Lest we forget - the lost and found men of the 78th

Patrick Joseph Flockhart SUS-140611-111303001
Patrick Joseph Flockhart SUS-140611-111303001

The great, great nephew of an officer killed in the battlefields of northern France during the First World War has spoken of mixed emotions after the remains of his relative were discovered almost a hundred years on.

Patrick Joseph Flockhart’s great, great uncle Lieutenant Clifford Neelands was one of six officers from Canada’s 78th Battalion killed in the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.

St Leonards resident Patrick said although the family knew that Lt. Neelands died during the battle, the exact whereabouts of his body remained a mystery until recently when DNA testing on his remains - unearthed by chance eight years ago - were identified as being those of his relative.

Patrick said: “My great, great uncle’s remains, along with seven other infantrymen were discovered in 2006 by teenager, Fabien Demeusere, while digging in his back garden in Hallu, a small village in the Somme region of France. My family knew that he had died in the battle but not what happened to his remains.”

The home of First World War history buff Fabien, who was 14 years old at the time of the discovery, was built on the site of the 1918 battlefield. The remains of eight soldiers were subsequently found on the site. To date, only four have been identified. The task of identifying the remains fell to the Department of National Defence (DND) casualty identification coordinator Laurel Clegg. Speaking on a Canadian Broadcasting documentary called ‘Forgotten No More - The Lost Men of the 78th’ which premiers on November 6, Laurel said: “We get all the heights and ages of those missing and we compare it against the heights and ages of the deceased.” The DND then takes DNA from the remains and compares it to the DNA of potential relatives.

Born in Ontario, Lt. Neelands was an estate agent prior to joining the 78th Battalion.

The Battle of Amiens started with a surprise attack by 300,000 Allied forces just before dawn on August 8, 1918. By the end of the day, there were 27,000 German casualties; 12,000 surrendered. German General Erich Ludendorff described the Battle as ‘The black day of the German army’.

Lt. Neelands survived until August 11 when he and his comrades in the 78th found themselves surrounded by the enemy as they bravely fought to hold on to the village of Hallu - the location of the Demeusere garden.

Patrick said: “I am extremely proud but, amazingly, even though it was a hundred years ago, felt upset when I heard that Clifford’s remains had been found. He’s been in an unmarked grave all that time.

“He died fighting hand-to-hand as far as we know.”

Patrick, along with other relatives, will travel to France in May next year when the remains of the 8 soldiers will be buried next to each other near the graves of other soldiers from the 78th Battalion at a ceremony to be held at Caix cemetery.