In October 2015 we were contacted by the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) of the Ministry of Defence.
Human remains had been found in a field to the north-east of Martinpuich on the Somme.
The opinion of the exhumation team was that the soldier was lying where he fell rather than a field burial; perhaps blown onto the side of a shell hole.
The relatively full set of remains showed possible shrapnel wounds rather than small arms wounds.
With the remains were three sets of Yorks shoulder titles and a very distinctive Territorial 5th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment shoulder badge.
The X on the map below marks the spot where the remains were found.
The JCCC asked what, if anything, we could do to help give this soldier a name.
And so began a research quest that engrossed and compelled staff and volunteers. After all, what could be more worthwhile than giving our energy to giving a man a grave and a family a focus for their remembrance?
Given the location where the remains were found, we looked at events around Martinpuich between 25 and 27 September 1916.
At first the task seemed nigh on impossible. Records showed some 34 men who were officially declared missing during these operations.
The 5th Battalion had been on the Somme since the middle of August 1916 and thus had missed the costly opening of the battle. From Corps reserve at Millencourt, the Battalion moved to Lozenge Wood, then on to Pioneer Alley and Swansea Trenches on 10th September.
Casualties on 25th September were 5 Officers and 62 Other Ranks killed, 3 Officers and 256 Other ranks wounded with 27 Other ranks listed as ‘missing’.
At 6am on 26th, the Battalion relieved the 5th DLI in Prue Trench and the Starfish Line. Moving forward against enemy positions the Battalion lost a further 3 Officers and 33 Other Ranks wounded or missing, and 7 Other Ranks killed.
Initially we hoped that the unusual T-5 shoulder badge would help.
If we could find out when this badge ceased to be issued perhaps we could discount any missing men who enlisted after the date the badge was discontinued. Sadly, no ‘official’ date of discontinuance could be found and the opinion of seasoned badge/insignia collectors was that, in effect, regiments kept issuing these badges until stock ran out.
Any means of reducing the number of possible candidates was pursued. Had any of the missing been wounded previously? If they had it was possible their remains would still bear the scars of trauma to bone.
This initial sift reduced the number of candidates to 12:
• 3763 Private John Richard Cooper
• 3630 Private Edward Cross
• 1123 Private John Holmes
• 3804 Private Charles Jesse Holt
• 1281 Private Harold Johnson
• 2743 Corporal Arthur Lyth
• 242489 Private John Reuben
• 3183 Private Henry Parker
• 3837 Private George Perks
• 240587 Private Maurice Pilgrim
• 5233 Private Arthur George Redding
• 1875 Lance-Sergeant Arthur Warley
The paper archive had been exhausted, science would now have to play its part.
In the meantime, we tipped off the BBC that this could be a potential story. They were as engrossed by it as we were.
Commissioning editors agreed to the story forming part of an episode of ‘Inside Out’ and the BBC crew filmed at the museum on 18th January 2017. At this stage nobody knew if there would be a positive match.
The Forensic Team from JCCC went to the mortuary in France and collected DNA from the femur of the remains. This was tested and compared to samples taken from the next of kin of the missing soldiers who agreed to take part in the process. Then we waited.
Discussions took place about the make-up of the Standard Party that would attend the reburial, regardless of whether an identity had been secured.
Then, on Friday 10th February, Steve Erskine, the Assistant Curator received an email from the JCCC. “I saw it was from JCCC but assumed it was just another part of the discussion about the format of the reburial so I didn’t open the email straightaway. It wasn’t until later that morning that I sat down, opened the email and read the news.”
The remains had been positively identified as those of 3183 Private Henry Parker, one of the 12 missing soldiers we had highlighted. Now we could start looking into the background of a single individual.
We’d contacted the BBC team at the start of the process, and Inside Out programme maker Phil Connell was as intrigued as we were.
“We instantly knew this was an incredible story. It had fascinating ingredients – history, science and a hundred years of mystery. We started filming towards the end of last year but at that stage had no idea what the outcome would be. Would our unidentified Yorkshire soldier be named and his family traced?
Four months later the story reached an emotional conclusion. We had the soldiers name, private Henry Parker and even better his surviving family still lived near Driffield. It was the end we’d all been hoping for and one which made a powerful and emotional programme.
It was such a privilege to be a part of the journey – a hundred year mystery solved and a Yorkshire soldier at long last reunited with his family. Wonderful.”
(Inside Out aired on 27 February 2017)
3183 Private Henry Parker.
Henry was born 1893 at Weaverthorpe near Scarborough, and christened on 6th January 1894 at Stillingfleet south of York.
In 1901 he was living with his parents, John and Esther and his 8 siblings (3 brothers and 5 sisters) at 10 The Square, Wansford in the then East Riding of Yorkshire, near Driffield.
By 1911 Henry was working as a ‘Servant (Horseman)’ on a farm near the village of Swaythorpe.
Henry was a pre-war territorial soldier and he crossed to France to join the 5th Battalion on 1st November 1915 joining his colleagues, who had been in Belgium around Ypres since April 1915, at Armentieres. The Battalion continued to serve in the Salient until it moved to the Somme.
In a notice of Henry’s death in action, The Driffield Times noted, “Much sympathy is felt for the family. Another son has been at the Front since the commencement of the war.”
The December 1916 edition of the Green Howards Gazette includes Henry in a list of those killed in action. The Register of soldiers’ effects notes that Henry left £9 6s 10d to his father, John.
Until now Henry has been commemorated on the monument to the missing at Thiepval on the Somme, and in St. Mary’s Church in Wansford (built by another connection to the Green Howards, Sir Tatton Sykes, father of Mark Sykes, of Sykes-Picot fame).
On Thursday 6 April 2017, Henry’s relatives (some of whom had never met before) gathered at the museum along with staff, volunteers and the JCCC team to share information about their shared family, understand more about the area of France Henry was soldiering in when he died, and find out what will happen at his reburial.
Henry’s name will now be removed from the panels at the Thiepval memorial. He will be reburied, with full honours on Wednesday 17th May, at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Warlencourt.
Should you ever be in the vicinity, please go along and tip your hat to Henry.
Read about our Assistant Curator’s adventures in the area around Henry’s childhood home.