Military honours for WWI casualties

Somerset County Gazette: Twenty soldiers were laid to rest at a service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Loos-en-Gohelle near Lens Twenty soldiers were laid to rest at a service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Loos-en-Gohelle near Lens

Twenty British soldiers killed in action during the First World War have finally been laid to rest with full military honours, almost 100 years after they died.

The soldiers who perished in the Battle of Loos in 1915 were found in 2010 during clearance work for a new prison near Vendin-le-Vieil, north of Arras, in France.

Only one of the troops discovered has been identified - Private William McAleer, of the 7th Battalion the Royal Scottish Fusiliers, part of the 45th Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division.

Born in Leven, Fife, 22-year-old Pte McAleer died shortly after the battle began and he was identified due to his body being found with his small home-made oval metal tag with his name on it.

It is understood that the young soldier's family emigrated to the United States, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.

Very little is known about Pte McAleer but it is known that his father was a miner who died in a pit accident, and his mother later remarried.

Among the other soldiers who died and were found at the same time were a Northumberland Fusilier, another six Royal Scottish Fusiliers and a member of the York and Lancaster Regiment.

In addition, there were two Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders and nine others whose regiment has not been identified.

The remains of 30 German soldiers were also found nearby, and they were handed over to the German authorities.

Today representatives from all the regiments with links to the British troops attended a reinterment service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Loos-en-Gohelle, near Lens.

Those who could not be identified were buried as soldiers "Known unto God" in front of more than 200 people, including Pte McAleer's great step nephew, Stephen McLeod, 47, who travelled from Scotland.

All 20 soldiers were given full military honours. Pte McAleer's coffin was given his own burial plot, with his headstone reading "13766, Private W. McAleer Royal Scots Fusiliers, 26th September 1915, age 22".

The remainder were buried in six other plots side by side.

In thick fog, a piper led six bearers as they carried Pte McAleer's Union flag-draped coffin topped with a wreath, belt and cap past the crowds and the burial plots of hundreds of other fallen soldiers.

A military firing party fired a salute during the service and the Last Post was played.

The Battle of Loos began on September 25, 1915 and was the largest conflict for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the war to that time.

The opening of the battle was noted for the first use of poison gas by the British Army. The attack at Loos consisted of six divisions before ammunition and heavy artillery had been sufficiently stocked.

It began in what was referred to at the time as the "Big Push", with more than 30,000 Scottish soldiers taking part in the attack.

Initial success for the division soon ground to a halt, with reserves too far behind to make a significant impact, making it impossible to build on the early gains.

Although the British had broken into enemy lines, they could not break through. Pte McAleer and the 19 other British troops were found near Hill 70, the scene of bitter fighting in the first two days of battle.

On September 25, 1915 Pte McAleer's battalion had reached Hill 70 to the east of Loos and dug in behind the crest line.

They fought off a German counter-attack during the night before being ordered to attack a German redoubt the following morning.

Although they entered the German trenches, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting they were forced to retreat to their start positions.

They were then subjected to heavy artillery bombardment which led to their withdrawal later after two unsuccessful bids by 21 Division to join up had failed.

Records of the 7th Battalion the Royal Scots Fusiliers showed that in just two days of battle, 69 died, 258 were wounded and 181 were missing.

By the end of September, it was clear that the hoped-for breakthrough was not going to materialise, with huge losses being sustained.

The Loos Memorial near where the 15th (Scottish) Division went into action carries the names of more than 20,000 missing from the battle.

Father of two Mr McLeod, a former Black Watch soldier who lives in Cowdenbeath, said Pte McAleer was "an enigma".

Mr McLeod wore a Tam o'Shanter hat and a Northern Ireland medal to the service to honour his descendant.

Mr McLeod, an occupational therapist, said he learned about Pte McAleer through his grandmother, but how he met his fate had always been shrouded in mystery.

He said: "I knew about his existence and knew he died in the First World War, but I didn't know his body wasn't found.

"That was news to myself when the military put out an appeal for his descendants to come forward. It was my cousin who heard the appeal, who in turn contacted my brother."

Mr McLeod, who was a Black Watch soldier for nine years from the age of 18, said he was touched to honour Pte McAleer in France.

He said: "To come to the Commonwealth and show my respect, especially as a former soldier, to those who have fallen, is a great honour.

"But to be able to come here in the centenary year and show respect to kith and kin is unique. It's unfortunate that we have the other 19 soldiers unidentified.

"It would have been nice if their descendants were able to show their respects."

Lieutenant Colonel Robin Lindsay, commanding officer of 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, said: "The circumstances at the time denied them the opportunity for a proper burial.

"This is an opportunity to remember them in a proper manner and give them a proper burial. This opportunity is very important, especially in the centenary year."

More than 950,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel died in the First World War, with a further 2.2 million armed forces members wounded in action.

Of those killed, some 600,000 have a marked grave but there remain more than 300,000 British and Commonwealth personnel with no known grave.

The Ministry of Defence no longer actively searches for bodies.

But almost 100 years later, remains of those killed between 1914 and 1918 continue to be found during agricultural or construction work on the battlefields.

This year, the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) will conduct more ceremonies for the remains of a further 43 British soldiers killed in the First World War across mainland Europe.

The events will be attended by serving members of the fallen's regiment, or its successor, and the regimental association, senior military officers and, where possible, relatives of the soldier.

In October, 15 soldiers from the Yorks and Lancashire Regiment who are believed to have died in battle around Beauchamp Ligny, France, will be buried.

And six soldiers, believed to have been serving with the Lancashire Fusiliers and Kings Own Regiments, are to be buried in early September at Prowse Point Cemetery in Belgium.

In addition, a soldier from the Welsh Guards and an officer from the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Regiment will be buried in separate events on dates to be decided later this year.

Unlike in Pte McAleer's case, metal identification discs were not commonly used in the First World War and many paper records were destroyed in the blitz of the Second World War.

A soldier may be identified by his regiment and the location of the find, or from uniform recovered along with the remains.

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