The war grave detectives: When bodies are unearthed at World War battle sites, a team of dedicated women set to work to identify the fallen heroes. Here, they reveal how even the smallest of clues can give families peace at last
- Nicola Nash, 37, works within the Ministry of Defence ‘war detective’ branch
- The team use DNA testing to identify previously unknown fallen servicemen
- Chris Mead, of Cambridgeshire, was shocked to hear of his great-Uncle Frank
- Frank Mead died in 1917 aged 23 and was buried at a British cemetery in France
Nicola Nash, 37, works in a little known branch of the Ministry of Defence nicknamed the ‘war detectives’
From the Union flag over the coffin to the pristine uniforms, polished boots and haunting cry of the Last Post.
There’s something about the precision and restraint of a military funeral that stirs even the hardest of hearts.
Over the past five years, Nicola Nash, 37, has attended more than 50 such ceremonies. Each and every one has left its imprint.
‘I feel it’s important to stay strong during the service itself,’ she says. ‘It’s when I get back to my room, when it’s all finished . . . that’s when the emotion really hits me. I feel it every time.’
The reason for repeatedly exposing herself to such turmoil? Nicola works in a little known branch of the Ministry of Defence nicknamed the ‘war detectives’.
Based at the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) at Imjin Barracks, Gloucester, the war detectives are an all-female team of six.
Contrary to what the title suggests, they are not police officers but experts in dogged, painstaking research.
They use DNA testing, genealogy, dental records and ground-breaking technology to identify previously unknown fallen servicemen from World Wars I and II.
Once a soldier is formally identified, the war detectives arrange a funeral with full military honours: comrades from the corresponding modern-day regiment form the bearer party and living relatives are invited to attend.
‘It’s a real privilege to be able to give names to those who sacrificed so much,’ says Nicola.
‘Imagine not knowing where or how your child died; not being able to lay them to rest. To be able to solve these tragic mysteries that have haunted generations is incredible.’
Soldiers of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment are pictured carrying the coffins of two young privates and an unknown soldier near Albert, France
As Remembrance Sunday approaches, our minds turn to those who gave their lives for ours.
It is heartening to discover that even now there is a small, dedicated team toiling away, leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to give our long-lost war heroes a final resting place. Ensuring that we do not forget.
The JCCC was established in 2005 with a team of two. Nicola joined five years ago as part of the department’s expansion.
She’s an archaeology graduate but her colleagues include ex-military, civil servants and one who worked in the Medal Office.
But they all have a clear passion for the subject and innate compassion in spades.
Chris and Sharon Mead from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, were overwhelmed when they received the news about Chris’s great-uncle Frank. He says: ‘I’ve always known about Frank; my grandfather Reg was his younger brother by six years’
In the last five years the team have identified ‘more than 40’ unknown soldiers via DNA matches, in each case working tirelessly with living relatives to ensure their emotional and practical needs are met.
‘Families appreciate how invested we get,’ says Nicola. ‘It’s not just a case number. Each one is special to us and has particular meaning.’
The team also work on rededications of headstones to unknown soldiers when a member of the public believes they have traced a lost loved one’s unmarked grave.
It’s up to the war detectives to verify the identity with the help of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and arrange the resulting military burial.
A military history enthusiast whose interest was sparked by her grandfather’s naval career, Nicola says: ‘A case might take two years to solve and you feel like you become part of the families because of the experiences you share.’
It’s MoD policy not to proactively search for cases to solve: there are hundreds of thousands of missing British servicemen after all.
But the remains of fallen servicemen are still regularly discovered everywhere, from the fields of northern Europe to the coast of Borneo.
Nicola explains: ‘There are normally 40 discoveries a year — mostly found by farmers or construction workers.
‘Over the last year-and-a-half there’s been a real peak: nearer 60 or 70 because there’s a huge building project going in northern France where there were battles both in 1915 and 1917.’
Chris Mead is the great nephew of Private Frank Mead who died in 1917 during WWI aged 23. Chris says: ‘I’ve always known about Frank; my grandfather Reg was his younger brother by six years’
When a soldier’s body is discovered in northern France or Belgium, the remains are stored in the CWGC’s mortuary and the war detectives are alerted.
‘The first thing I look at is where they were found and what they were found with,’ says Nicola.
‘If there are just a few service buttons telling us they’re British and nothing else and they’ve been found somewhere within the Somme, I know immediately that it’s going to be very difficult to name them.
‘However, if I have specific information such as regimental insignia, perhaps a few bits and pieces of personal items, I can start to narrow down the pool of potential candidates.’
Ideally an ID disc would be found but the standard issue British Army dog tags were made of a biodegradable material, which meant that they didn’t survive once in the ground.
‘We never find these!’ says Nicola. ‘However, some soldiers would have one privately made. It would be made of metal or engraved on a coin — these we do find occasionally.’
Touchingly, they’ve also found everything from a belt made of different regimental cap badges — ‘Lovely but not helpful in terms of identification!’ — to a set of house keys recovered from a downed RAF pilot.
A bombed out house in Shoreditch, London is pictured above. Half of its facade went missing after a Zeppelin raid during World War I
‘It is heartbreaking to think they carried these with them, but never made it back home,’ says Nicola.
Once the soldier’s regiment is known, Nicola tracks down its war diary: ‘I work out when the regiment were in that area and how many men were killed. And more importantly how many have unknown graves.
‘If it turns out there are hundreds of possible candidates we reach a bit of a dilemma. However, if it’s closer to 20 I can work with that.’
At that point DNA specialists are sent to the mortuary to do an anthropological study of the remains: ‘They will look at height, age and see if there is any peri or post-mortem damage that will give clues as to what happened.’
It can take two months for the report to arrive on Nicola’s desk and it’s a nerve-racking wait: ‘I’m waiting for one back at the moment where I think I can ID as many as nine individuals so I’m very excited.
‘But I can’t be sure that they’ll be able to get viable DNA profiles. I had a really frustrating case where I thought I was going to be able to ID him — the initial research pointed to one man — but they couldn’t get the DNA. Without it, I didn’t have enough evidence . . . so he remains unknown.’
When a positive report comes back, Nicola compares the ages and heights to those of soldiers listed as missing, if a service record is available. Then she can trace the family.
Soldiers are pictured on the streets of London after a Zeppelin bombing raid. When a soldier’s body is discovered in northern France or Belgium, the remains are stored in the CWGC’s mortuary and the war detectives are alerted
‘First I build a family tree with birth, marriage certificate and census information.
Then I use resources such as Ancestry.co.uk and Google to try to track down living relatives. These days, thankfully, it’s almost impossible for a person to keep offline.
‘I can find people through a newspaper article they appeared in for their local parish or from a Companies House listing. If I find an old electoral address, I then look on Rightmove or Zoopla to see when the house last sold.
‘I write or email to the address. If willing, the potential match is sent a DNA kit and they await the results.
‘Obviously when you get positive results it’s fantastic — in the case of World War II remains, you can be bringing closure to relatives as close as sons or daughters. It’s incredibly moving.
‘But when you don’t get that positive link it’s very disheartening. After getting all those hopes up and sort of reawakening all that emotion, I have to inform the family. It’s so difficult.
A wrecked house in Southend, Essex, is pictured above during the war in 1915. As Remembrance Sunday approaches, our minds turn to those who gave their lives for ours
‘We have to try; we have to eliminate every potential option before we give up. But the hardest part of my work is letting families down.’
Nicola’s most memorable case involves three soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Cambrai in December 1917.
They were dug up by a homeowner installing draining on a farm in Anneux, northern France, in February 2016. Alongside them was a single identifying artefact: a 23rd London Battalion shoulder tie.
Nicola’s research revealed the identities of Private Frank Mead and Private Henry Wallington but their comrade remains unknown. Though Nicola met a woman she suspected was the man’s great-niece, ‘sadly it wasn’t to be’.
So what does it mean to a family when they do become part of a positive match?
Chris and Sharon Mead from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, were overwhelmed when they received the news about Chris’s great-uncle Frank.
He says: ‘I’ve always known about Frank; my grandfather Reg was his younger brother by six years.
‘We still have five letters exchanged between him and Frank during the war. Reg was too young for the First World War and too old for the second.
‘Chillingly, the final one written by Reg never reached Frank.
‘It was returned with the word ‘killed’ on the envelope. Brutal!
‘Who knows if that’s the first his parents heard of his death. Frank was just 23 when he died in December 1917 and had endured three dreadful years.
‘We knew he was a stretcher bearer towards the end but not where or why he fell.’
Chris treasures the letters with their references to a visit ‘from the Gothas’ [German bombers] and a steak and kidney pie Reg had sent his brother.
Chris Mead said: ”We still have five letters exchanged between him and Frank during the war. Reg was too young for the First World War and too old for the second’
He also owns three black-and-white photos and a collection of Frank’s satirical drawings.
‘He was really good at drawing,’ says Chris, 59, a former MoD civil servant.
‘They are very political and give a real sense of his humour. The artistic gene has been passed on: my uncle Peter, who died in his 30s, was a talented artist and I like to draw.’
It was Frank’s nephew, Peter, who proved the key to his identification as Nicola had first discovered his son Paul via Ancestry.com.
Paul –—whose middle name is Frank — lives in California with his wife and three children but was delighted to provide a DNA sample. It was he who informed his cousin Chris.
‘We had no idea how big the funeral was going to be,’ says Chris. ‘Or how much care and attention had been taken by Nicola and the team. We cannot thank them enough.’
The Meads attended the CWGC British cemetery at Hermies Hill, near Albert, France, alongside his American cousins Paul and Julia and their families.
Chris says: ‘We had breakfast and Nicola and her team took us to the cemetery where Frank was being buried. It was so lovely — we got off the bus, the police had closed the road. Loads of French people were there, kissing us and hugging us . . . Royal British Legion, French Legion. It’s a very emotional thing. It was impossible not to shed a tear.’
Afterwards the families were taken to the spot where their relatives fell: ‘They showed us the sunken road by the farmhouse where they were buried.
‘I understand the three men were moving an ammunition cart and were hit by snipers or blown up. Their comrades buried them in the garden of this old farmhouse building presumably so that they would be found when it was rebuilt.
Chris treasures the letters with their references to a visit ‘from the Gothas’ [German bombers] and a steak and kidney pie Reg had sent his brother
‘I kept thinking about how much it would have meant to my dad —who missed it by four years — my grandfather and indeed my great-grandparents who never knew where their son ended up.
‘It was a great honour to lay Frank to rest at last.’ Chris wants to give special mention to the Princess of Wales’s Regiment, which is what Frank’s 23rd London Regiment became. Soldiers made three bearer parties — one for each coffin.
Nicola explains: ‘These lads practise at their barracks and we always get there a day early so they can spend the day practising at the cemetery too.
‘A lot of time and effort goes into it. It can be really hard for them because potentially they could have been the coffin bearer for one of their comrades.’
Chris and Sharon Mead from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, were overwhelmed when they received the news about Chris’s great-uncle Frank
Chris adds: ‘We all went for dinner the night before. The soldiers couldn’t have been lovelier to us.
‘They were really quite emotional — some had tears in their eyes when they were telling us about the coffins.
‘Being ex-military, I know there’s gallows humour in the services — we joked about trying not to drop the coffins.
‘But at the end of the day the majesty of these military funerals must be a comfort to them. If that happened to them, if they were to fall and get lost, people wouldn’t give up.’
A sentiment echoed by Nicola Nash: ‘Every man we identify was somebody’s son, brother or father and was loved and cherished.
‘You just need to watch veterans at the Cenotaph Parade talking about lost comrades to realise how important it is to give them a final resting place. Even after all these years.
‘It’s also important for the current soldiers, who support the burials, to see that even though these men died a century ago they are still remembered.
‘They are still given a full military burial. Their sacrifice is still honoured. They will not be forgotten.’
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