History

Could you help confirm the identities of three fallen Scottish WW1 soldiers?

The MOD War Detectives need your help.

A team of investigators are trying to trace the living relatives of three fallen soldiers from Scotland whose remains have lain in France for more than a century where they fell in the First World War. 

The team at the Ministry of Defence, who are known as the MOD War Detectives, aim to confirm the identities of the three men in order to give them a fitting memorial with full military honours. 

Officially known as the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre Commemorations (JCCC) team, part of Defence Business Services (DBS), the MOD War Detectives have a good idea who the men are, due to some items found with the remains. 

The hope is that with DNA analysis, plus a bit of family tree investigation, the soldiers' families can be traced, allowing the team to finally confirm who the soldiers are and lay the men to rest in a dedicated grave where they can be honoured for making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their country. 

There are still more than 500,000 men missing from the First World War – many of them having been buried by comrades amid brutal and bloody battles. 

Their graves were unremarkable and their locations unknown, but the MOD War Detectives are making sure they are honoured and treated with dignity. 

Their latest case involves three soldiers from Scotland who saw battle during World War One, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. 

Louise Dorr, Case Officer from the MOD War Detectives, spoke to BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster Mark McKenzie (as heard in the audio above) about who they are trying to find the relatives of, saying: "The three casualties that I'm trying to find families for ... were discovered in two separate discoveries, both in France and they probably were exactly where they fell. 

"It could be that their comrades buried them in a shallow grave and they've lain there for X number of years and just come to the surface or been discovered by somebody ploughing the field or excavation work being done for infrastructure or building works." 

These are among the most common reasons why the remains of soldiers are discovered, especially on the Western Front where millions of soldiers died gruesome deaths.

MOD War Detectives Private David Gemmell's Spoon (Picture: Commonwealth War Graves Commission).
A close up image of the number engraved on the spoon discovered with the remains of Private David Gemmell (Picture: Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

Who do the MOD War Detectives think they have found? 

Two soldiers from the Black Watch who are recorded as having been killed in action on 25 January 1915, were found in January 2019 by a farmer ploughing his field at Cuinchy in France.  

Both were discovered with a spoon stamped with numbers identifying them to be Black Watch soldiers. 

Private David Gemmell 

One spoon has the number 3800 inscribed on it which has led the JCCC to believe this artefact relates to Private David Gemmell, whose regimental number was 3/3800 and is the only soldier with this number who is still missing from the First World War.

The former plumber was born in Dundee and was the youngest of eight children of which he was the only son.

Listen: Louise Dorr speaks to Mark McKenzie about what the MOD War Detectives know about Pte David Gemmell.

Picture: Men of the Black Watch enjoying an issue of rum on the Western Front during the First World War One (Picture: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo).

Pte George Brown 

The second casualty’s spoon shows the number 411 and it is believed to be part of the service number 4115, which belonged to Pte George Brown. 

There were some unique items discovered with his remains that don't help identify him but do help to paint a picture of the man he was. About these items, Louise said: "He had a lovely pocket watch and some trench art, a piece of china, a metal tin with King George V picture, which makes us think that was the Christmas tin from the previous year, 1914, that soldiers on the Western Front were sent from the King." 

"He also had some lovely greetings cards and little wooden fragments and a glass pot and things like his smoker's pipe and part of his belt and cufflinks." 

The MOD War Detectives would like to be able to find Pte Brown's family to be able to return these personal items to his relatives. 

Listen: Louise Dorr speaks to Mark McKenzie about what the MOD War Detectives know about Pte George Brown.

Picture: A First World War helmet rests upon the headstone engraved with the words 'A Soldier Of The Great War" (Picture: JOHN GOMEZ / Alamy Stock Photo).

Private John Wilson 

Another set of human remains was recovered from the edge of High Wood near Longueval in France. There were no official military artefacts found with these remains, only the British boots he was wearing. 

However, the MOD War Detectives did discover a knife buried with the remains. The handle has "J Wilson 1791 D Coy" carved on it. 

Commonwealth War Graves Commission records show only one casualty that matched these details. Private John Wilson of 6th Battalion Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), who died on 30 July 1916 and has no known grave. 

Listen: Louise Dorr speaks to Mark McKenzie about what the MOD War Detectives know about Private John Wilson.

Picture: War graves looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Picture: BFBS).

Those whose DNA cannot connect them to living relatives today and whose identity cannot be verified are buried with "Unknown Soldier of the Great War" written on their headstone provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and will be treated with the same dignity and honour as those whose identity is known. 

Millions of families were left grieving, a feeling that was intensified by never knowing what had happened to them. Louise says: "It is poignant to remember that their wives, children, parents and siblings would have been bereft and probably carried that grief all their lives, especially as they had no grave to visit."

But how do the MOD War Detectives know who the remains belong to? 

Other than being able to determine the cause of death plus the gender and age of the remains, the bones themselves reveal very little about the identity without having a relative to compare DNA with. 

As Lousie Dorr explains, it is the items found buried with the remains of soldiers that can give a clue as to who the person was and help to find someone who can provide DNA, saying: "We think we know who they are because of some of the things that were found with them but we can't guarantee that those artefacts, that have these details of service numbers on, necessarily belonged to them. 

"It was very much, if you needed a spoon and one of your dead comrades had one, you might take it. 

"So, although one was found with a spoon, with a service number on and we think it's who that service number relates to we really do need a family member to provide DNA for us to compare and prove it one way or the other."

If you can help, please call Louise on 0044 (0) 300 155 9487 or email [email protected].