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from The Guardian Wednesday 20 June 2001

Arm in arm the comrades lie in their grave

by Owen Bowcott

Huddled together in death, they lie packed tightly side by side. The 20 fallen soldiers of the 10th battalion the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment were interred hastily by their colleagues at the beginning of the blood-drenched battle of Arras.

It was probably the evening of April 9, 1917, the end of the first day of the offensive launched by General Haig that was supposed to punch a hole through the German frontline and alter the course of the Great War. The burial party may have been under enemy fire and tumbled the bodies into a captured trench.

For Alan Jacques, the head of Arras's archaeological service, who uncovered the mass grave earlier this week, they seemed to have their arms linked together, elbows overlapping. "It looks like they were in a danse macabre," he said. "They were holding each other by the arm, perhaps to signify that they were from the same unit."

Long-forgotten corpses have been resurfacing from the first world war killing grounds for decades. Often they are ploughed up from agricultural land, lone victims, their bodies incomplete. Around 20 or 30 soldiers have been recovered every year. They are reburied, with full military honours, in the region's well-tended Commonwealth war graves.

But in the past few years the pace of industrial development in northern France and Belgium has unearthed far larger numbers. Workmen laying a gas pipeline on a street in Arras came across a flight of stairs going deep under the ground last year. When they explored, they found a warren of tunnels carved into the chalk leading to a British field hospital which had lain undiscovered since being abandoned in 1917.

The discovery of an unknown mass grave is highly unusual. "There were no identity discs," Mr Jacques said yesterday, "but the bodies had shoulder flashes indicating they were from the 10th Lincolnshires. All their weapons and personal possessions had gone.

"They may have been buried by the Royal Army Medical Corps. The men were left with only their uniforms and shoes, There were traces of bullets and shrapnel among the bones. Some of the bodies are without heads, some missing arms or legs." Buttons, shreds of clothing and pieces of leather were also exhumed.

Mr Jacques, who also examined the subterranean field hospital, had begun excavations on the site, which is scheduled to become a BMW car factory, in search of Romano-Celtic remains. "It was a very intense feeling coming across these bodies. Normally we come across Roman graves. These rnen could have been our grandfathers."

based on his extensive knowledge of the trench systems and frontlines which shifted around Arras throughout the war, Mr Jacques believes he can identify the day when these men fell. Al, judging from what is left of their uniforms, were privates. The position where they were buried was close to the Germansí second line of defence which was overrun on the first day of the battle of Arras.

"It was a strong point for the Germans. It was taken by the Lincolns and held by them for five days. They were then leapfrogged by the Royal Naval Division, which moved on ahead. We found four other bodies nearby. One of them was from the Royal Naval Division."

But Judith Donald, at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, was less certain the corpses had been linked arm to arm. "If they were hurled hurriedly in a battlefield trench or a hastily dug hole itís unlikely anyone would have had time to arrange their arms," she said.

The mass grave was probably marked, but in the chaos of a shifting frontline its location was forgotten. "Itís likely other bodies will come to light if the dig proceeds." The names of 600 members of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment are inscribed on the war memorial in Arras, all listed as lost in action, without a known grave.

As soon as news of the find was broadcast yesterday, calls came in to the commission from people hoping to discover news of their ancestors and relatives. "Even at the distance of more than 80 years, there are people hoping to be able to find their family, often grandchildren. People use our records to build up their family trees?í

The 24 corpses will shortly be removed to the commissionís mortuary in Arras. After they have been examined, they will be buried with full military honours at one of the war graves. Mr Jacques believes it will he at the cemetery on Point du Jour ridge ó the object of the alliesí offensive in April 1917.

Any British colour party for the occasion will probably come from the Royal Anglian Regiment, with which the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment was long ago amalgamated. The second battalion Royal Anglian Regiment still recruits in Lincolnshire and looks after the former unitís regimental silver trophies.

"Itís always very good to know that these bodies have been discovered," said Jeremy Lillies of the Royal British Legion. "Now they can be given a proper burial and the respect they deserve. It can be a great comfort for the families

[Correction: the Lincolnshire Regiment was not known as the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment until 1946]

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