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Long Lost Family Special: The Unknown Soldiers

  • Episode:

    1 of 1

  • Transmission (TX):

    Mon 21 Oct 2019

  • TX Confirmed


  • Time

    9.00pm - 10.20pm

  • Week:

    Week 43 2019 : Sat 19 Oct - Fri 25 Oct

  • Channel:


  • Published:

    Wed 09 Oct 2019

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Long Lost Family Special:  The Unknown Soldiers

“To think of him in the mud, in the cold earth did he get there?  Did he get shot and was he in pain? There’s a gap missing from the family.”
Sandra White, great-niece of Private John Steele, missing since the First World War

“Every single one of these soldiers, they were somebody’s son; they were somebody’s brother; they were somebody’s husband.”  Nicola Nash (War Detective)

In thousands of fields across the world today lay the bodies of hundreds of thousands of fallen British servicemen, yet to be identified. Each man left behind family desperate to know the fate of their loved one. This special one-off episode of Long Lost Family, presented by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, is dedicated to the extraordinary searches across the world for soldiers lost in battle during the First World War.

The programme has unprecedented access to the Ministry of Defence’s War Detectives, an elite all-female team who use state of the art forensics and ground-breaking technology to identify the bodies of unknown British and Commonwealth Soldiers. There are over half a million World War service personnel with no known grave and these historical investigators are tasked with identifying those whose remains are found and trying to trace their surviving families. 

Each year around 60 bodies of British service personnel killed in battle are found by farmers, builders and archaeologists worldwide. The War Detectives try to identify these remains and work tirelessly in their quest to find answers for the families, some of whom have been haunted for decades.

Davina McCall says: “Every investigation that the War Detectives take on starts as just a case number, the anonymous remains of a soldier. The detectives’ mission is to identify that soldier.”  

Davina and Nicky join the detectives as they consult war maps, diaries, medical and service records and use DNA testing to piece together the life of each soldier from the time they left British shores to their final steps on the battlefield. They meet the families of the missing, helping them form a fully-rounded picture of their long lost relative and finally laying them to rest at a full military burial.

The first case featured in the programme is known as Case 370 and dates back over 100 years to the First World War. Three casualties are found near Anneux in France by a local resident digging a trench in his garden to install a drainage pipe. As the remains are sent for forensic analysis, Davina travels to the site to find out more about the discovery from War Detective Tracey Bowers and Olivier Quintin, who helped to uncover the remains. She discovers that the Battle of Cambrai took place in this area in 1917, which led to almost 45,000 British casualties. A shoulder title found beside the bodies suggests that they came from the 23rd Battalion of the London Regiment who fought in the battle. The soldiers lost from this regiment during this battle with no known grave are recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Cambrai Memorial, making this list of names the War Detectives starting point.

Back in London, War Detective Nicola Nash attempts to find out more information about each of the missing soldiers by looking at service records to check their heights and ages. Nicky Campbell then joins the team as they compare the data to the forensic report of the casualties, which includes suspected ages and heights for the bodies. They narrow down the list to three possible soldiers: Privates Frank Mead, John Steele and Henry Wallington. Living relatives for each of these men are traced and DNA kits sent to members of each family.

The first is Sandra White, the great-niece of Private John Steele, a biscuit-factory worker who joined up when he was only 17. Sandra’s Nan - John’s sister Lillian, had spent years wanting to know what happened to her brother, who was still just 19 when he died. 

Sadly, Davina goes to Croydon with War Detective Nicola to break the news to Sandra that her DNA does not match, a difficult but key part of the War Detectives’ job. Sandra is devastated but comforted by the news that Nicola is able to tell her, that although John’s body has not been found, he is recorded as being killed at the same time as the others, so it’s assumed he would have been with his comrades until the end. Sandra movingly reflects: “He’ll come home one day.” 

Meanwhile Nicola tracks down the great-nephew of Private Frank Mead, Paul Mead, who emigrated to California as a teenager with his sister Julia. Paul contacts his cousin back in England who sends him photos of Frank and letters that Frank wrote to his brother Reginald during the war. These letters provide an intimate personal history of the horrors of the First World War. The final letter in the collection is from Reginald back to Frank and it’s returned unopened, marked on the envelope ‘Killed’. Paul says: “Just to sum up his life in one word, killed, … you know, doesn’t say much about the essence of a man.” 

Davina and Nicola go to the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, where thousands of men from London signed up and trained for the Great War.  From here they contact Paul Mead in America by Skype to tell him the amazing news that one set of remains does belong to his great-uncle Frank.  So after more than 100 years buried in a garden in France, Private Frank Mead has been found. Paul is overwhelmed and resolves to travel to France for the burial with his sister Julia. Julia says: “He died at 23 but you know, his story is going to continue on.”  

War Detective Nicola also finds a relative for a third potential soldier. The relative does not want to appear on camera, but incredibly, does turn out to be a positive DNA match, meaning the other fallen soldier can be successfully identified as Private Henry Wallington.  

Nicky goes to meet an unexpected relative found for Henry Wallington, a half-niece, Margot Bains, who never knew of her lost uncle’s existence until the War Detectives found her. It turns out that Henry’s father had an affair with Margot’s grandmother Violet and had two families - one with his wife and one with Violet. Margot is shocked and sad but proud of her relationship to the lost soldier. Private Henry Wallington was a 19-year-old from Catford, South London, who worked for his stockbroker father.  He enlisted in 1916 and fought for almost two years before he was killed. Margot says: “Although he died, we carry his genes.  And so…. he’ll never die.”

Nicky and Davina join the families of Private Frank Mead and Private Henry Wallington for a moving and unforgettable tribute to them as they’re buried at Hermies Hill British Cemetery, near to where they fell in France. The third soldier is buried as an unknown. The families join military dignitaries and local residents as they mark the passing of these fallen heroes and touchingly, Sandra White also attends to pay her respects to the unknown soldier. Although Sandra’s great-uncle John has not been found, she explains: “I wanted to come really, mainly for the boy who’s not been named. It’s just so sad that someone’s gone through that and died and there’s nobody there for him.  So me and John will be there just to say goodbye to him.”  

As the case closes, back at HQ new evidence comes to light on a different case of World War One casualties originally buried as unknown soldiers. The case is reopened as a re-dedication rather than a burial, meaning the aim is to identify a soldier in a grave marked as ‘unknown’ rather than identify newly-found remains. The remains of six soldiers were originally discovered in a farmer's field near Ypres in Belgium by an amateur archaeologist carrying out exploratory battlefield studies in 2010. Four of the bodies were impossible to identify but artefacts found beside two others suggested they were Lancashire Fusiliers. The location suggested they were killed in a battle that took place on October 18, 1914.

At the time of the discovery, despite extensive research and DNA testing, the trail went cold and the casualties were buried as unknowns. But now with new evidence and by comparing the video footage of the archaeological finds with Google maps, War Detective Louise Dorr concludes that the remains were found in a different specific location to the one originally cited, which means a different group of potential soldiers would have been fighting there. By scoring the Fusiliers’ annual and eliminating those Lancashire Fusiliers that already have a burial place, the detectives narrow down the potentials to two of four soldiers killed together by a shell whilst they were hiding by a railway culvert. These are Private Frederick Foskett, Private Charles Moroney, Private William Purslow and Private William Cheetham Taylor.

After genealogical research, a living relative is found for Frederick Foskett. Colin Foskett, now aged 69, is Frederick’s great-nephew and is found living in Norfolk. Colin says: “When the letter came, I opened it and the first thing I saw was Ministry of Defence at the top and I said to my wife: “Aren’t I a bit too old to be called up?!”  

Colin lives with his wife Carol and together they have three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren but Colin knows very little about his origins because he was in an orphanage from the age of two. Discovering that his great-uncle fought in World War One not only gives him a connection to his past but has a huge significance for his family because his grandson, Ricky, is now a private in the army, aged 27- the same age that Frederick was when he died.

The War Detectives struggle to find living relatives for the other potential candidates so Louise is forced to try a different tack and send out an appeal in the Manchester local press, where most of the Lancashire Fusiliers came from. Amazingly she gets a response from Sue Price, from Preston stating Private Charles Moroney was her great-uncle. He died leaving a widow and a baby son. But the War Detectives need a more direct relative for DNA comparison and after searching social media, Sue discovers a second cousin, Cavon Moroney, who she’s never met and he provides the DNA sample. Cavon and Sue meet for the first time when they come to London to receive the results but sadly, Davina and the War Detectives discover that there is not a match. Charles Moroney’s body has not been found but the detectives are able to pass on an obituary, a photo and a letter that Charles wrote to his wife whilst away at war, which gives the cousins some connection to their long-lost fallen soldier.

Two other DNA tests taken for Privates Purslow and Taylor also come back negative so the War Detectives’ last chance to put a name on one of the headstones lies with the Foskett family and luckily the result is positive. Davina and the War Detectives reveal this news to Colin and his family, who are very moved that Colin is able to give his ancestor a name on his headstone. More than 100 years since the First World War, Colin, his wife Carol, daughter Lara, soldier grandson Ricky and his wife Rosie follow the journey Private Frederick Foskett took at the outbreak of World War One and travel to Belgium for his burial. As the Last Post is played, for Fredrick’s relatives this is both their first hello and emotional final goodbye. 

War Detective Louise Dorr reflects: “It’s been definitely worth opening Case 272 again. If ever there’s a chance that we can give these men back their names it’s worth it.  I just can’t imagine the horror that Frederick’s parents must have gone through, never knowing when they went to their own graves what had happened to their boy.  And today at least we’ve managed to put some of that to rest.” 

Produced by Wall to Wall for ITV.