BULLECOURT, France (AP) — When Didier Guerle fulfilled his grandfather’s dying wish and had the fields of his farm searched, he set off a chain of events that brought people together across continents, and one family across generations.
The farmer called in his friend Moise Dilly, an expert in metal detection. Soon enough, Dilly came across something hidden underneath the lush grassland. “I took a spade and some time later I hit a shoe. There still was a bone in it.”
As his grandfather had predicted, beneath the brutal World War I battleground, the remains and possessions of dead soldiers were found, including the silver identity bracelet for British Lt. John Harold Pritchard. Dilly’s metal detector had been set off by a gun or other piece of metal on a body.
On Tuesday, almost a century after his death in the trenches, Pritchard finally found a proper grave and a ceremonial reburial in neighboring Ecoust-St. Mein, attended by his family and England’s Prince Michael of Kent. Finally, he was no longer among the ranks of soldiers whose bodies were never found in the carnage of the Great War.
Pvt. Christopher Douglas Elphick and two unidentified men were buried in the same ceremony, which comes as nations prepare to mark World War I centenary commemorations next year.
Family members of Pritchard, a soldier chorister who performed as a child at the enthronement of British King Edward VII, sang for him at the white gravestone that now marks his memory. Among them was a great niece who used musical scores from his own choir days to study to become a professional singer. The grave is one of tens of thousands dotting the fertile fields in northern France which were scene to some of humanity’s worst bloodshed.
“Lost for many years. Your battle is won,” the etching on the stone says.
Among the crowd at the war cemetery stood Mark Cain, an American collector who came into possession of Pritchard’s ceremonial sword about a dozen years ago. He became interested in the object and got in touch with the British armed forces archives about it. When he learned from the archives that Pritchard’s remains had been found, he knew there was only one thing to do: give the sword back to the family.
“The sword has been traveling between continents for 100 years perhaps,” Cain said. “I have been very honored to return it.”
Pritchard’s family was profoundly moved by the generosity. “I persuaded him to come to the burial because I cannot thank him enough,” said Janet Shell, Pritchard’s great-niece.
The value of the sword? “They will tell you it is priceless,” Cain said after Pritchard’s family was handed the sword by Prince Michael.
For Shell, it was music that reunited the family across a century. As a chorister of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Pritchard has been on a remembrance plaque of the cathedral since 1921. Pritchard left for the war in the first wave of 1914 but came back to England after he was injured twice. “He was given the option of staying but John said ‘no,’ he wanted to get back to his men,” she said.
The night before he left for France for the final time in 1916, he was stationed at the Tower of London. He played the piano for his mother and sister Ida and sang to a verse of poet Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” — a metaphor about impending death which ends: “I hope to see my Pilot face to face/When I have crost the bar.”
And the day’s leaden clouds broke for Janet and three other professional singers in the family, as they brought the ceremony to an end with a moving a cappella rendition of the same song.
“It was sort of fitting in some way,” said Shell. “It could not have been a better moment.”
“Now this is bringing together four generations and we will never forget.”
Pritchard was killed on May 15, 1917, in a nighttime battle which stopped his watch at midnight. He died in the second battle of Bullecourt on the Hindenburg Line, a fight that instead of saving the village fully razed it. Thousands of dead were scattered on both sides. Australians who fought there called it the “blood tub” and the two-week battle had little impact on the Great War itself.
The impact on the locals, though, was deep. Bullecourt literally had to be rebuilt from the mud up. Some people had no idea where their house once stood.
When Guerle’s grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Savary, returned from the war, he wanted to forget, even though he knew bodies were strewn on his land.
“He told us that when I’m dead, you have to get all the soldiers out,” said Guerle.
Out of respect, the land behind the farm was never ploughed, and only lightweight sheep were allowed to graze. “We did not want to trample the dead,” Guerle said.
Neither he nor anyone else knows how many soldiers are still buried in his fields.
But Dilly said: “I guarantee you that there are still a lot of them there.”