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Burial of 13 World War One soldiers brings closure to crowdfunded archaeological project

 

A burial service on October 10 brought closure to a crowdfunded archaeological project that discovered 110 previously missing soldiers. Thirteen of those found, all from Commonwealth nations including the UK, were buried side by side at a ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) Wytschaete Military Cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium.

The World War One soldiers are placed in their final resting place. Crown Copyright

The service formed one of the final chapters to the ‘Dig Hill 80’ project that discovered the remains in 2018. The 1.1 hectare crowdfunded archaeological excavation took place at the former site of Hill 80 in Wytschaete, that had been allocated for future housing development.

The project team excavated 550 metres of trenches and 430 bomb craters, recovering 110 soldiers including British, French, German and South African.

Dig Hill 80 was highly publicised at the time, attracting international media attention and celebrity patronage from comedian Al Murray and support from military historian, Dan Snow.

The recent service, conducted by Father Patrick O’Driscoll, Chaplain to the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was supported by present-day serving Fusiliers from the Regiment who formed the bearer parties and a firing party.

Father Patrick O’Driscoll conducting the service. Crown Copyright

The 13 casualties were interred in three coffins, with three CWGC headstones marking their collective final resting places. Two coffins each contained one unknown soldier with a third containing the partial remains of 11 unknown individuals. In keeping with burial tradition, the casualties were interred together, ensuring that those who served and died together, are buried and commemorated together.

The funeral service was organised by the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), known as the ‘MOD War Detectives’, who also try to make an identification when British remains are found.

Due to the heavy nature of the fighting in this area during the war, it has not been possible to identify the individuals by name on this occasion. However, at least two individuals are believed to be British, one of whom was wearing dentures manufactured in the UK.

Hill 80, in the village of Wytschaete, was formerly the site of a windmill before the First World War, it became an entrenched German gun position following the village’s capture in 1914.

The location afforded observational advantage to the Germans as it overlooked the town of Ypres and formed part of the Messines Ridge. The site remained in German hands until the Battle of Messines in June 1917 when it was recaptured.

In 1918, Hill 80 was again taken by the Germans during the Battle of the Lys, before finally returning to Allied hands in September 1918.

Head Archaeologist Simon Verdegem said: “It is now about a year since the investigation into the soldiers of Hill 80 was completed. Thanks to massive international support from individuals and organisations, enough money was raised through crowdfunding to make a detailed excavation possible.

“The aim was not only to excavate the trenches but also to recover the soldiers. Now, the British and German soldiers will finally be given a definitive and dignified resting place along with their comrades.

“I dare to believe that it gives them peace, knowing that people from all over the world have joined forces to recover their mortal remains. In my opinion, this can count as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.”

The graves will now be marked by headstones provided by the CWGC, who will care for their final resting place in perpetuity.

The German soldiers discovered on Hill 80 were laid to rest on October 11 at the German war cemetery in Langemark.

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