'Amazing' discovery leads to identification of First World War sailor

By Rosemary Collins, 23 May 2018 - 3:19pm

The Ministry of Defence used DNA samples from family members to identify Able Seaman James Cameron Robertson

The Royal Naval division in the First World War
Sailors of the Royal Naval Division, where James Cameron Robertson served (Credit: Joint Casualty & Compassionate Centre)

A sailor killed at the Battle of Gavrelle in the First World War will be buried under his real name over 100 years later after the Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty & Compassionate Centre (JCCC) successfully identified him.

The sailor was identified as Able Seaman James Cameron Robertson, who was born in Aberdeen in 1891 and killed on 28 April 1917, using military records and a DNA sample from his nephew.

"It's amazing, especially considering there was quite a slim chance that we would be able to get an identification because of the numbers that were killed during the battle," said commemoration officer Nicola Nash, who led the search to identify the remains.

"It was an amazing feeling to be able to give this man a name."

A skeleton was found at the end of 2016 ahead of road construction work near the northern French village of Gavrelle, with shoulder titles showing that he belonged to the First World War Anson Battalion of the British Royal Naval Division (RND).

He had RND and Hood Battalion shoulder titles in his pocket, and the remains were also found with general service buttons, bullets, buckles, webbing rings, a spoon and mess tin, garment fragments and a pair of British boots.

At the start of the First World War, huge numbers of men volunteered to join the navy, so the RND was formed by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to divert some naval forces to the army.

However, the RND continued to function as part of the navy.

This meant that whereas most army service records were destroyed in air raids during the Second World War, the RND records were stored separately and have survived.

Nicola Nash compared the location where the skeleton was found with where the Anson Battalion was known to have been during the Battle of Arras.

She found records of 30 men from the battalion who were killed at Gavrellle between 27 and 29 April 1917 and whose bodies were never identified.

Unusually, the skeleton was still approximately 90% complete.

This meant a post-mortem was able to determine that it belonged to a man aged between 25 and 35 and 5ft 2.5 inches - 5ft 3.5 inches in height.

Using height records in the military documents, Nicola identified two able seamen among the missing men who could be a match - James Cameron Robertson and Andrew Turner Irvine.

She then tracked down James Cameron Roberton's nephew, who agreed to take part in a DNA test, which confirmed the man's identity.

James Cameron Roberton will have a full military burial in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery on 11 July, attended by his nephew, senior officers from the Royal Navy and officials from the British Embassy.
 

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