Eighty-five years ago today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the
eleventh month, the guns fell silent on the Western Front. The Great War, the
war meant to end all wars, was over.
The horrors of the trenches are now passing over the horizon, from living human
memory into history. But the battlegrounds of France and Belgium continue to
give up their secrets.
Yesterday, a few miles north of Ypres, the remains of another nameless British
soldier were being unearthed. Not much was left - a few bones, some buttons
and a pair of boots - lying in the crater gouged by the shell that killed him.
Over the last few months, a team of British and Belgian archaeologists have
been busy excavating a trench system near the village of St Jan. The site is
on the route of a new motorway and the government in Brussels decreed that it
should be thoroughly researched.
Six British dead have been recovered and, for once, a name may soon be attached
to one of them.
William Storey was barely a man when he signed up for the Northumberland Fusiliers.
From Blyth, Northumberland, he was part of a detachment from the regiment's
5th Battalion, which went into action on Oct 26, 1917. In all probability he
was killed by a shell while waiting to go forward.
The battle in which he was taking part has become a byword for hellish and
seemingly pointless sacrifice. Passchendaele was the Third Battle of Ypres,
an attempt by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig to break the German line in the
third year of the war.
The campaign began in July 1917 and ended in November when the British advance
ground to a halt in a sea of mud. The thousands of names on the memorials and
headstones that dot the flat, often waterlogged landscape stand as testament
to its failure.
Before the excavation, William Storey had no grave. Listed as missing, his
is one of 34,888 names engraved on the enormous memorial at Tyne Cot, near Ypres.
That may now change.
During the dig, the Anglo-Belgian team discovered a shoulder bone and on it
a fragment of uniform carrying a rare form of insignia, a flaming grenade under
the designation T5 NF. The code stood for the 5th (Territorial) Battalion of
the Northumberland Fusiliers.
It was subsequently discovered that only four members of the unit had gone
missing in that sector. Three were officers, whose uniforms did not carry such
shoulder flashes. That left Acting Lance Corporal Storey.
The investigators are still cautious, because mistakes can be made and there
are, even after all the years that have passed, family sensitivities involved.
But they are quietly confident that L/Cpl Storey is the man.
Another four sets of remains have been discovered in and around the 80-yard
stretch of trenches. Three are believed to be a machinegun team from the Royal
Sussex Regiment, killed in a shell hole. Another, some distance away, is thought
to be from a cavalry regiment. Despite the vast swathes of land scarred by the
trenches, few have been examined to such an extent. The excavation has produced
a picture of life lived under almost unimaginable hardship. Among personal effects
found are jars of rum, which provided a degree of comfort as well as a much-needed
buttress for courage.
The trench lines tell the story of the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the line held
by the British for most of the war at horrendous cost. The trenches of 1915,
to which the British retreated after the first German gas attack, are only a
few feet away from the attack trenches dug towards the enemy lines prior to
Haig's offensive two years later. The site may be preserved, but the demands
of modern transport could win out.
Peter Barton, one of those involved in the excavation, said: "This is
a unique site. It is the first time an excavation like this has been done. But
it is ironic that the very first site they have excavated is under threat, within
months, of being closed. Because the fighting was so intense here over such
a long period the whole of this area is one huge cemetery. And there are hundreds
of thousands of men still out there waiting to be found."
If the remains are identified as those of L/Cpl Storey they will, according
to tradition, be interred at one of the Commonwealth war cemeteries near the
scene of their discovery. One, named Track X after a route marked on military
maps of the time, lies only a few hundred yards from the excavation towards
the German lines.
It is an intimate place, a small patch of earth marked by a cross and the headstones
of some 300 British and Dominion troops who fell nearby.
L/Cpl Storey may soon be allowed to lie there, at rest.