Hero British soldiers no longer ‘unknown’ after researchers trace their history
Sheltering in a trench on the Western Front, Private Frank Mead dashed off a letter to his little brother Reg back in Blighty.
It was 1917 and the British Army were deploying their new tanks for the first time in the bloody Battle of Cambrai.
So as a stretcher-bearer Frank, 23, was exhausted, having to rescue his maimed comrades and retrieve their bodies, as 45,000 Allied men fell in a fortnight.
But he didn’t want the folks at home to worry, so he wrote chattily about being “squashed in a funk hole with three other fellows” and asking if Reg was “getting the wind up” with all the air raids in England. Reg replied straight away – but Frank never got his letter.
It was returned, unopened, with the word “killed” pencilled on the envelope.
And for more than a century Frank lay lost in the cold earth of a foreign field, in an unmarked grave with two others.
But, remarkably, thanks to a team of War Detectives using painstaking research and forensic tests, his remains were identified last year.
And Frank was finally laid to rest with full military honours at a British war cemetery in France in front of his emotional descendants.
“I hope my grandfather, Reg, and his parents had been informed of Frank’s death before this letter arrived,” says his great-nephew Paul Mead, 54, holding the achingly poignant envelope.
“But it must have been a terrible shock anyway. How can one word – killed – sum up the essence of a man who had fought for three years on the Western Front and given his life for his country?
“Discovering Frank’s heroism and character a century after his death has been an extraordinary privilege.”
The remarkable work of the Ministry of Defence’s War Detectives is revealed in a special edition of ITV series Long Last Family on Monday.
Presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell followed the all-female squad as they battled to solve Case 370 – three bodies discovered by a man digging a ditch in his back garden in Anneux, France.
A shoulder badge suggested they were members of the 23rd Battalion of the London Regiment who fought there in October and November.
And the names of 13 men from that regiment with no known grave recorded on a nearby memorial was a starting point for investigators Tracy Bowers, Nicola Nash and Louise Dorr.
Forensic examiners put age and height estimates to the remains and the team compared those to the service records of the lost 13.
That narrowed down the list to three possible soldiers: Privates Frank Mead, John Steele and Henry Wallington.
Living relatives for each of the men were then traced and DNA kits sent to each family. It all came as a huge shock to lawyer Paul Mead and his sister Julia who emigrated to America as teenagers. Their father, Reg Mead’s son, had died when they were small so they knew nothing about the great-uncle.
Paul said: “When the MoD first called asking me to do the test I thought it was a scam. I had often wondered why I’d been given the middle name Frank but didn’t know his story.
“So I contacted a cousin in England and he sent me a treasure trove of letters Frank had written to Reg as well as some of his sketches and some pictures of him in uniform. His letters to Reg had a real brotherly intimacy,” Paul said.
“He was talking about the horrors of war, like gas attacks, but making light of it all. In one letter he said ‘Old Fritz uses a new type of gas which he sends over in a shell. It makes you sneeze.’
“Reading Frank’s words and seeing his photo I felt an instant connection with him. So, when the tests came back confirming the remains belonged to Frank I was overwhelmed.”
The team identified another of the soldiers as Private Henry Wallington, 19. They traced his half-niece, Margot Bains who also never knew he existed. For, it emerged, Henry’s married father had an affair with Margot’s grandmother Violet and had a second secret family. Margot was shocked but proud of Henry, who enlisted in 1916.
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