Tragic soldier Ben: Gone but not forgotten

A young man left rural Suffolk nursing dreams of a brighter future . . . only to die in the uniform of his adopted country. Steven Russell hears about the quest to identify his remains and give him a fitting burial

German troops buried the Allied dead, apparently laying out the bodies with dignity – individually shrouded with groundsheets and arranged in neat rows. Bodies were taken behind German lines and buried in pits. Most of these pits were identified during the 1920s, and remains re-buried in Imperial War Graves Commission cemeteries, but there was talk about a forgotten and unmarked mass grave.

Australian amateur historian Lambis Englezos pinpointed a spot in a field on the edge of Bois Faisan (Pheasant Wood), outside Fromelles. Archaeologists from Glasgow University carried out a survey in 2007, on behalf of the Australian government, which suggested the pits contained the remains of hundreds of soldiers. Australian Army artefacts were also found.

An exploratory dig the following year found skeletal remains, as well as Australian and British uniform badges and buttons.

There had never been a discovery on such a scale, said the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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It was announced that all remains would be taken from the pits and re-buried with full military honours in individual plots at a new war cemetery nearby. The final burial ceremony is on Monday – the anniversary of that dreadful night in 1916.

Bodies were removed from Pheasant Wood between the spring and autumn of last year. In all, the remains of 250 allied soldiers were found – 203 of them Australian. Casualty records meant the authorities had a reasonable idea of the soldiers’ identities. In an attempt to make sure, they began a programme of DNA testing – seeking samples from the descendants of the dead men in the hope of finding matches.

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Which is how Blaxhall Archive Group – folk interested in recording and researching the social history of the village between Wickham Market and Snape – came to be contacted last year via Pat Bridges, of the Suffolk Local History Council. She’d been asked to help trace descendants of Private Ben Richardson, killed in his early 20s. Once she learned he hailed from Blaxhall, she knew just whose help to enlist.

So began a period of exhaustive research – mainly by Shane Pictor and Maggie Grenham, but with vital assistance from lots of other people.

They found that one of Ben’s younger brothers, Arthur, had moved from Blaxhall to Huddersfield and married in the 1920s. The group contacted the local paper in Yorkshire, which ran an article about the search. Amazingly, a former boyfriend of Janey, one of Arthur’s daughters, read it and passed on an address.

Maggie got in touch with Janey’s niece, Karen Robwell (Ben’s great-niece) who was only too pleased to provide a DNA sample. Unfortunately, they later discovered this wasn’t a suitable match. It was back to the drawing board for the Blaxhall researchers.

Meanwhile, they’d come across a genealogical line working down from Ben’s sister Elizabeth. She’d married Woodbridge man Percy Shemmings in 1928 and they’d had a son, Robert, in 1931. The only trace of an RJ Shemming was in Devon. The Blaxhall “detectives” wrote and, a few months later, received a letter from his step-daughter, Fiona.

She explained he’d died in November, 2008, from a brain tumour – believing he had no living relatives.

His own life had had its moments of tragedy. Robert’s mother had died in 1933 and his father in 1934, and an aunt had taken care of him. But when she landed a job as a housekeeper, she was allowed to take only her own son with her. Another man and his wife offered to take Bob on, as their own daughter had died of diphtheria.

“His childhood was very, very hard and this had an influence on the rest of his life,” his step-daughter wrote. “He never wasted any food, having experienced being very short of food; he helped anyone he could and he worked very, very hard. He rose from his first job in the civil service, using a stamp machine for addressing envelopes, to being a company director when he retired.”

This, then, was another cul-de-sac – “a very sad end,” reflects Maggie Grenham, “in the knowledge that Bob had never known any of his very large family, and in fact one of his family was actually living in Devon”.

Undeterred, the Blaxhall researchers turned to Ben’s uncles. One of Uncle William’s sons was Percy Richardson, who in turn had children Miriam and Edwin. A villager put the group in contact with Miriam’s husband, in Wickham Market, who reported that Edwin was alive and well in Devon. Finally, contact with a Richardson family member with that all-important Y chromosome!

Edwin was happy to help. The latest position is that he’s waiting for news from the authorities about possibly being called to give a sample of DNA. (Four months ago, it was reported that the first 75 Australian soldiers at Fromelles had been identified using DNA.)

The Blaxhall group hopes the quest will have a happy ending and that Ben’s remains will be identified. “But if not, at least we have tried and our fascinating journey has brought together an amazing family tree.”

n Blaxhall Archive Group would love to hear from anyone related to Private Ben Richardson, and is still on the lookout for a photograph of him.

The group will in the next couple of years publish its third book, Blaxhall’s Farming Past 1500s to 1950s. (Previous books were Blaxhall’s Living Past and Blaxhall’s Creative Past.) If anyone has memories of agriculture in Blaxhall, the group would be pleased to hear from them – and from anyone with general information, photographs or documents relating to the village.


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Ben, the man

THERE are no pictures of Benjamin Richardson, but 33 pages of official Australian documents tell us much about him. His Certificate of Medical Examination, dating from August 3, 1915, states that Ben:

• Was aged 21 years and eight months

• Was 5ft seven-and-a-quarter inches tall

• Weighed 126 lbs

• Had a chest measurement of 35 and a half inches

• Was of fair complexion

• Had blue eyes

• Had fair hair

His occupation was farm worker – the same as his father

He went to Australia at the age of 20

Ben’s address before leaving Australia for France, taken from the Australian Imperial Forces Nominal Roll, was c/o Mrs Lord, Bellevue Street, Arncliffe, Sydney, New South Wales

His brother George left England to make a new life in Canada, but also went to France and was killed

Chance discovery

BY chance, the Blaxhall Archive Group discovered that Benjamin Richardson’s death plaque – a memorial disc given to relatives – was still in the village.

Maggie Grenham met villager Nigella Youngs-Dunnett on Stone Common one morning and got talking about the Fromelles project. It emerged Nigella had found the plaque in the garden shed of the former Richardson family home when she moved in about 30 years earlier.

The group has also been contacted by an Australian researching the life of his grandfather, who lived in Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales. He sent pictures of a local memorial remembering those killed in the First World War. A Ben Richardson’s name is on it – and also on the war memorial in Blaxhall’s church – and further work is going on to confirm it’s the same man.

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