An unknown soldier known once more

Missing in action

Private 275314 William Neville Arthur of the 3rd Battalion of the London Regiment, who had been posted to serve with the 23rd (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, was declared as “missing in action” on 25 March 1918.

William Neville Arthur

 

His battalion was in action during the German offensive Operation “Michael”, and on 25 March was forced to withdraw several miles westwards. William was one of 210 men of the battalion named as missing during this terrible battle.

 

Official assumption of death

Very soon after 25 March, William’s next of kin would have been informed that he was missing. They would endure a very uncertain period while official exchanges of information took place. If no further information emerged within six months, death would be officially assumed to have taken place.

The “Folkestone Herald” of 4 May 1918 announced that he was missing.

 

William’s entry in the roll of the British War and Victory Medals shows that his service in France ended on 25 March 1918. It had been assumed that he was dead.

 

His entry in the register of the Pozieres Memorial to the Missing, which gives his presumed date of death as 25 March 1918.

 

The register of financial effects paid to his next of kin confirms that William’s death had been officially presumed to have taken place.

It all seems fairly straightforward: William was missing during the German advance, nothing more was heard, his body was not identified and his name was listed at the Pozieres Memorial.

But his family knew something different …

On 29 March 1919, the “Folkestone Herald” carried an “in memoriam” notice placed by his family.

They clearly had new information: that he had died of wounds at Givet on 31 March 1918. That is, six days after he was missing.

New information

Givet? Where’s that?

The place said to be where William had died of wounds is many miles from the Somme – and was deep behind German lines at the time.

… and the information originated in Germany

As Givet was in German-held territory, the implication is that he had been taken prisoner.

The archives of the Red Cross include this index card, raised when an enquiry was first made after William had been declared as missing. It confirms that his identity disc had been received from a German Sanitation Company (responsible for burial) on 17 May 1918: whether the family ever received the disc is not clear, but the record states that the information was communicated to the family on 4 October 1918. In other words, AFTER his death had already been officially assumed.

The information that he had died of wounds at Givet on 31 March 1918 came from German records. They said that he had died in the military hospital there as a result of grenade splinters to his chest.

The Red Cross archive also includes the German information.

Note that the German information is uncertain with regard to his name, giving it as “Arthur, William or William Arthur”. This document gives no regiment or number.

Burial

The German military hospital in Givet, where “Arthur, William or William Arthur” died of wounds on 31 March 1918

It was my assumption that if William Arthur died at Givet he would have been buried close by.

An internet search revealed that a large German military cemetery had existed at an ancient site just outside Givet, known as Notre-Dame de Walcourt. The cemetery was cleared after the war and the site has been renovated in recent years. Could William have been buried there? If so, what happened to him when the cemetery was cleared?

The site of Notre-Dame de Walcourt today.

Reburial in France

Records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission showed that a number of remains were moved from Walcourt to Sedan-Torcy in France. There is also a memorial there to 14 men who were known to have been buried at Givet and another location, but whose graves could not be found.

Details from the register of Sedan-Torcy Cemetery.

Digging into the burial returns for Sedan-Torcy cemetery brought up a report of the reburial of a man named William Arthur, who had been found at Walcourt along with Pte W. E. Barsby of the Lincolns and Sapper C. T. Camp of the Royal Engineers. Arthur was found buried in “Grave 68”.

Details of the men found at Walcourt and reburied at Sedan-Torcy.

 

William Arthur was buried alongside Charles Camp at Sedan-Torcy. For some odd reason (but which is clearly incorrect), Barsby was treated as one of the 14 men whose graves could not be found!

When the men were exhumed from Walcourt and reburied at Sedan-Torcy, Arthur and Camp were buried in graves number 1 and 2.

My friend Nigel Marshall happened to be travelling in the area when I found this evidence, and kindly went out of his way to see Camp’s grave and see whether there was a grave 1 next to him. There is – and it is marked to an unknown British soldier.

 

The “Unknown soldier” buried next to Charles Camp.

It is my contention that the “unknown soldier” is William Neville Arthur.

There are some odd points to the story – whether the family ever tried to correct the official date of death and eventual commemoration at Pozieres; why the German hospital was unsure of his name (although I can understand two common “forenames” may have confused them); and why, when his reburial is clearly documented, his stone was not named.

I have carried out additional work to determine whether any other man named William Arthur or Arthur William could be buried there, but I cannot find any evidence to support that possibility.

Over to you, CWGC

In September 2016 I submitted the case to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with a request that William Neville Arthur is properly commemorated at Sedan-Torcy and that a suitable amendment, explanation or deletion is made at Pozieres.

In December 2017, CWGC says that the “case is still resting with Commemorations awaiting review and so, will not be achieved prior to March 2018 as it won’t be in the discussions for the 2018 plan that we having with JCCC later this week”. So poor William Arthur Neville will still be buried as an “unknown soldier” at the centenary of his death, fully eighteen months after the case was submitted.

In early March 2018, CWGC announced a number of reburials and re-dedications that would be carried out during the month. No news on their consideration of the Neville case. It seems that despite the case having been raised eighteen months prior to the centenary of his death, it will be missed.

On 26 June 2018, CWGC confirmed that they have rejected the submission on the basis of lack of evidence.

Additional note

Part of CWGC’s explanation of the rejection made the point that “His service number is within the block allocated to 3rd Btn London Regiment when the battalion re-numbered in 1917 (250001 to 280000). The 23rd Royal Fusiliers was allocated the block 700001 to 720000. His name is on the 3rd Btn London Regiment Medal Roll for the British War and Victory Medals but with a previous Btn (23rd Royal Fusiliers) showing as ending 25 March 1918 (date of death). His Medal Index Card shows the units in the order 23rd R Fus, then 3rd London. Soldiers Died in the Great War has 3rd London Regiment. There are 2 entries for him on the Soldiers Effects Register. A cancelled entry shows him as being in A Coy, 23rd R Fus. The final entry shows 23rd Royal Fusiliers from 3rd London Regt. The publication ‘The 23rd (service) Btn Royal Fusiliers (First Sportsman’s) During the First World War 1914-1918( Fred W. Ward) Roll of Honour: Private W R Arthur with a date of death of 25 March 1918 and the service number 75314. The details for another casualty with very similar details suggests they were officially allocated to 3rd London Regiment but attached to 23rd Btn. In this case CWGC believe Private Arthur was officially serving with 3rd Btn London Regiment. CWGC policy is to commemorate casualties under the unit they were officially serving with and therefore no change will be made.”

My research had already revealed that, having landed in France on 23 September 1917, William was transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the London Regiment from the 4th East Kent Regiment on 23 October 1917 and in accordance with regulations was renumbered as Private 275314. This was, however only a technicality and he never physically served with that unit. On the same date, he was posted to the 23rd (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. As the two regiments were affiliated (link) this posting did not imply a transfer between corps and as such it was not necessary to renumber him again. In other words

  • the information regarding the block of numbers allotted to the 23rd Royal Fusiliers is incorrect. It was a service battalion of the regular army and not part of the renumbering of the Territorial Force infantry in 1917. CWGC is confusing it with the 23rd (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment, which was affiliated to the East Surrey Regiment;
  • the information from the medal index card is irrelevant, for it was only a finding aid to the roll (shown above);
  • the service number quoted from the roll of honour is incorrect; and
  • there is no doubt that William Arthur Neville was physically with the 23rd (Service) Battalion at the time of his capture.