Families Of Fallen First World War Opponents Unite At Army Museum

By Richard Moss | 11 November 2005
shows a group of people stood at the entrance to a museum exhibition.

(L to r) Andrew Robertshaw of the National Army Museum with Walter Rapp and Richard Norris together with members of the museum's archaeological team. Photo © 24 Hour Museum / Richard Moss.

Two descendants of soldiers who died on opposing sides during the First World War were at the National Army Museum on Friday November 11 2005 to observe the two minutes silence for Armistice Day.

Walter Rapp from Germany and Richard Norris from Wales were present for the opening of an exhibition covering the work by a team of archaeologists, led by staff from the museum, who unearthed the remains and belongings of their relatives. The exhibition, Finding the Fallen, runs at the museum until March 31 2005.

“World War One saw the deaths of thousands of people and in the last two minutes we have remembered some them,” said Andrew Robertshaw, the Museum’s Head of Education and a lead member of the team.

“The archaeological project that this exhibition was designed to reflect reveals a little about the lives of a few of those lives. In so doing we were able to tell more about the men that we didn’t find – the men that are still out there – the men that are still missing,” he added.

shows a boot and other items such as buckles and buttons in a display case

The exhibition includes many of the items excavated during the archaeological dig. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

The project, which was covered by a TV documentary team, went to France in 2003 in order to find out more about conditions in the trenches on the Western Front. The work was however soon overtaken by the discovery of several human remains and the subsequent quest to identify them.

Amongst them were those of Jakob Hones, a private soldier from near Stuttgart. Walter Rapp, his grandson, told the 24 Hour Museum how it affected his family.

“It was quite emotional when we heard about it,” he explained. “First of all we couldn’t believe what had happened but afterwards when were informed by officials from the village where he lived and where we still live, it was a great moment for me and the family.”

Mr Rapp said that prior to the discovery, his grandfather was not talked about - apart from occasional comments from his mother who was born when Hones was already at the war. Now, over 90 years after his death, Jakob Hones has brought the family back together – there is even an exhibition about his life currently running in his home village near Stuttgart.

“When my mother died the family really broke up, but after the discovery we come together quite often and have meetings and talk about stories of him and show pictures and cards and so-on that he sent from the front,” said Mr Rapp. “It’s good that he was found and he is now at rest, it’s good to know.”

shows a boot in with a piece of leg bone protruding from it

The exhibition includes detailed photographs of some of the grisly remains found during the excavation. Photo courtesy National Army Museum

From the initial find in a forgotten communal grave in the Somme region of France to the poignant quest to identify him, the story of Hones’ discovery can be followed in the exhibition. Army records were used together with clues from his belongings, uniform and his corroded identity tag, which Hone had attempted to scratch with his initials. Remarkably, the team have also managed pinpoint, to almost within an hour, the date and time when he was killed.

David Kenyon, lead archaeologist on the dig explained how the whole process was an unusual but rewarding one for all involved. “It’s very different to the sort of archaeology I’ve done for most of my life,” he said, “ you can dig up a Roman and his family rarely appear. I’m just really pleased to have been part of it.”

Another item found during the excavations was a wristwatch, with the name England on it. A detailed look through the records and a study of the location led them to believe they had found an item belonging to British soldier Lt John England – one of thousands listed as missing. Although this proved ultimately not to be the case, the great nephew of England, Richard Norris explained how the near discovery had led to another, more remarkable one.

“It was extraordinary to find that we had a relative who was obliterated fighting on the first day of Paschendale taking Pilcombe Ridge,” he said. “The watch wasn’t to be, but a positive is that we found a relative and I have now learned that his name is on the Menin Gate.”

Mr Norris, who has been working on his family tree, did some of his own detective work - sifting through birth and marriage certificates and parish records to establish the existence of the hitherto unknown war hero.

shows a photgraph of two men standing in front of a museum display screen

Lead archaeologist David Kenyon (left) with Richard Norris. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

“I’m surprised that my own grandfather didn’t tell me about it,” he added, “because he was at the Somme and had the same name, John Humphrey England.”

Finding the Fallen illustrates the wider physical process of battlefield archaeology and the ways in which it helps us understand the day-to-day life of soldiers in the trenches. Fascinating artefacts from the dig are included, together with a hard-hitting section on the death and destruction wrought by the war. A section on forensic techniques also explains some of the processes used in identification.

“I hope that when people go away from this exhibition, they go away thinking and having learned something,” added Andrew Robertshaw. “I hope they go away, disturbed, angry, bemused perhaps – but at least they will have had an emotional experience, because this whole period of working on these sites has been more emotional than I ever, ever anticipated.”

A five-part Discovery Civilisation programme about the excavation begins at 9.00 pm on November 13 2005.

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