Following last week’s #WWWednesday feature describing the latest scientific methods for identifying fallen WW1 soldiers, forensic archaeologist Sarah Ashbridge explains how these new techniques have been used at Plug Street in Flanders.
Our story starts in 2008 when archaeologists from No Man’s Land, a group of military archaeologists & historians, began investigating sites from the Great War.
Ploegstreet (eventually dubbed Plugstreet by British soldiers who struggled to pronounce the correct Flemish name) featured in the Battle of Messines, which began on 7th June 1917, a precursor to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres. It was whilst working on the Plugstreet Project, investigating the field evidence for the Battle of Messines, the team discovered a single human skeleton – the forgotten grave of an unknown soldier.
The fight for Messines Ridge
The objective of the battle was to secure the Messines Ridg, a natural stronghold, which had been in German possession since late 1914. General Herbert Plummer authorised the laying off 22 mines underneath German lines with a plan to detonate them all at 03:10am on 7th June before storming the dazed enemy lines to recover the Ridge.
“Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” Remark by Herbert Plummer to his staff before the Battle of Messines 1917
All in all, 19 of 21 of the mines were detonated on 7th June creating what is said to have been the largest man-made sound to date. The diary of Lloyd George claims to have heard the sound of the explosions in Downing Street, London (a grand total of 164 miles away), as the explosions rattled the windows of his house.
Militarily, the attack was a great success, achieving the capture of enemy lines on a very low budget, making Plummer one of the most effective and successful of all the First World War Generals. However there were of course many losses to both sides as a result of the tremendous explosions, and it is the evidence of this human cost that the excavation team began to encounter.
When human remains are discovered on a WW1 battlefield site, official procedures snap quickly into place. The Site Manager must inform both the police and the Commonwealth Graves commission. Forensic archaeologists were then called in to carefully expose, record and exhume the body. The soldier was found in one of the destroyed German trenches, lying face down still wearing his full equipment and holding his Lee-Enfield rifle. This equipment confirmed that the soldier was a British Imperial soldier, with small details revealing the nationality of the soldier. Brass shoulder titles showing ‘Australia’ was accompanied by brass badges of the Rising Sun with the Imperial Crown of the Australian Infantry Force were also found.
CSI World War One
With the soldiers’ nationality confirmed, the group’s historians could attempt to procure an identity for the soldier. His summer equipment indicated he was equipped for assault as per the Order of Battle for Messines in 1917, meaning that he was from C or D companies of the 33rd Battalion, 3rd Australian Division. Lists of men missing from the battle were scrutinised to produce a list of potential identities.
Osteological examination of the body showed the man to be between 35-40 years old, having lead a physical life. The list of missing men included farmers and miners so further evidence was needed. Isotope analysis of the bones showed that he was from the Sydney Basin or Hunter Valley in New South Wales, which helped to eliminate non-Aussie soldiers from the list. This reduced the list of potential identities to just five men. The Australian Army then traced the decendents of these men, in order to obtain DNA samples for testing. These tests identified the soldier as Private Alan James Mather of Inverell, New South Wales.
Roll call of Duty
Private Mather, born in 1880 was the son of the mayor of Inverell, attending the town’s grammar school before studying viticulture at Hakesbury Agricultural College. He owned a large area of land and won prizes or his wine. In 1916, aged 36, Alan joined the army during a recruitment drive, becoming part of a unit which would locally be known as ‘The Kurra-jongs’ after a tree that grows in abundance in the area.
The identification of Alan Mather’s remains brought comfort and solace to his descendants who had visited the battlefields only weeks before his discovery. To us, the Great War seems far older than a mere 100 years, but stories such as this really bring home how recent the events actually are. Alan’s name has now been removed from the panel on the Menin Gate, commemorating the missing men of the 33rd Battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces – a symbolic closure for his descendants, and a victory for all involved in the excavations.
Interested in the Archaeology of the Great War? Check out our weekly blog series – World War Wednesday – or sign up to our newsletter to be notified about our forthcoming WW1 home front project opportunities.
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