Now a specialist team of researchers from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has issued an appeal hoping to find living descendants of three Scottish soldiers killed in the conflict.
David Gemmell, George Brown and John Wilson were all Black Watch soldiers who paid the highest price for their service on the Western Front.
They were among around hundreds of thousands of British soldiers who died in the war and whose grave is not known. But even in the third decade of the 21st century, work is being done to rectify this and honor the memory of the lost fallen after their remains have been discovered.
The Ministry of Defense’s little-known unit, the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Center Commemorations Team (JCCC), has painstakingly collated biographical information on the three Scottish soldiers and attempted to establish their identities beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The remains of three Scottish soldiers have been discovered in France in recent years,” the JCCC said. “All were recovered with artifacts that give us a good idea of who they were.
“We are now looking for their families to confirm their identities through DNA comparison.”
This process would allow the unit colloquially known as the “war detectives” to complete the stories of the three privates by organizing military ceremonies to commemorate their sacrifice.
Such results are not uncommon. It was only in May that the efforts of the JCCC ensured that Pte William Johnston, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915, was buried with full military honours.
The 39-year-old was killed while serving with the 7th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. The JCC traced his great-great-niece to Portadown, County Armagh, with a DNA comparison confirming his identity.
Pte Johnston now rests at Loos British Cemetery in northern France after a service conducted by the Rev. Dave Jeal, Chaplain to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland.
A breakthrough in this case was the discovery of a personalized spoon buried near his body. A similar spoon was found near the remains of Pte Gemmell, who served in the 1st Battalion, Black Watch, raising hopes that his identity would soon be confirmed.
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He was about 45 years old when he was killed in action on January 25, 1915. According to the JCCC, he was born in Dundee, the youngest of eight children and the only boy. At the time of the 1901 census he was registered as a plumber and lived in a house on Stobcross Street in the Glasgow Borough of Anderston.
The unit’s research revealed that three of Pte Gemmell’s sisters were married. One, Jessie, had three sons with George Williamson – George who died in 1952, James who died in 1971 and Edwin who lived until 1976.
Another sister, Joan or Johanna, married a man named Jesse Carr in Dundee in 1975, while her sister Eliza married a man named Andrew Petrie Thomson. It is not known whether they had children.
The entry of Pt. Gemmell in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database states that he is among those commemorated at the Le Touret memorial near the former parish of Richebourg-l’Avoué in the Pas-de-Calais.
Pte Brown served alongside him in the Black Watch and was killed the same day. Born in 1879 at Hill of Beath in Fife, he was one of nine children of Archibald Brown and Eliza or Lizzie, Drybur.
The JCCC believes that only Pte Brown was himself married. With Elizabeth Scott he had one daughter, Mary, born in 1910.
The details of Pte Wilson’s life are even more sparse. He was killed in action on July 30, 1916 while serving with the 6th Battalion, Black Watch, but CWGC records give no age, date of birth, or dependents, and there are no service records for him in the National Archives.
However, the JCCC believes he was from Gowanhill in Lanarkshire and was one of three children born to William and Grizel Hope Wilson. Unit research shows that he had two sisters. One, Helen Hutchison Wilson, better known as Helen Brown, married George Stewart in Glasgow’s Dennistoun area in 1921. She died in 1968. Little is known of his other sister, Janet Wilson, except that she was born in Govan circa 1890.
The Gloucester-based JCCC’s detective work looks for telltale signs that could identify the remains of fallen personnel, such as shoulder titles, cap badges or, as in the case of Pte Gemmell, personal artifacts.
The team then examines battalion war diaries to determine a regimental battalion’s location on a specific date, a process made immeasurably easier thanks to the fact that the entire Western Front was mapped in the 500-yard squares, allowing for troop movements be plotted.
But the JCCC is also trying to identify those who have died using modern methods. When a list of potential victims is narrowed down, it can use DNA matching to make positive identifications.
Even today, the remains of dozens of fallen soldiers are discovered every year, usually by farmers digging up dirt or builders laying roads or foundations on land where fighting was once raging.
The CWGC has stated that more than 520,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in World War I have no known graves.