100 Years On: Uncovering the Identities of Missing WW1 Soldiers

BY Jo Carlowe

1st Jan 2015 Life

100 Years On: Uncovering the Identities of Missing WW1 Soldiers

In summer 1914, Private William Alfred Singyard, aged 30, was among the first of the allied soldiers deployed to war. Within three months he was dead—gunned down in France and later listed on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, just one of 500,000 men lost in the First World War with no known grave...

...And there, you’d think, the story would end. But 95 years later, the remains of Private Singyard and 14 comrades were discovered; most have now been identified. In October, they will be buried with full military honours—exactly 100 years from the day they fell. Remarkably, this is not a one-off. Meet the pioneering groups that are still identifying fallen soldiers 100 years after Britain’s entry into the First World War


WW1 Missing Service People 100 Years On

To this day, expert researchers continue to seek missing service personnel from the First World War—some without a grave, some with unknown stories and others erroneously omitted from official records. With the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War marked this month, never have these “war-dead detectives” been more in demand. 

The burial of Private Singyard is all in a day’s work for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Nic Andrews, responsible for “discovery of remains cases”, explains: “When we were formed in 1917, the challenges were to provide burial and commemoration. This is exactly the same thing, except it’s 100 years after the event.” 

Typical cases are soldiers from the Western Front who get dug up years later by builders laying roads or farmers turning soil. Private Singyard and his comrades were discovered by construction workers on the outskirts of Beaucamps-Ligny in northern France in 2009. One soldier was still clutching a pipe, while other artefacts included webbing from uniforms, leather from boots, metal water bottles and, crucially, metal buttons inscribed with the insignia of the York and Lancaster Regiment. 



Nic established that the men were professionals and reservists who formed part of an expeditionary force dispatched at the outset of war. They were killed between October 18-20, 1914, in a barrage of machine-gun fire as they attempted to enter the village. 

Only a handful of men from the battalion were officially missing, few enough for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to decide it was worth seeking out relatives to swab for DNA. They traced the families through local media appeals and web searches—a task that took several years to complete. 

There was a strong family resemblance. The eyes and mouth were my father’s. It made it more emotional.

When retired engineer Barry Singyard, 66, received a call from the army’s genealogist, he mistook the man for a salesman.

“It came out of the blue. When he asked if I’d provide a DNA sample, I agreed because it’s only right and proper. I was the only direct male link they could find for Private Singyard, my second cousin twice removed. I proved a perfect match.”

Fascinated by this turn of events, Barry tracked down a photograph of William. “There was a strong family resemblance. The eyes and mouth were my father’s. It made it more emotional.”

On October 22 this year, William and his comrades (ten of whom have been identified) will be given a military funeral in France, close to where they died. Barry will attend. “It’s down to me to afford this chap some dignity and recognition.”


Tracing the Fate of Loved Ones

Since setting up the professional research and advisory service Fourteen Eighteen, Chris Baker has helped thousands of families trace the fate of loved ones lost in the First World War.

At the start, it was laborious work. But the internet changed everything.

“It’s obviously harder to look for a John Smith than a man with a less common name, but digitalisation means you can do this quickly. It’s gone from being invisible—because it’s in some Ministry of Defence archive—to being hard work, to
being relatively easy.”

Chris receives 15–20 inquiries a week from people wishing to learn what “their soldier” did during the war. Investigations are typically completed within four weeks and the man is identified in 98 per cent of cases.

Chris starts by garnering as much information from the family as he can: the man’s regiment; number; where he was born; where he lived; next of kin; and any other details that can be checked against casualty lists, medal index cards, services records and more. 

“We try to deliver as complete a picture as possible—all the way from his enlistment and training to his move overseas and what he did in the theatre of war. In some instances, we’ve determined a man’s location when he was killed or wounded down to just a few tens of yards.”

WW1 tracing the missing soldiers


Understanding the Family Better

New Zealand-based Chris Lowther contacted Chris Baker after making the surprising discovery that his great-grandfather William Barrett, a glass-bottle blower from Bristol, had died in the First World War in Mesopotamia. William, it turned out, was initially posted to France, having volunteered for service in 1914. Chris suspects William was enticed by the “glamour of military adventure”. Injured in France, William came home to recuperate, but was redeployed to Mesopotamia where British forces were besieged at Kut. There, he was fatally wounded in the Battle of Sannaiyat in April 1916. William is commemorated at the Basra memorial, but he has no known grave.

Learning more about his great-grandfather has helped Chris Lowther to understand his own family better.

“It’s humbling to be able to appreciate what our relatives endured. William’s one child was my grandmother Florence. As kids, my sister and I were often annoyed by her ‘dottiness’. With better perspective, I realise that she lost her father in 1916 when she was just six. I wish I’d been more appreciative.”


Erased from history

WW1 Soldiers finally at rest

The CWGC commemorates anyone who died “in service or of causes attributable to service” between August 4, 1914 (the day we declared war), and August 31, 1921 (the day Parliament officially declared war over). But in reality, many are missing from the CWGC’s database, either because they died of war-related illnesses or wounds after discharge (and no one informed the authorities), or due to bad paperwork. With so many deaths reported each day, it’s easy to imagine index cards slipping off tables or pages getting stuck together—clerical errors that have written thousands out of history.

Aware of this injustice, Terry Denham, an exhibition consultant, set up In From The Cold Project (IFCP), a voluntary organisation that aims to reinstate every man or woman missing from the CWGC’s official casualty list. Terry’s crusade began early in 2000, when he decided to look up the burial sites of the 60 men listed on his local village war memorial (an unofficial one erected in the 1920s).

“There was one name that wasn’t listed by the CWGC—Private Charlie Baxter, of Danehill, Sussex, was missing. I felt sorry for him. Everyone else had been commemorated, but he’d been left out.” 

Terry did some digging around and found that Charlie had died in the Australian army in 1915, while under training. “I built up a case, wrote it up and sent it to the CWGC. Eventually it was accepted and they raised a war-grave headstone over his previously unmarked grave.”

The General Register Office has a microfiche of every man who’s died overseas. Together with another enthusiast, John Hartley, Terry decided to cross-match this against the CWGC’s official casualty list to see who was missing.

“We did the first couple of hundred each and decided it was feasible. John organised volunteers and we sent them batches of names to check.”


The Birth of IFCP

IFCP was born in 2006. Around 20 volunteers worldwide help—as well as service records, they check death notices, obituaries and even head-stones, seeking anyone left out. So far, over 3,500 omitted names have been found, of which 1,900 have already been added to the CWGC database. Once accepted, the casualty is then listed on an official war memorial to the missing—or, if they have a known grave, given a war headstone. 

The IFCP is so successful that, later this year, a brand new memorial to the missing will be put up in a British war cemetery on the Somme, France, commemorating several hundred men previously left out in the cold.

WW1 Gravesotnes


Where can you find your family's WW1 History?

The Imperial War Museum has recently launched Lives of the First World War, a digital memorial to the war dead that calls on the public to share their knowledge. The site currently lists 4.5 million men and just over 40,000 women who served in the war. You can type in a name and search official records to check a person’s regiment or other details, plus you can add personal or genealogical information to the site and upload photos.

There’s also a facility to propose missing people. So, for example, if your grandmother worked in a munitions factory during the war and you have some proof—perhaps a photo of her at work, a payslip or diary entry—you can propose her as a living life story. The moderators will check your evidence and add her to the site. By the end of the centenary, it’s hoped the site will include eight million people from Britain and Commonwealth countries who served in the First World War.

“When the museum was founded in 1917, it was designed to be a place where the sacrifice of everyone who contributed could be recorded,” explains Luke Smith, the museum’s Digital Lead for the Centenary. “But it wasn’t possible to create a hall of memories with everybody’s names, photos and details. We could never build a hall big enough—but, in the digital age, we can.”


To search for the name of a relative, or to propose a missing person, visit livesofthefirstworldwar.org

If you are interested in this topic then take a look at The Last Voices of World War 1, the heartwarming documentary of interviews with the last surviving veterans of WWI