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."