Young soldiers killed in First World War buried in France after finally being identified more than 100 years on

The coffins of two young privates and an unknown soldier, who fought during the First World War, during a burial service near Albert, France Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

The families of two young British privates killed in the First World War have finally seen them laid to rest more than 100 years later.

Private Henry Wallington and Private Frank Mead, of the 23rd (County of London) Battalion, were buried with full military honours – alongside an unidentified British soldier who served in the same regiment – in front of a small crowd of people who paid their respects at a service in northern France.

Margot Bains, the niece of Pte Wallington, and Paul and Chris Mead, the two great-nephews of Pte Mead, were among those who attended the funeral at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) British cemetery at Hermies Hill, near Albert, on Wednesday morning.

Soldiers carry one of the coffins at Hermies Hill British cemetery. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

The coffins, draped in Union flags with wreaths of poppies, were interred after readings were given by relatives, a firing salute sounded and The Last Post played during the ceremony led by the Rev Martin Wainwright, the reserve chaplain to the 4th Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (PWRR).

Known as the war detectives, the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) organised the service after identifying the two soldiers and tracing their surviving relatives.

The remains of all three were discovered on the battlefield near Anneux in February 2016.

Research suggests Ptes Wallington and Mead were killed on December 3 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai – which marked the first large-scale use of tanks – while they were both in their early 20s.

The only artefact found with them giving any clue to their identity was a single 23rd (County of London) Battalion shoulder title.

The coffins of the two young privates and an unknown soldier are laid down. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

After extensive research, the JCCC narrowed the candidates down to nine possible names and used genealogy to trace surviving members so DNA samples could be taken.

Two tests returned positive results, identifying Ptes Wallington and Mead.

Born in Peckham in 1896 to Joseph Henry Wallington and Edith Bennett, Henry Wallington was 22 when he was killed.

He had three sisters, Dorothy, Mabel and Grace, and two half-brothers, Joseph and Walter.

It was through Walter that the JCCC was able to get a positive DNA match and trace his niece, Margot Bains.

Ms Bains, from Lincolnshire, told the Press Association: “It’s been beautiful, very moving.

Margot Bains, niece of Private Henry Wallington, reads a poem during the burial service. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

“We didn’t know about Henry, we didn’t know he existed at all.”

Family research uncovered that her father and his brother were illegitimate and given away when they were young, while their father had another family in London with four other children – three girls and a boy, Henry.

As far as the research shows, the family line has only been carried through on the side of the illegitimate children, Ms Bains said, adding: “My father didn’t know he had another family.

“It is mixed feelings of course – not towards Henry but towards his father, because he gave my Dad away.

"That must have haunted them. It would have been very taboo at that time to have illegitimate children.”

Also born in Peckham but a year earlier, Frank Mead was the son of Thomas Mead and Elizabeth Louisa Rutland.

He died aged 23.

Through his brother Reginald, the JCCC sourced a DNA sample and traced his great-nephews Paul Mead, who lives in California, and Chris Mead, from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

Several soldiers attended the service in France. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Chris Mead, who will on Wednesday visit for the first time the area where his great-uncle died in battle, said: “We couldn’t believe it when we heard.

“It’s been an emotional time and we never dreamt of anything like this.

“It’s been a fantastic experience, an incredible event and very moving.

“My father passed away four years ago but he had held on to all of Frank’s letters.

"We had the letters from the trenches but did not know where he (Frank) was. We are just grateful for the opportunity for his story to be told.”

Each year, the remains of around 40 British soldiers who died in the First World War are found on battlefields in Europe and the JCCC tries to identify them.

The three soldiers were found in a back garden in the village of Anneux when the owner dug a trench for a drainpipe.

A wristwatch, silver pipe band and remnants of British Army uniforms were also discovered but could not provide any further clues to identify the third man and the investigation continues.

A wreath is carried by a soldier during the burial service. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Nicola Nash, who led the JCCC search to identify the soldiers, said: “Getting that match was just an amazing achievement. I’m just so pleased the families are actually able to be here today to see them be buried.

“It’s absolutely devastating when you get two matches and one that actually hasn’t been identified. We will still keep working on it and we will identify him.”

At dawn on November 20 1917, the British Third Army launched an attack towards Cambrai using the largest number of tanks so far in the conflict.

But more than half were out of action by the end of the first day, despite British forces making advances of around five miles.

The soldiers were forced to retreat over the coming days and by early December, when the battle ended, more than 80,000 men from both sides were either wounded, missing or killed.

Presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell also attended the funeral while filming part of ITV’s Long Lost Family documentary for a special episode looking at the work of the JCCC.