Sergeant David Harkness Blakey of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (R Innis Fus) was today laid to rest with full military honours at a ceremony in France almost 100 years after he was killed in World War One.
Sgt Blakey was found in November 2013 when a road widening project uncovered a set of remains directly in front of Connaught Cemetery, Thiepval, France. An ID tag was discovered confirming his identity. This was later corroborated by the discovery of a R Innis Fus cap badge and some British bullets with his remains.
It is rare to identify the remains of World War One soldiers as the identity tags used at the time were made of compressed fibres or paper which decompose quickly. Sgt Blakey is only the fifth soldier in 10 years to be identified by personal artefacts and identity discs.
Following the discovery of the remains of British service personnel from historical conflicts, the MOD attempts to identify any living relatives so that they can be involved in the subsequent reinterment and memorial service. Sgt Blakey’s surviving family members were traced by the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) and were able to attend the service.
His great granddaughter Jackie Coleman said:
I was amazed that he was found after all these years. David’s memory has been kept alive in our family since he went missing. This is a very special and fitting end to our search for him and one we will always treasure. Sadly my father is not here to share in this. He and my mother spent many years trying to find David.
Today’s burial marks the end of a long search for the missing soldier who, it is believed, went missing in no-man’s land, presumed dead during the first push of the Somme during the Great War.
JCCC Officer in Charge Steve Brown said:
It is a very rare occurrence to hold a military funeral for a fallen World War 1 hero when the event is attended by the soldier’s living family. The MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre had the enormous privilege of working with others, including the Royal Irish Regiment, to make this possible for Sgt Blakey’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter.
In 1914 the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers ran a series of recruitment advertisements in the Winlaton and Gateshead area press. David Harkness Blakey was one of the many who responded to this, and was subsequently recruited into the 11th Battalion of the regiment. He trained in Finner, Co. Donegal in September 1914 before moving to the Sussex coast in July 1915. In October, Sgt Blakey embarked for France and was billeted near Abbeville.
It was not until February 1916 that the battalion moved into the front line for the first time, and this was to be in the Somme Sector. The 11th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were holding the area in preparation for the “Big Push” planned for 1st July 1916.
On the morning of 1 July 1916 the 11th Battalion, part of 109th Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division, left their trenches in Thiepval Wood to attack the Schwaben Redoubt. It was during this offensive that Sgt Blakey was last seen alive, and was from that date presumed dead.
Today’s service also included the burial of two unknown World War One soldiers, one from The Cambridgeshire Regiment and one from the Royal Irish Rifles. The service was assisted by current members of the Royal Irish Regiment.
Brigadier Joe O'Sullivan, Colonel of the Regiment, said:
It is with a great sense of professional pride that The Royal Irish Regiment will bury Sgt David Harkness Blakey MM, and an unknown soldier of the Royal Irish Rifles, with full military honours. It was part of the tragedy of war that their death in the heat of battle could not be marked with the dignity that their comrades would have wished, and that for almost a century they had no known grave.
The Royal Irish Regiment is the custodian of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers' and The Royal Irish Rifles' history, and many of the men who will carry out the ceremony are veterans of recent conflict. All ranks of the Royal Irish Regiment know that the connection they have with one another, and with their regiment is not just for the time that they serve in the Army, but for their retirement, their support in times of hardship, and for remembrance long after they have gone. The ceremony in France is to honour the very brave men who will be laid to rest in Connaught Cemetery, and the unending commitment of the regiment and the Army to those who are prepared to risk life and limb for others.
Find out more about the MOD's Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, which is part of Defence Business Services.