Alex, 14, discovers great-great uncle’s war grave on school visit to the Somme
PUBLISHED: 18:12 05 November 2013 | UPDATED: 18:12 05 November 2013
A teenager has discovered by chance the long-lost grave of his Grandfather’s uncle who fell in the Battle of the Somme almost 100 years ago.
Alex Edwards was on an school trip from east London’s Morpeth Secondary in Bethnal Green to see the battlefields of the Western Front in the Great War of 1914-18 when he found the grave of his great-great uncle Joseph Berner in the war graves cemetery at Thiepval in northern France.
His research began after his great-grandmother died in Wapping and the family came across scrolls of honour in remembrance of two brothers who died in the First World War, uncles of Alex’s grandfather.
By a fluke, the school trip was visiting the battle site at Thiepval where one of the brothers, Joseph Berner, was killed.
“I asked the teacher if we might be able to look for his grave or his name on a memorial,” Alex explained.
“But I was surprised to actually find it—in the middle of nowhere, just a little town.
“No-one in the family had seen his grave before. It was a fantastic experience.”
The trip is one of several arranged by Morpeth’s Head of History Tom Smith. Alex told his teacher that he had a relative buried at Maroeuil British Commonwealth cemetery and was given unscheduled time to look for the grave.
“I never thought I would ever find it,” Alex recalls. “It was fantastic going back four generations in my own family.
Battle of the Somme: the toll
United Kingdom: 350,000
Canada & Newfoundland: 26,029
New Zealand: 7,408
South Africa: 3,000
French Empire: 204,253
Total Allied losses: 623,907
German loses: 465,000
“This connects me to the Great War. It’s important to my generation because these people lost their lives for our future.
“If you just find the grave of one person and remember their sacrifice, then they haven’t died in vain.”
The 41 GCSE History students and five teachers from Morpeth toured the battlefields of the Somme to develop their understanding of the conflict and pay tribute to the 432,000 British casualties over the course of the five month battle.
For Alex’s family in Stepney, it filled a gap in their genealogy research stretching back more than a century in the East End.
Research by Alex’s Mum Sarah Edwards, Joe Burner’s Great niece, had found the Berners living in Wapping at the beginning of the 20th century, a family of 10 children. Her grandmother was one of the youngest, born in 1912, just two years before the Great War.
Her great uncle Joseph was killed on the Somme in 1916, aged just 20, she discovered. Joseph’s older brother Charlie, who was 25, died in an earlier battle on November 3, 1915—they have yet to trace his grave.
Sarah revealed: “My great uncle Joseph sailed across to Quebec and enlisted in the Canadian Army when he was under age. We don’t know why he went to Canada.”
She added: “I feel proud that my son found Joseph’s grave.
“Joseph was in the Roll of Honour which is opened every May in the Canadian House of Commons.
“That makes us really proud—Joseph Berner has made this family part of history.”
Alex’s grandfather, retired Stepney Green School technician Sid Smith, 75, came across two scrolls that had been tucked away in a cupboard for years, which led to a voyage of discovery into the family history.
He said: “What Alex has done finding my uncle Joseph’s grave has given us back something of our family history.”
The brothers are both listed in Rolls of Honour, Joseph Berner of the Canadian Rifles and Charles Berner of the 8th Battalion, Rifle Brigade, the sons of Charles and Ann Berner of 15 Waterloo Court, Wicker Street, both native of Wapping. The family still live in the East End—100 years on.
The Morpeth history pupils visited Serre where 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
They saw what remains of the British trenches and were given the challenge of carrying heavy Lee Enfield rifles used by the soldiers that day.
A short walk across No Man’s Land to the final resting place of whole battalions, such as the Accrington Pals, brought home to students the scale of the losses on July 1, 1916.
The youngsters toured other military cemeteries before a service of remembrance at the Thiepval memorial.
Morpeth history head Tom Smith said: “We were impressed by our students’ behaviour and felt they appreciated the scale of the battle.”
The youngsters returned with the question about whether the final toll of 432,000 British casualties on the Somme was “an acceptable price to pay” for the eventual victory in November, 1916, when they had advanced just six miles.
They are now considering the answer in their coursework for next summer’s GCSE—as well as considering how different history would have been if the British had lost at the Somme.
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