Known unto God……..and, of course, the CWGC

Ever since my first visit to the Western Front I have always carried a notebook with me. Like many people, I always have a number of things I want to look at and these form the basis of my itinerary. However, in the case of cemeteries, I nearly always come across things of interest that I hadn’t previously considered. It might be something connected with an individual soldier, or sometimes his family; a group of headstones potentially pointing to a single event, or perhaps a set of recurring dates involving a particular unit. It could be absolutely anything of potential value or interest, in which case it goes into my notebook to be researched once I get home. At least, that’s the theory.

Earlier this year, while thinking ahead for a trip to Ypres, I dug out my old notebooks and began thumbing through them. During one trip, back in late September 1991, we made Bedford House Cemetery our last stop of the day before returning to our hotel for dinner. As I remember it, we paid a visit to the grave of  the VC winner, 2nd Lieutenant Rupert Price Hallowes, 4th Middlesex Regiment, who is buried in Enclosure No.4, Plot XIV, Row B, after which we all split up to have a general wander around the place before heading back.

After returning to the minibus we drove the short distance to Ypres, and it was then that one of the guys mentioned that during our last stop he’d found a soldier of the Cameron Highlanders with two identical headstones, a private by the name of W.J. Reid, killed in action on the 11th May 1915, aged 23.  When I asked whether he could remember the grave references he told me they were XIV.G.17 and XII.G.17. I quickly jotted down the details in my notebook. I’m also pretty sure the matter came up again over dinner, not least because one of the guys had a particular interest in the Cameron Highlanders. I have since spoken to him but he has no recollection of the occasion at all.

We were unable to return to Bedford House Cemetery the following day, but that didn’t matter, there would always be a next time. Without wishing to cast doubt on the information, the thought had even occurred to me that we might be talking about two men here, both W.J. Reid, both Cameron Highlanders, perhaps even killed on the same day. The previous evening, when we were in Bedford House Cemetery, it wasn’t exactly dark, but the light had begun to fade a bit. Everything would ultimately depend on the army number on both headstones. Anyway, the matter was deferred, and none of us thought to take the matter any further at the time.

That may seem rather odd given the nature of the discovery, but once back in England we all went back to work and life resumed its course. My notebook went into a drawer and the following year the group and I went somewhere else. I always intended to write to the CWGC regarding the two headstones, but I just never got round to it. So it was that the curious case of Private Reid was more or less forgotten about until, that is, I started going through the said notebook in June of this year. This time, no matter what, I would definitely make a point of going to Bedford House Cemetery to check out the possibility of Private Reid having two headstones. 

Of course, I had been to Ypres many times between 1991 and 2018, but on most of these occasions I was busy guiding others around the battlefield, mostly following a fixed itinerary, and primarily concerned with aspects of the actual fighting that took place. I had often pointed out Bedford House in passing, but had never had a specific reason to take people into the cemetery itself; and in any case, I wouldn’t have wanted to take others to see something that I hadn’t seen myself and couldn’t yet vouch for.

So, this year I did go to Bedford House where I was able to confirm that Private S/17102 W.J. Reid did indeed have two identical headstones. This time, of course, I did contact the CWGC and received a reply a few days later. The Commission was quickly able to confirm that Reid is buried in Plot XIV.G.17 and that an unknown soldier from the South Wales Borderers is buried in Plot XII.G.17. The headstone in Plot XII will be removed and a temporary marker set in its place until a new stone can be cut bearing the correct details. According to the CWGC, both stones were of the original Portland variety and both were heavily weathered, tending to suggest that the mistake probably occurred at around the time the cemetery was created. At least now we have a definitive answer. Also, it’s useful to remember that the CWGC cemetery registers only show identified casualties, whereas the commission’s actual records contain details, however sparse, of every headstone in every cemetery, including those of unknown soldiers.

Just to complete the story, Reid was one of thirty-seven casualties sustained by his battalion that day, all of them privates and NCOs. Thirty are shown on the Menin Gate, three are buried at Bedford House, Enclosure No.4 (XIV 16,17 and 18), and the others can be found at Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, Hooge Crater Cemetery and Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery. The 2nd Cameron Highlanders were part of the 27th Division along with the 1st Royal Scots, 2nd Gloucesteshire Regiment, 1st Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, 9th Royal Scots and the 9th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.

“Soldiers Died in the Great War” shows Reid as William Reid, born in Barony, Glasgow. He enlisted in Glasgow and was residing there at the time of his enlistment. Service No: S/17102. Killed in action on 11 May 1915.

CWGC records also show that a Private (220092) A.S. REID, 1st Cameron Highlanders, died on the 3rd September 1918, aged 20, though his original card index notes his date of death as the 2nd September 1918. He is buried at Dury Crucifix Cemetery (I.A.1), one of the many cemeteries included in my book ‘Arras South’. “Soldiers Died in the Great War” shows him as Private 220092 Alexander Sinclair Reid (formerly 4486 Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders) serving with the 1st Cameron Highlanders, and that he was resident in Glasgow at the time of enlistment. It shows him killed in action on the 3rd September 1918. CWGC records point out that he was the son of Mrs Janet Reid of 382, London Road, Glasgow, which just happens to be the same address shown for William Reid’s next-of-kin. Therefore, it seems highly likely that Private Alexander Sinclair Reid and William J. Reid were brothers.

So there we have it. It was a brilliant spot back in 1991 by whoever spotted it; I know it wasn’t me. The next time you happen to be in Bedford House Cemetery just walk between the two grave sites and you’ll see that Row G in Plot XIV doesn’t align with Row G in Plot XII. Quite amazing really. Needless to say, I always have a notebook with me; you never know when it’ll come in handy.