Friday, April 26, 2013

We will still remember them: First World War British soldiers are finally laid to rest

We will still remember them: First World War British soldiers are finally laid to rest, hey died amid the screams, machine-gun fire and deafening bomb blasts on the last day of the Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917.

And for 92 years, their bodies lay where they had fallen, buried in the debris of the churned-up battlefield.

Yesterday Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard and Private Christopher Douglas Elphick were finally laid to rest in a full military funeral following the discovery of their remains in the farmland of northern France.
Scroll down for video of ceremony and interviews

The coffin containing the remains of World War One soldier Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard arrives at the Ecoust-St-Mein cemetery in northern France for his re-interment

Lt Pritchard and Pte Elphick, both of the Honourable Artillery Company, were buried with full military honours yesterday, 96 years after they died

Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard, left, and Private Christopher Douglas Elphick, right, were both killed in action in Bullecourt, northern France, on May 15th, 1917

The soldiers, who served with the 2nd Battalion the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), were buried with two unidentified colleagues in the unit’s cemetery at Ecoust-St Mein, near Arras.

More than 300 people, including family members and HAC Royal Honorary Colonel Prince Michael of Kent, attended the ceremony.

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A military rifle party fired a salute during the service and afterwards two of Lt Pritchard’s great-nieces and their husbands read Tennyson’s poem Crossing The Bar.

Lt Pritchard, 31, and Pte Elphick, 28, were among 43 HAC soldiers who died when the Germans tried to regain the village of Bullecourt.

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A poppy wreath and a sword that belonged to Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard were carried by a soldier during the ceremony at the HAC cemetery yesterday

Prince Michael of Kent, who is Royal Honorary Colonel of the HAC, received the poppy wreath and sword at the service in Ecoust-St-Mein cemetery

More than 300 relatives, friends, and those simply wishing to pay their respects to fallen heroes turned out in tribute to the dead British soldiers yesterday

Relatives of Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard were among those who attended the burial service in northern France, nearly a century after he died

Soldiers carry the casket of a World War One soldier during a re-interment ceremony at the HAC cemetery in Ecoust-St-Mein in northern France yesterday

The British soldiers were laid to rest in the Ecoust-St Mein war cemetery in northern France, not far from where they fell 96 years ago next month

More than 7,000 Australians were also killed defending the hamlet, described by historians as ‘small and tactically useless’.

The remains of the British soldiers were found in 2009 when farmer Didier Guerle, whose father had told him never to plough the field as a mark of respect for the fallen, came across a canister and a boot with his metal detector.

Experts from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were called in and discovered a silver identity bracelet belonging to Lt Pritchard and a signet ring embossed with Pte Elphick’s initials. It took three years to trace their relatives so their effects could be returned.

Lt Pritchard’s family was also given his ceremonial officer’s sword by a US collector who had bought it before the bodies were found.

His great-niece, Jackie Evans, 67, from Sandwich, Kent, said: ‘We felt so proud to be a part of it. I followed my great-uncle’s war diaries and it was a joyous shock to suddenly find out where his war finished.’

This Christmas postcard was sent by Private Elphick, of the Honourable Artillery Company, six months before he was killed in action fighting the Germans in 1917

Last Christmas card: Private Elphick, who was 28 when he died, expressed his hope to the card's recipient that 1917 would 'bring us all together once more'

'Our tent leaks like blazes': A postcard from Lt John Harold Pritchard while he was stationed at Bulford Camp near Salisbury in Wiltshire

John Harold Pritchard was the eldest of seven children and a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral in London before he joined the Army and went to France

French farmer Didier Guerle, who found the soldiers' remains while clearing his land with a metal detector in 2009, shows off a rusted rifle and pickaxe he found nearby

Historian Moise Dilly runs a metal detector over the spot in the field in Bullecourt, northern France, where the British soldiers' remains lay for so many years

Mr Guerle also found the shell of a World War One gas bomb near the remains of the British soldiers - his father had always told him not to plough that field

The French farmer was clearing his fields of old ammunition with a metal detector when he found the human remains four years ago

Pte Elphick’s grandsons Chris, 64, and Martin 61, were among those attending the service.

Chris, from Cross In Hand, East Sussex, said: ‘We feel incredibly honoured. All we knew was that he went missing during the First World War... and he ended up being found in the strangest way, just out of the blue.’

As a boy, Lt Pritchard, from Wandsworth, south-west London, had sung as a chorister at King Edward VII’s coronation in 1902.

The unmarried insurance inspector joined the HAC in 1909 and survived the Battle of the Somme and a gunshot wound before being cut down at Bullecourt.

Pte Elphick, an insurance clerk born in Dulwich, south London, was married with a newborn son when he died, having enlisted with the HAC in 1915.


The Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) was a German defensive position built during the winter of 1916-1917 from Arras to Laffaux. The last and the strongest of the German Army's defence lines, it consisted of three well-defended trench systems.

May 1917 saw the second Battle of Bullecourt, a continuation of the British spring offensive north and south of Arras that aimed to support a major French attack further south.

The French attacked on 15 April 1917 but when the attack failed, the British and French leaders agreed to continue the operation, which was a joint British and Australian attack on the Hindenburg Line around Bullecourt.

The attack began in the early hours of 3 May 1917, and the Australians in particular suffered heavy casualties as a result of machine gun fire over the next few days.

On 6 May, the Germans launched their sixth counter-attack, but an astonishing display of bravery in which Corporal George Julian Howell ran along the top of the trenches bombarding the enemy with hand grenades pushed the Germans back. (Cpl Howell later received the Victoria Cross in person from King George V for his bravery).

The following day, the British seized part of Bullecourt, and on 15 May the Germans launched a final counter-attack, in which the British soldiers buried yesterday are believed to have died.

The Australians fought the counter-attack off, and by 17 May, all the ruins of Bullecourt were in Allied hands

But the victory came at great cost, particularly to the Australians who were said to have lost more than 7,000 men for a 'small, tactically useless, village'.

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