still being discovered at the rate of two to three every year.

Pte Clarke would still be lying where he fell, had not Mr Hancart detected a piece of corrugated iron, indicating the existence of an old trench. Beneath the iron, which had constituted a shelter, was a British helmet and a skull. As Mr Hancart carried on digging, he discovered the upper half of a skeleton, then some fragments of uniform, flasks, bayonets and a set of false teeth.

The iron shelter had ensured that all these artefacts were exceptionally well preserved. There appeared to be nothing, however, that would allow him to identify the remains. Then Mr Hancart found a small mirror, placed inside a folding cover. On the inside he was able to read: "Pte R Clarke, 1115 B Coy, RWF Aug 14, British Expeditionary Force France."

Mr Hancart immediately contacted the local police, who reported the discovery to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Then the long process of verifying Pte Clarke's identity began. Gaye Jones, who has helped to organise Pte Clarke's belated funeral, said: "The mirror in itself did not constitute firm enough evidence of identity. The first step was to pass the remains on to a forensic anthropologist, to provide scientific corroboration."

Margaret Cox, a professor of forensic archaeology and anthropology at Bournemouth University, established that the bones were consistent with Pte Clarke's age, height and weight. In addition, she found that certain distinguishing features of the bones suggested a history of heavy manual labour. Pte Clarke came from Welsh mining stock.

Ms Jones said: "Once Professor Cox's report was received, we were satisfied that we had the right man. Then it was a question of trying to locate surviving relatives. That proved to be a bit of a nightmare." PS4, the "casualty and compassionate cell" at the Ministry of Defence, trawled through the Welsh private's family tree for six weeks without success.

Of the soldier's four siblings, two had died childless. Another had emigrated to Canada soon after the war. Ms Jones said: "It looked like a blank had been drawn. Then, just when it began to seem hopeless, a nephew was found in Newport. We sent him a letter."

Keith Clarke, now 75, was born 10 years after his uncle was killed. His father had told him of a brother who had died but said little else. Mr Clarke had never seen a photograph of the dead Fusilier. Yesterday he attended his funeral. Mr Clarke said: "To me he was just a piece of history. My father never talked about him."

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