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Mystery of young WWII soldier's remains finally solved

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

A young Second World War British Army soldier, whose remains took five years to forensically identify after being discovered in an unmarked field grave, has finally been laid to rest in Oosterbeek today, close to where he was killed in action nearly 70 years ago.

The funeral of Private Lewis Curtis, from Liskeard in Cornwall, who served with 5th Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment, took place today with full military honours.

His family, including Private Curtis’s great-nephew, Rifleman Richard Edwards, aged 20, who has just returned from Afghanistan with the 5th Battalion of The Rifles - the Wiltshire Regiment’s successor - were in attendance.

Private Curtis, who survived the Normandy landings, became a veteran when at just 19 years old he was killed in the Netherlands in an artillery barrage during Operation Market Garden on 2 October 1944. He was buried in a shallow grave where he fell.

However, the markers for the plot at De Laar Farm were washed away when German military engineers flooded the area, and his burial site was lost to his family who believed he had died in Belgium.

Nearly sixty years after his death, in 2003, his remains were unearthed by builders excavating the old Dutch battlefield to make way for a new housing estate.

Since then, a Dutch forensic team has been using scientific tests including DNA analysis to try and discover who he was. Only after old dental records were uncovered in 2008 did the young soldier’s true identity finally come to light.

Reverend Mike Thomason, the padre of 5th Battalion The Rifles, leads the cortege of Private Lewis Curtis through the Arnhem Oosterbeek Cemetery in the Netherlands
Reverend Mike Thomason, the padre of 5th Battalion The Rifles, leads the cortege of Private Lewis Curtis through the Arnhem Oosterbeek Cemetery in the Netherlands [Picture: Staff Sergeant Mark Nesbit RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

The lengthy process to confirm the identity of the remains is not uncommon says Warrant Officer Class 1 Geert Jonker, the Head of the Royal Netherlands Army’s Recovery and Identification Unit:

It can take anything from three days to seven years to be able to identify remains because it’s important to get it right for the next of kin. So when we can make a positive identification it makes all those years of research worthwhile. It’s the ultimate reward, but sometimes it is about luck.

In this case it was only because we went for a second opinion on the age of the soldier that told us he was a lot younger than we originally thought.

Lewis had an undiscovered growth defect that would not have caused him any problems, but made his remains seem older than his 19 years.

Based on that information we had seven new names we were considering, three of whom had dental records. One of which was Lewis, who was a perfect match.

Sadly the discovery was too late for the sister of Private Curtis, Alice, but her children Susan Wilbourne and Robert Cole, who still live in Liskeard and grew up with tales of their Uncle Lewis, flew to the Netherlands for the burial at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery:

Mum was always talking about Lewis, so it’s unbelievable to be here now to finally lay him to rest after so long of not knowing,” said Susan. “It’s been quite an emotional roller coaster since we found out.

It is just such a pity that mum couldn’t be here to bury her little brother, but I can feel her here. She was always very close with Lewis,” continued Susan, who, together with her brother Robert, buried their uncle with one of the few keepsakes their mother had of her young brother - a treasured glass marble.

It feels right to return it to him,” concluded Robert.

To this day, 18 soldiers of the old Wiltshire Regiment are still unaccounted for.

Some of them lie buried in unnamed graves marked ‘Known unto God’ in allied war cemeteries in Oosterbeek and Nijmegen. Warrant Officer Jonker and his identification team continue to try and trace their identities to help the families of those like Private Curtis who gave his young life for his country.