Now a specialist team of researchers in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has issued an appeal in the hope of finding living descendants of three Scottish soldiers who were killed in the conflict.
David Gemmell, George Brown and John Wilson were all privates in the Black Watch who paid the ultimate price for their service on the Western Front.
They were among around hundreds of thousands of British soldiers who perished in the war yet have no known grave. But even in the third decade of the 21st century, the work to correct that and honour the memory of the lost fallen goes on after their remains were discovered.
The little-known MoD unit, the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre Commemorations Team (JCCC), has painstakingly pieced together biographical information of the three Scots servicemen, and is seeking to prove their identities beyond any reasonable doubt.
“Over the last couple of years, the remains of three Scottish soldiers have been discovered in France,” the JCCC explained. “All were recovered with artefacts that give us a good idea of who they were.
“We’re now looking for their families so that we can confirm their identities by DNA comparison.”
That process would allow the unit, colloquially known as the ‘war detectives’, to bring closure to the stories of the three privates by arranging military ceremonies to commemorate their sacrifice.
Such outcomes are not uncommon. Only in May, the JCCC’s efforts ensured Pte William Johnston, who was killed in the Battle of Loos in autumn 1915, was laid to rest with full military honours.
The 39-year-old was killed while serving with 7th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. The JCC traced his great-great niece to Portadown, County Armagh, with DNA comparison confirming his identity.
Pte Johnston is now at rest in Loos British cemetery in northern France following a service conducted by the Reverend Dave Jeal, the chaplain to 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland,
A breakthrough in that case was the discovery of a personalised spoon buried nearby his body. A similar spoon was found near the remains of Pte Gemmell, who served in the 1st Battalion, Black Watch, raising hopes that his identity will soon be confirmed.
He was aged around 45 when he was killed in action on January 25, 1915. According to the JCCC, he was born in Dundee, the youngest of eight children, and the only boy. By the time of the 1901 census, he was registered as a plumber, lodging in a house in Stobcross Street in Glasgow’s Anderston area.
The unit’s research found three of Pte Gemmell’s sisters married. One, Jessie, had three sons with George Williamson – George, who died in 1952, James, who died in 1971, and Edwin, who lived until 1976.
Another sister, Joan, or Johanna, married a man called Jesse Carr in Dundee in 1975, while her sibling, Eliza, married a man called Andrew Petrie Thomson. It is not known whether they had children.
Pt Gemmell’s entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database states that he is among those commemorated on the Le Touret memorial near the former commune of Richebourg-l'Avoué in Pas-de-Calais.
Pte Brown served alongside him in the Black Watch, and was killed on the same day. Born in 1879 in the Hill of Beath in Fife, he was one of nine children to Archibald Brown and Eliza, or Lizzie, Drybur.
The JCCC believes only Pte Brown himself married. Together with Elizabeth Scott, he had one daughter, Mary, born in 1910.
The details of Pte Wilson’s life are even more scarce. He was killed in action on July 30, 1916 while serving with the 6th Battalion, Black Watch, but CWGC records do not give an age, date of birth, or next of kin, and there are no service records for him at the National Archives.
However, the JCCC believes he came from Gowanhill in Lanarkshire, and was one of three children born to William and Grizel Hope Wilson. The unit’s research indicates he had two sisters. One, Helen Hutchison Wilson, better known as Helen Brown, married George Stewart in Glasgow’s Dennistoun area in 1921. She died in 1968. Little is known of his other sister, Janet Wilson, other than that she was born in about 1890 in Govan.
The detective work of the JCCC, based in Gloucester, looks for tell-tale signs which might identify the remains of fallen personnel, such as shoulder titles, cap badges or, as is the case with Pte Gemmell, personal artefacts.
The team then scrutinise battalion war diaries to work out the location of a regimental battalion on any given date, a process made immeasurably easier thanks to the fact the entirety of the Western Front was mapped into the squares of 500 yards, allowing troops’ movements to be plotted.
But the JCCC also uses modern methods to try and identify the fallen. Where a list of potential casualties is narrowed, it can use DNA matching to make positive identifications.
Even now, the remains of dozens of fallen servicemen are discovered each year, usually by farmers turning soil, or construction workers laying roads or foundations on land where battle once raged.
The CWGC has stated more than 520,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in World War I have no known grave.