Hundreds of mourners gathered today to mark the burial of 13 unknown soldiers who died fighting in Belgium in the First World War. The unidentified war dead – all from the UK and Commonwealth nations – were buried side-by-side with full military honours near Ypres. Shots from the gun salute rang out across the quiet clearing, the same Flanders field where the men lost their lives. The poignant ceremony at Wytschaete Military Cemetery formed one of the final chapters of the Dig Hill 80 project, which discovered the remains of 110 soldiers. He spoke of the symbolism of the red poppy and the need for enduring peace. He said: ‘We are gathered in fellowship today before God to remember those who have made the supreme sacrifice by the giving of their lives in the service of their country. We remember and pray for all those who have suffered, and who still suffer, as a consequence of war. The service was attended by representatives of armed forces from various nations, there to pay their respects to the fallen 13 men.
Dan Patrick Kobe Painting
Two of the unknown soldiers – identified as British – were carried to the ceremony by soldiers from the Fusiliers and Union Jack flags were draped over the coffins. The remaining 11 war dead were buried in a third coffin before the service began. Father O’Driscoll paid tribute to the ultimate sacrifice made by the 13 soldiers as he addressed the crowd. He added: ‘We come together today to remember and thank these men for their great sacrifice in fighting and dying together as one. Soldiers preparing to bury two coffins. Even though we do not know their names, we remember their humanity and courage and that even in the hell of battle they were there for each other even to death. So in prayer and celebration, we place these men together in this consecrated and special ground, so that they rest in peace and we learn and make sure humanity endures in its fullness. After the burial, shots from the traditional four-gun salute to the fallen echoed across the quiet clearing.
Music was performed by a joint venture between British and German schoolchildren, to symbolise peace and co-operation. Pupils from Mildenhall College Academy in Bury St Edmunds and St Joseph’s College, Ipswich, formed the contribution from the UK. The service came as a result of the hard work of those at the Dig Hill 80 project, who excavated Hill 80 – the site of a German gun emplacement where many UK and Commonwealth soldiers fell. The project led a 1.1-hectare crowdfunded archaeological excavation, which took place at the former site of Hill 80 in Wytschaete, on land that had been allocated for future housing development. The project excavated 550 metres of trenches and 430 bomb craters, with the remains of 110 soldiers discovered, including British, French, German and South African personnel. Dig Hill 80 was highly publicised at the time, attracting international media attention and celebrity patronage from comedian Al Murray and support from military historian Dan Snow. It has not been possible to identify the 13 unknown soldiers who were buried today, but at least two are believed to be British.
Three Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) headstones will mark their collective final resting places, which will be cared for by the commission in perpetuity. In keeping with burial tradition, the casualties were interred together, ensuring that those who served and died together are buried and commemorated together. The location afforded observational advantage to the Germans as it overlooked the town of Ypres and formed part of the Messines Ridge. The site remained in German hands until the Battle of Messines in June 1917, when it was recaptured. Dig Hill 80 head archaeologist Simon Verdegem said: ‘It is now about a year since the investigation into the soldiers of Hill 80 was completed. Thanks to massive international support from individuals and organisations, enough money was raised through crowdfunding to make a detailed excavation possible. Coffins arriving for the burial service today. The aim was not only to excavate the trenches but also to recover the soldiers. Now, the British and German soldiers will finally be given a definitive and dignified resting place along with their comrades. I dare to believe that it gives them peace, knowing that people from all over the world have joined forces to recover their mortal remains. CWGC director general Victoria Wallace said: ‘It is always moving and a real privilege to attend reburials. And it’s a credit to the team who excavated Hill 80 that they have recovered these men at last, who will now be laid to rest with former comrades, and cared for in perpetuity by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The German soldiers discovered on Hill 80 will be laid to rest on Friday at the German war cemetery in Langemark.