NOSTALGIA: Ever wondered who cleared bodies from battlefields?

HMS Exeter in 1939.
HMS Exeter in 1939.
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As we have but three months before we celebrate the armistice which led to the end of the First World War I will be including Portsmouth families over the coming weeks. 

Mark Newman had two great grandfathers who did their bit. One, James Newman, volunteered to be part of a force that went on to the battlefields to recover thousands of bodies so they could be given a decent burial.

HMS Exeter sinking after the Battle of the Java Sea on March 1,1942.

HMS Exeter sinking after the Battle of the Java Sea on March 1,1942.

James Newman, PC11, of  70, Unicorn Street, Portsea, joined the police force in 1893. He was caught while drunk on duty in London Road, North End, Portsmouth, in November 1893. He was suspended and resigned after being in the force only five months.  

James volunteered for service at the outbreak of the war and served in the Royal Artillery Army Reserve, but because of his age wasn't sent on active service. He returned to civilian service in April 1918 but in December that year he joined the Royal Engineers and was sent to France to work with Graves Registration, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

He was part of a 15,000-strong force whose duties were to find, identify and bury the dead, sifting through badly decomposed and mutilated corpses that had been gnawed by rats.

For this unenviable work they were paid more than frontline soldiers –  two shillings and six pence on top of their service pay per day. After a year of  this appalling work, on December 13, 1919, he fell into the Sambre canal in northern France in full kit and drowned. He was 57. He is buried in a military cemetery near Calais.

Frederick George Roe

Frederick George Roe

Mark’s other great grandfather was Frederick Roe PC 122 who joined the force in 1908 after service in the Royal Marines. In 1914 he re-joined the armed forces and served throughout the First World War returning to policing in 1919.

He too was caught drunk on duty on December 31, 1922, and was given the option of being docked three days’ pay or three days’ leave. It’s believed he was gassed in the First World War which may have been why he was invalided out of the force in 1932. He died, aged 56, in 1939. Looking through other police records around these times, virtually every officer was disciplined for being drunk on duty. 

Mark’s father John Newman also served in the City Police Force from 1952 until 1981. It became part of  Hampshire Constabulary in 1967. 

• I wonder if you read in the national press about the Chinese metal dealers who are desecrating war graves? There are many British naval ships lying at the bottom of the sea off Singapore, Java and Sumatra.

James Newman.

James Newman.

HMS Exeter, of Battle of the River Plate fame, which was sunk on March 1, 1942,  with 40 members of her company going down with her, has been completely removed.

HMS Prince of Wales, lost with 327 men, has had more than half her remains taken.

HMS Repulse, lost with Prince of Wales, which went down with 508 of her company, has had her propellers and shafts removed.

This is only a small proportion of more than 500 ships  on the seabed in the Far East which are being desecrated.

Someone must get this practice stopped now.

On a personal note, my father’s brother William, a pall bearer at the funeral of King George V in 1936, was lost when the passenger liner Ceramic was torpedoed off the Azores in December 1942.

The ship was en route to St Helena, Durban and Sydney. William was to disembark at St Helena to train troops.

Ceramic was torpedoed with the loss of 655 crew, troops, 90 civilian men, 50 women and 12 children. All perished but one, a Sapper Munday from south London. 

My father would be distraught if he knew Ceramic had been taken apart where she lay with the remains of many still within her.

Thankfully she is too deep down.