‘First world war’s Pompeii’: burial for British soldiers found in Flemish field

Ceremony marks end of archaeological dig that unearthed web of tunnels and remains of 110 men

Soldiers prepare to bury two coffins at Wytschaete military cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The plot of land – little bigger than two football pitches – has been described as “the first world war’s Pompeii”. But many of the secrets of those who fought and died on this Flemish field are still destined never to be told.

At 11am on Thursday, the burial of 13 British and Commonwealth soldiers at Wytschaete military cemetery near Ypres brought to a close a nearby archaeological dig responsible for uncovering the remains of 110 men, an intricate web of trenches and tunnels, and arguably the most comprehensive snapshot of the changing fortunes and horror of the 1914-1918 war.

The plot in question, on the edge of the village of Wytschaete, close to the cemetery, repeatedly changed hands through the war and the misshapen jagged land left behind, unusable by farmer or urban planner, meant that archaeologists benefited from it being largely untouched when they arrived in 2018.

More than a hundred mourners watched under an autumnal sun as three coffins covered by the union flag, containing the British empire and Commonwealth soldiers found on the field at Wytschaete – Whitesheet to the British troops – were buried side by side.

One coffin was for an unnamed British soldier, identified by nationality due to his dentures that bore the stamp “Leeds”. A second contained the skeleton of a soldier whose specific nationality is not known, and the third held the partial remains of 11 lost men, all identified as British and Commonwealth army due to the scattered parts of military uniform, including general service buttons from greatcoats found by their bones. Most are thought to have been killed in the last months of the war.

At the end of the burial, conducted by Father Patrick O’Driscoll, chaplain of the 1st battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the last post was sounded, drawing the attention of the cattle on the farms on either side of the rows of white Portland headstones.

Coffins arrive for the burial service. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

An orchestra and choir made up of young men and women from the Theodorianum Paderborn school in central Germany, Mildenhall College academy in Suffolk, and St Joseph’s College Ipswich, sang In Flanders Fields, led by 17-year-old Wilfred Kensley.

The joint Anglo-German choir was an acknowledgment of the very particular story of the excavation of the so-called Hill 80, formerly the site of a windmill, which became an entrenched German gun position when the village was captured in 1914. It was taken in the Battle of Messines in June 1917 before being recaptured by Kaiser Wilhelm’s army in 1918 in the Battle of Lys. The village was only restored to allied hands in September 1918 at horrendous cost on both sides.

Three French and one South African soldier found will be buried at a later date. The nationality of a further 20 men has not been assigned.

On Friday, 73 German soldiers, found along with the British and Commonwealth soldiers, will be buried in one of Germany’s own nearby cemeteries. Among those will be the only soldier to be identified by name: Pte Albert Oehrle, 17, a volunteer in a Bavarian battalion.

Simon Verdegem, the lead archaeologist on Hill 80, who has worked with Prof Peter Doyle of London South Bank university on the project, first came to the site in 2015 when he was asked to examine the area by a developer, as required by Belgian law.

It became clear there were remains to be recovered but it was only through an international crowdfunding campaign, backed by the historian and TV presenter Dan Snow and and the comedian Al Murray among others, that the €250,000 needed for the work, carried out last April to July, was found.

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