The WW1 Grave Hunters


Two brothers identify four missing soldiers of the Great War
‘No Longer Missing’

by Evelyn McKechnie

I have come across some extraordinary people in my life, Andy Pugh and his brother Dave are two of them. Often the most astonishing, mind-blowing achievements are done by ordinary folk like them. They are usually very humble in that they do not seek accolades, medals, titles or fame. But the reward they have is priceless. They have achieved something special – the gratitude of so many people whose lives have been touched by their inspirational work.

No Longer Missing

Andy and Dave have given back to four families, the final resting place of their Great War relative lost for over a century. These soldiers commemorated on various memorials to the missing. Now they are no longer missing, thanks to Andy and Dave.

Last Post for Corporal Thomas Houston of Glasgow – Bancourt Cemetery Photo D Macrae

The extraordinary situation that transpired that searching their missing great uncle Private Henry John Morrell, Andy and Dave identified their first soldier, Corporal Thomas Houston, MM & Bar, of the 2nd battalion of the Highland Light Infantry. They then identified a further three soldiers and possibly another two soldiers of the Great War. They still have to confirm the grave of their uncle with the CWGC and MOD.

Their work is so astonishing and intricate, the effort involved in determining just one soldier’s final resting place is too vast to detail for all four of the identified soldiers in one article. This particular blog will be about their first identification – Corporal Thomas Houston. I think it’s meaningful not just to highlight the work of Andy and Dave but also to give some history of the soldiers they found. I will publish further articles on the other three soldiers. All four will be getting rededicated CWGC headstones.

Private Henry John Morrell, 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers

Andy and Dave’s great Uncle Private Henry John Morrell was killed on 24/03/1918 while serving with the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. Private Morrell has no known grave, commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing in France. Henry John died in the 1st Battle of Bapaume during the German Spring Offensive.

The German Spring Offensive, March-July 1918
10th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) 41st Division behind a wire “block” on a road at St. Jean, 29 April 1918

The Kaiserschlact – Kaiser’s Battle

It was also called ‘The 1918 Spring Offensive’, or Kaiserschlacht (“Kaiser’s Battle”), also known as the Ludendorff Offensive, beginning on 21/03/1918 along the whole of the western front.

The German Spring Offensive 21st March 1918

The German Spring Offensives was the start of a very different way in which the war had been fought between 1914-1917. It was now open warfare. By February 1918, the Imperial German Armies prepared to take their final gamble of the war. They intended to split the war-weary French and British armies, and by doing so, force their respective governments to seek peace before the overwhelming numbers of fresh American troops arrived in France.

Germans passing a captured British trench 1918 CC BY-SA 3.0 de
File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R29407, Westfront, Stellungskrieg.jpg

Following the Russian Revolution and the end of the fighting on the Eastern Front, large numbers of German Divisions were available for the Spring Offensives. The German Army had developed and trained their troops in the art of shock tactics, and using these shock tactics, launched their Offensives.

German Sturmtroopers during the Spring Offensive

The first of the five major offensives were aimed at the weak British 4th Army in the early morning of the 21st March 1918. Between the 21st and the 24th March, numerous British Divisions were heavily attacked or forced to withdraw.

The Kaiser on the way through a communication trench, 4 April 1918

Many British troops had been in reserve were rapidly thrown into the maelstrom in attempts to plug the gaps and prevent the enemy from breaking through completely.

The Somme 1918 battlefields

Despite the unceasing pressures, the Allied line did not break, but the British line pushed back some 25 miles. Eventually, the German Offensive ran out of steam but not until the British troops were back in the familiar Somme battlefields of 1916.

The Germans pushed through the old battlefields of the Somme – Beaumont Hamel
National Library of Scotland License: CC BY 4.0

During this time, men and units became much depleted and separated or in, some situations, disappeared completely. Some were fighting to the last round or man. Many soldiers were taken prisoner, while others were killed in isolated locations with no formal account of their deaths recorded. This was the environment that Andy’s Great Uncle Henry Morrell found himself.

British Soldiers at dressing station after being in the thick of it
National Library of Scotland License: CC BY 4.0

It was these men that in Andy’s view that helped bring the war to a final conclusion for the Allies on the 11th November 1918, by buying precious time. On the historical side of the war it’s been pushed to the back regarding research of the Great War, was it because we were losing and were in retreat?

The Search Begins for Henry Morrell, 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers

For the last 11 years, Andy and Dave have been researching their great uncle. He was a Special Reservist with the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, killed on 24th March 1918. During their research, they were given some cemetery lists for cemeteries in the areas of their interest. One of these lists had 22 soldiers buried where they fell in a small mass grave. They were found later by the 182 Labour Corp. They had come across several casualties listed as unknown. However, there were many clues in their entry on these lists, one example was an unknown, Private, Highland Light Infantry (Signaller).

Corporal Thomas Houston MM and Bar 2nd Battalion HLI

According to the list, this soldier had a Mons ribbon and a MM ribbon on his tunic. Andy and Dave decided to look into this soldier and his service in the war. So began an amazing journey, which saw this soldier getting a name over his grave, one hundred years to the day after he died. I was in attendance with my sister Irene and my friend Daniel – it was poignant as we are all Glaswegians, all born within a few miles of where Thomas Houston had lived. Even more poignant as sadly, no one from his family could attend. It was a very moving and humbling experience.

The coloured circles are the 22 soldiers found in the battlefield crater grave. X marks Thomas Houston’s grave

When they gathered all their research and submitted it to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they had hoped it was enough to get his name on the headstone. It was engraved as unknown Private in the HLI. The Imperial War Graves Commission (the precursor to the CWGC) always strove to give some identity to any fallen soldier, no matter how little they had to go on. This soldier was in the HLI, identified as such by his shoulder strap.

1 Brunton Smith (recently identified) 2 Possibly Henry Morrell’s grave – Andy and Dave’s great uncle 3 Possibly William Cunningham’s grave
Red circles designate Royal Fusiliers

Andy and Dave used their extensive knowledge of the HLI units and other units in the area at that time and the items found on the body to investigate further. Researching through records, they were eventually able to narrow it down to just one man.

The CWGC said Andy and Dave had a good case for identification. However, there was another soldier who could be considered as a likely candidate. They had to do more research to eliminate this other soldier. The CWGC now agreed that their case was solid enough to be forwarded to the MOD for a final decision. The soldier identified was Thomas Houston, MM and bar, Corporal 10892 of the 2nd Battalion HLI killed in action 24/03/1918.

Pte/Cpl Thomas Houston 2nd Bn H.L.I. was awarded his MM
in the London Gazette 14.9.1916 and Bar to MM 19.2.1917

Thomson Houston – the HLI unknown MM
Burial records of Bancourt – Cpl Thomas Houston is grave 5

Thomas Houston’s Army career

Thomas enlisted and joined at Fort George, just outside Inverness, in October 1907. As a regular soldier, he was in the front line almost immediately after landing at Boulogne-sur-Mer as part of the 5th Brigade in the 2nd Division in August 1914.

He saw action at the Battle of Aisne in September 1914, and it was in this battle that he was wounded. It also saw one of the earliest Victoria Crosses awarded to Private George Wilson, VC. 2nd Bn HLI on the 14th September 1914 near Verneuill.

Private Wilson went with a rifleman to try to locate a machine-gun which was holding up the advance of the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. When the rifleman was killed, Private Wilson went on alone and, when he reached his target shot six of the enemy, bayoneted the officer and then captured the gun.

Private George Wilson, VC. 2nd Battalion HLI

The 2nd Battalion HLI also saw action during the Battle of Ypres in November 1914, the Battle of Loos in October 1915, the Battle of the Somme in Summer 1916, the Battle of Arras in April 1917 and the Battle of Cambrai in December 1917.

Thomas was killed along with 22 of his comrades from the 2nd Battalion during the 1st Battle of Bapaume. The 2nd HLI took part in the advance to the Hindenburg Line in September 1918. Thomas was buried in a battlefield grave, later found by the Labour Corps in 1919 and re-interred in Bancourt CWGC Cemetery as an unknown HLI.

Cpl Thomas Houston now has a named grave in Bancourt British Cemetery, Northern France, due to the fantastic work and dedication of two amazing brothers.

Andy and Dave Pugh at the named grave of Corporal Thomas Houston on 23rd March 2018 – 100 years later

It took this case about two years from start to finish. Andy’s evidence had to be checked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, National Army Museum, and a final decision made by the JCCC (MOD) – Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre.

Andy and Dave have been successful in discovering the identity of four soldiers so far all killed on the 24th March 1918. Their names are Corporal Thomas Houston 2nd HLI, L/Cpl Brunton Smith 1/8th Royal Scots, Company Sergeant Major William Henry Bax 2nd Ox.& Buck. The most recent is Sergeant James Gration who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal just before he was killed, he served with the 1/28th Artist Rifles (London Rifle Brigade) all killed on the 24th March 1918.

Re-dedication ceremony for Cpl Thomas Houston Photo D Macrae

Andy said, ‘We will continue trying to identify these men, they deserve it. The icing on the cake is when you find a living family and become good friends. We were able to find the grandchildren of Brunton Smith, who themselves had searched to find out what happened to him, unsuccessfully. And then you can tell them the story about him. Our search and research are still ongoing concerning our great uncle but hope to present it soon. You also meet and get to make good friends on these journeys. And having a brother with you who also shares a common interest with you helps greatly.’

Private Thomas Houston’s War Pension, (including War Gratuity of £22) of £41 19/7d
worth approximately over £2000 in today’s currency

Thomas Houston was a Glasgow East End boy

Further research by Andy and Dave on Thomas Houston’s family indicate he was born in Shettleston in the East End of Glasgow. In the 1901 census, the family were living at 206 Westmuir Street, Shettleston. His father was John Houston born in 1861 and his mother was Susan Houston (Sweeney) born in 1863.

Thomas was the youngest and only son, born in 1889. His sisters were Susan (1891), Lizzie (1893), Annie (1894) and Jeannie, born in 1898.

Thomas left an Army Will, signed in 1916, leaving all his effects to his mother in the event of this death. Because he had been a regular soldier, his War Pension was more substantial than many of the new soldiers who had just joined.

Thomas’s will and pension can be view at the
https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/guides/soldiers-and-airmens-wills

It reads :
‘In the event of my death, I give the whole of my property and effects to my mother,
Mrs Susan Houston, 230 Main Street, Shettleston, Glasgow’.
Signature: Thomas Houston.
Rank and Regiment: L/C 10892, 2nd HLI
Date: 15th September 1916

Medal Card Index at the National Archives:

http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/D6175920

http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/D2965484

His mother, Susan, was 81 when she died on 10th March 1944 at 872 Shettleston Road, Glasgow. Susan knew her son was listed as one of the many soldiers named on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. However, thanks to Andy and Dave, he is no longer missing.

Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry who were killed on the 23rd/24th March

23rd March 1918
Lieutenant James Marshall MITCHELL (Battalion Intelligence Officer) – killed on 23rd by a sniper according to Telfer-Smollett but CWGC has it listed as the 22nd.
12344 Private James BARRETT
42879 Private J.G. COUSINS

24th March 1918
39242 Private Andrew BLAIK
203745 Private James BRACKENRIDGE
242139 Private Fred CARR
55120 Private Thomas CLARK
37827 Private Joseph FROST
28401 Private Andrew FULTON
38464 Private James HARRISON
201889 Private Herbert HOLDER
10892 Corporal Thomas HOUSTON
2/Lieutenant Douglas Bert HOWELL
25055 Private John McGOWAN
15694 Lance Corp. John MILLER
39230 Private Walter MITCHELL
30866 Private James NEWALL
25272 Private Thomas SAUNDERS
2/Lieutenant Daniel SHERIDAN
40003 Private Thomas SMITH
7580 C.S.M. Ernest TAYLOR
Lieutenant James Freeman TOMLINSON

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