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from the Telegraph 11 November 2003

Revealed: an unknown soldier of Ypres
by Neil Tweedie

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.

Aftermath - when the boys came home

Tuesday 7 February 2006

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