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Armistice 100: Grave hunters search for the thousands of First World War dead yet to be officially commemorated

PUBLISHED: 11:30 09 November 2018

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Zonnebeke, Belgium.

When: 24 Sep 2013

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Zonnebeke, Belgium. When: 24 Sep 2013

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Thousands of men and women whose deaths can be linked to the First World War have yet to be commemorated.

White headstones at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground for First World War One British soldiers, West Flanders, Belgium  When: 05 May 2016White headstones at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground for First World War One British soldiers, West Flanders, Belgium When: 05 May 2016

That is the startling conclusion of Barking raised Terry Denham, the co-founder of charity In From The Cold (IFCP).

Its team of volunteers set out to find the graves of servicemen and women who perished either during the world wars or afterwards.

The organisation’s staff work alongside the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to make sure war heroes of both sexes, of all faiths and none, are not forgotten.

Mr Denham explained what motivated him to found the charity: “I’ve never been in the armed forces, but these guys had to join. Most were volunteers.

Bedford House Cemetery in Belgium. Pic: Commonwealth War Graves CommissionBedford House Cemetery in Belgium. Pic: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

“They went through God-awful conditions and lots of them were killed more or less as cannon fodder. They never had a chance. Most were in their early twenties. It’s only right that these people are commemorated.”

The charity has found 4,500 First World War military personnel since it started in 2009 and there could be another 10,000 left to find.

Its staff have found men in cemeteries including Rippleside in Meadow Close, Barking; Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in Southern Grove, Bow; St. Peter and St. Paul churchyard in Church Lane, Dagenham; Ilford Cemetery, Buckingham Road, Seven Kings, and Manor Park Cemetery in Sebert Road, Forest Gate.

Generally, the men and women who qualify were discharged from service and died of conflict linked injuries between August 8, 1914 and August 31, 1921.

Terry Denham from In From The Cold. Pic: TERRY DENHAMTerry Denham from In From The Cold. Pic: TERRY DENHAM

It takes about a year of painstaking detective work per person before a war hero’s grave is found and a memorial headstone raised. But once that’s done, the marker is looked after in perpetuity by the CWGC. For those whose service can be proven but whose grave can’t be found, their name is added to a public memorial.

“It’s a complex process because not all records survive. Without evidence, you get nowhere,” Mr Denham explained.

“But it’s really satisfying work, especially if we do it on behalf of relatives. They are seriously grateful.”

The charity has also been instrumental in putting right political wrongs with 1,600 black First World War soldiers commemorated after the former apartheid government in South Africa refused to recognise their sacrifice.

Grave hunter for East London, Miriam Cooper, said that often First World War veterans suitable for commemoration went without memorial gravestones because either they lost touch with the armed forces or families didn’t report the deaths to the army, navy or airforce.

And when someone comes to the charity’s attention it can be hard to find them because there is no national register which shows where people are buried.

That’s when the retired school lab technician-cum-super sleuth logs onto the internet to see what she can find, searching the name to find a potential burial place.

“It’s the same sort of feeling you’d get if you were a crossword addict, piecing together missing letters, except I’ve got something that will be there forever rather than something that’s going to be put in the bin,” Mrs Cooper said.

The 71-year-old volunteer scours burial ground registers and genealogy websites to find out where people died then pinpoints a possible cemetery which she visits armed with gardening gloves and shears to tackle any graves overgrown with brambles.

A successful find is then reported to the CWGC, which is charged by law to commemorate the war dead.

The Chelmsford pensioner – whose grandfathers were in the First World War and mother was a World War Two WAAF – said: “This is important work because there are still people alive today who remember relatives that were alive during the war. It’s such a shame when they discover they have not been commemorated.

“Every November we all remember the sacrifice people made and to think that a relative is not recognised is really quite sad.”

For more about the charity visit infromthecold.org

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