News National Unknown soldier receives headstone after a century of mystery

Unknown soldier receives headstone after a century of mystery

Private Cecil Henry Burns
The discovery of Private Burns' grave solved a century-old family mystery. Photo: Suellyn Hine
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For 100 years, the only insight into Private Cecil Burns’ death was the shrapnel-pierced leather notebook that was sent home to his parents in Singleton in the Hunter Valley.

The location of the soldier’s grave near Belgium’s World War I battlefields was one of the many thousands only “known unto God”.

Private Burns’ family only knew that the 25-year-old, from 46th Battalion, died on October 19, 1917 among the hellish landscape of mud, shattered trees, shelling and machine gun fire of the Battle of Passchendaele.

Now, thanks to the work of a group of volunteer war historians, his final resting place will be marked with his name and rank.

Century-old family riddle solved

For Private Burns’ great-niece Suellyn Hine, the discovery of his grave by war researchers Fallen Diggers has brought closure to a long-standing family mystery.

“From what we can gather, he was at Passchendaele, he was injured — or wounded I should say — taken to a field hospital and that field hospital was blown up,” Ms Hine said

“Words can’t express what they’ve done – they’re like a dog with a bone because they just won’t give up.”

Private Burns was a farmer and the eldest of 15 children. Ms Hine said his death and the previously unknown location of his grave had left many unanswered questions.

To continue his legacy, Ms Hine’s father was named after him.

“We always wanted to know the story behind it and now we have closure of that, which is just amazing,” she said.

“I know my father — he’s still alive, he’s 84 — was chuffed to find out that we finally got an end to the riddle.”

Private Cecil Henry Burns' diary
Private Cecil Burns’ shrapnel-pierced diary held clues to his death on the Western Front. Photo: Suellyn Hine

Graves to be rededicated

On Saturday, Australian Defence Force representatives will formally recognise the graves of two Australian soldiers, with headstones bearing their names to be dedicated in a ceremony at the Menin Road South Military Cemetery in Ypres.

Private Burns’ headstone, next to Driver Albert Sutton’s from nearby Williamtown in the Hunter Valley, currently reads “resting in place in a foreign land, remembered by those you left behind”.

A rededication service will also be held for 5th Field Artillery Brigade Driver Henry Martin Comerford, 28, from Mintaro in South Australia.

He was fatally wounded during the final days of the Third Battle of Ypres on November 7, 1917.

On Anzac Day, an Australian soldier from Sydney, Private William Guest of 33rd Battalion, will have his headstone dedicated in a ceremony at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.

Driver Henry Martin Comerford
The grave of South Australian Henry Martin Comerford was also identified by volunteer historians. Photo: Australian War Memorial

Graves identified by matching records

Amateur historian Andrew Pittaway from Fallen Diggers said the volunteer group was created after he identified an unknown soldier’s grave by accident while researching a book in 2014.

The group has now identified 18 soldiers, with a further 40 cases of unrecovered war casualties under consideration by Defence and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Mr Pittaway said they had solved cases together by matching the records of missing soldiers with information about the unknown soldiers’ graves.

He said connecting families with soldiers’ graves was an emotional process, even after the passage of a century.

“Even 100 years later, it’s amazing how family members still know the effect of losing the soldiers from their family had,” he said.

“It’s still really emotional actually to see what effect it still has when you give a name to a soldier.”

This weekend the group hopes to continue their search for a World War II Bristol Beaufort bomber that crashed in the waters off Tasmania’s King Island, after calling off earlier attempts due to bad weather.

“They hopefully have good weather so they’ll go and find the spot and at least then the relatives can maybe lay some wreaths over there,” he said.