Birmingham archaeologists help uncover identity of First World War soldier

Posted on Friday 16th July 2010

An Anzac soldier killed in the First World War is to be reburied with his fallen comrades almost a century after he died on a Belgian battlefield, after archaeologists from the University of Birmingham helped to identify his remains.

Kirsty Nichol, of Birmingham Archaeology and member of the University’s Centre for Great War Studies and No Man’s Land - The European Group for Great War Archaeology), was part of the team that, in August 2008, recovered the body of an unknown Australian soldier missing since the Battle of Messines at St Yvon, on June 8, 1917.

Painstaking detective work by academic colleagues in the group, professional partners and the Australian Army since then has led to his identity: 1983 Private Alan James Mather.

The soldier will be formally buried by the Australian Army on July 22nd at Prowse Point Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. His name will be removed from the panel at the Menin Gate in due course.

Pte Mather’s remains were discovered when archaeologists were working on the Plugstreet Project, which is currently investigating a section of the Belgian battlefields of the First World War.

Items alongside him, such as rifle, ammunition, Corps badges and the contents of his pockets and haversack, and a corroded identification disc were also recovered.

Kirsty said that they had used the most up to date scientific techniques to study the remains, which helped to identify the unknown soldier.

Kirsty Nichol "All those involved in the project worked meticulously in an effort to reveal his identity. Identifications are often difficult to obtain for these men so every effort has to be made to collect as much evidence as possible and ensure that there is a robust recording strategy from the recovery of the body through to post mortem. From the moment we found him he was never alone, with members of the team watching over the grave site by night to protect it from being robbed. I am pleased that he has his name back, and I am very much looking forwards to meeting his family."

Project co-director Martin Brown, Hon Research Associate at the University of Birmingham said: “We were able to build up quite a picture of the man, and this led us a long way to his identity. The badges gave us his nationality. His location in the field gave us his unit – 33 Battalion – and that tells us when he was killed because they didn’t spend long there. The fact he was wearing all his ammunition and grenades show that he was in the main attacking force and gave us his Company.”

Colleagues at Bradford University cleaned and conserved the objects, while scientific investigation into the composition of his bones by academics at the Universities of Leuven, Cranfield and Oxford enabled archaeologists to narrow down Pte Mather’s place of birth to a few locations in New South Wales.

The examination of casualty lists reduced further the number of possible identities to five men.

1983 Private Alan James Mather, who joined the Army in 1916, was a grazier from Inverell in New South Wales, where his father had been mayor. He was survived by his parents, older twin sisters, Flora and Marion, a younger sister, Elsie, a half brother Doug and a half sister, Jessie. He was 37 years old when he was killed.

Project co-director Richard Osgood said: “With such a low number of candidates the Australian Army commissioned DNA testing of the surviving relatives of all the casualties fitting the profile, which resulted in a positive match with one of the next of kin donors. This match provided the final proof in identifying Private Mather.

“This result shows how integration of the fieldwork, use of historical documents and cutting edge science can produce very satisfying outcomes.”