Sarah Foot who lives in St Margarets is one of three sisters; Judith, Lucy and herself. Just before last Christmas she received a phone call from Lucy. Instead of the usual family chitchat about this and that Lucy told her that she had received an unexpected phone call from the Ministry of Defence.
They told her that during recent road works in Voormezele, Belgium the remains of a British soldier had been found. Amongst the fragments of uniform recovered there was a silver coin engraved with the words ‘2nd Lieutenant Eric Henderson. London Regiment.’ This long missing soldier was their great uncle. After 100 years the MOD were only able to track down his family because Judith and Lucy had registered his name on a BBC4 remembrance website.
In November 1914 the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, south of Ypres was occupied by the German army. Over the following years they gradually transformed it into a stronghold with multiple defensive positions. In 1916 the British Army began to tunnel beneath the Ridge, packing 19 mines with 450 tons of high explosive. At 0310, on June 7th 1917, after an extensive artillery bombardment, the British detonated the mines, killing over 10,000 German soldiers. The explosions were so powerful that they rattled the windows in Downing Street in London.
So many Germans were killed or disorientated by the explosions that they were unable go put up much resistance although some machine gun crews were able to establish themselves in the White Chateau, a formidable strong point constructed at the end of Dammstrasse.
Eric’s platoon, part of the1/8th Battalion, London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) was ordered to take four enemy positions - Oak Trench, Oak Reserve, Oak Support and Oak Switch. As they advanced onto the ridge at about 9.15 that morning they ran into heavy machine gun fire from the White Chateau and it was here that Eric was killed. Why his body was never found at the time and why he was reported ‘missing-in-action’ we will never know. He was just one of many thousands of soldiers who disappeared that way, buried by shell fire, drowned in deep pools of mud or blown into unidentifiable pieces. Now after 100 years, 2nd Lieutenant Eric Henderson, 8th Battalion London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) has been found. He was 21 years old.
In the next few weeks Lucy, Judith and Sarah will have a meeting with the Ministry of Defence to find out more about their great Uncle Eric, the details of his death and what happens next. Probably the military funeral that he never received all those years ago and a burial alongside all his comrades from the Post Office Rifles who were killed that day, 7th June 1917 on the bloody slopes of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge
THE RIDGE – 7th JUNE 1917
From out the smoky pall of battle strife The Ridge looms grey, but with uncertain line And all its stricken fields are brown. No green remains, Our dead like thickly in the broken town-unheeding now All strangely still and quiet, The thunder of the conflict they have won.AN UNKNOWN POET
– from Martyn Day