1. ITV Report

WW1: History corrected as soldier's family reclaim his grave

By Chris Mallinson

Robert Hoolan (Hoolahan), 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment. Credit: Family handout.

It was when I started to research my family tree back in 2005, I discovered that Private 3/10645 R Hoonan of the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment, Killed in Action 1st July 1916 on the Somme, was in fact my Great Uncle Robert Hoolan (Hoolahan), born in Leeds in 1896.

Upon my discovery I wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to convince them to change their records and the headstone on the grave. Presenting my evidence, my long journey began.

In April this year, I finally received the news that the Commission had accepted my findings after newly-discovered evidence came to light in the last year. They told me they would replace the headstone on the grave, and I looked forward to visiting it, but I wasn't holding my breath in terms of when that might be able to happen.

I was pretty surprised, then, when they contacted me at the end of June to say it would all be happening within a fortnight, but I hastily made arrangements, and set off for France.

The sheer scale of the work done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission hit me when I arrived at the facility in Arras. They maintain 1.7 million headstones across 23,000 locations. Every one of these is made and shipped from Arras.

Every WW1 grave is made in Arras. Credit: ITV News

We moved into the workshop where the headstones were inscribed. Three large lathes were undertaking the process of creating new headstones, with one machine silent, with a blank headstone in place, waiting to start. This was to be for my great uncle's grave.

Initially I was standing quietly to the side when I was unexpectedly thrust into the process as it was about to begin.

I was asked to decide how I would like the headstone to be engraved, which caught me on the hop a little, as I had expected this to be decided by the Commission.

The new headstone was designed by the author. Credit: ITV News

I was introduced to one of the French locals working at the facility, who indicated he wanted me to start the process of inscribing the headstone.

I realised as I started the inscription that this was the beginning of the end of the long fight to prove that the soldier at Eusten Road Cemetry was actually my great uncle Robert.

Finally he would be commemorated with his correct name.

It is hard to describe the feeling I had when I pressed the button, as I felt strangely detached and yet simultaneously transfixed. I had not expected this much involvement.

We then moved the headstone to the cemetery to replace the old incorrect one with the new one I had just designed and cut.

I was touched by the respect the French workers paid to the process, and their dignified craft.

The new headstone, with the correct inscription, commemorates Private Hoonan, who died when he was 20 years old. Credit: ITV News

As the final, careful touches were put to the new headstone by the men it struck just how young these servicemen where when they died.

When my uncle was killed on the Somme in 1916, he was five years younger than my son is now.

I can't imagine what he or his comrades went through, and I could never imagine losing my boy in such a way. I think a lot of men in my generation ask whether we could be have been brave enough or daft enough to sign up and take part in such a huge conflict at such a young age.

Thankfully, that is not a question we have had to answer, though the question churns a mixture of sorrow and gratitude.

Inspired by my young uncle, I took control of my emotions and focused on the task at hand.

Under the watchful eye of the team I did the final leveling, and then laid a wreath of poppies that I had brought from home, with a message written by my seven-year-old daughter.

A connection between the generations of the family was made.

The final resting place of Private Hoonan, with a message from his great-great niece. Credit: ITV News

I felt my long quest to find and commemorate my uncle's sacrifice made up in some way for him being buried so far away from family or friends.

His immediate family were too poor at the time to have travelled anywhere, let alone France, and even if they had been able to, they would not have been able to identify the grave with the wrong name on it.

As time went on, his name was also lost to the subsequent generations of his family, as if he had become lost to the world all alone.

My battle to reclaim my great uncle was over, and I feel now that a sense of injustice, though not a deliberate one, has been addressed.

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