Last week I attended the book launch for Michael LoCicero’s new book, ‘A Moonlight Massacre: The night operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917.’ The book describes the action in which my Great Great Uncle William MacDuff was killed, on this day 97 years ago, an action which led to over 1,600 men killed, wounded, or missing.
Regular readers of my blog will know that it was my quest to find out more about William’s life, and death, that set me down the path of researching the First World War (for a recap see here and here). Over the last few years my research has focused on the men from my local area who are commemorated on the war memorial. Yet along the way I have still maintained my interest in William’s story, picking up small nuggets of information from various sources and eagerly awaiting the publication of Michael’s book.
Since I wrote the original blog posts I have, for instance, discovered that William is also commemorated on the Dunfermline High School war memorial. I have also returned to the site of the battle where he died. Visiting this time in August the landscape, covered in crops, looked very different to my last visit on a cold February day, making it difficult to get an impression of the land the men attacked over, and providing a stark contrast to the cratered landscape they would have seen.
I have also visited William’s name on Tyne Cot memorial on each occasion I have returned, always at the back of my mind wondering if his body still lays out there.
At the book launch I had the pleasure of meeting the family of another officer who died that day, Second Lieutenant William Ridgway. Leafing through Michael’s book on the train home, my thoughts again turned to the fate of these men. I knew that about 100 men from the battalion died during that attack, yet only 14 have a known grave.
Scanning through the casualty list, it appears that five of these were men who died of wounds; buried at Mendinghem, Dudhallow ADS (Advanced Dressing Station), and Nine Elms. The remaining nine are buried in Tyne Cot, Poelcappelle, and Passchendale New British cemeteries.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recently updated their website to include documents related to burials and headstones. I looked at the CWGC entries for the nine men buried in these cemeteries. In each case, their bodies had been found after the war, identified by a piece of equipment with the man’s service number stamped on it, an identity disc, or in one case from the name on a cigarette case found with the body. The CWGC documents contain multiple entries on a page, and examining them in more detail I found another 11 unidentified men from the Border Regiment buried at these three cemeteries. So at least 11 of the 85 men commemorated on Tyne Cot do have a grave (it could even be more – the full set of concentration documents for each cemetery would need to be consulted to ascertain if this is the case).
Whilst examining these documents, at the back of my mind lurked the thought, could one of these men be my Great Great Uncle? But all of these graves had had been marked as an Unidentified British Soldier rather than an officer. Then looking at the documents for Poelcapelle, two entries stood out: one an ‘Unknown British Officer, Border Regiment’ and another ‘Unidentified British Officer, Second Lieutenant’…could one of those graves be William’s?
I had to take a step back and think about it rationally. Although I can pinpoint the location the bodies were recovered using the CWGC documents, both graves still pose a problem. Six officers from the battalion lost their lives in the attack, three Second Lieutenants, and three Captains. The body identified as a Second Lieutenant could be an officer from another battalion (although the body was recovered from the Border Regiment’s frontage – see the red ‘x’ on the below map). The body identified as that of an officer of the Border Regiment was found in an area that fell under the frontage of the battalion to the left (see the orange ‘x’), and could equally be one of the Captains or one of the other two Second Lieutenants.
Ultimately, although I would like to know whose bodies lie beneath these headstones, it is likely that it will remain a mystery. However it is another piece of the puzzle in my quest to find out more about William, for now I can visit not only these graves, but the graves of the others identified from the CWGC documents, knowing that here lie the bodies of men killed in the attack who may have known William or fought alongside him. I look forward to my next trip so I can pay my respects to all of these men.