A VICTIM of the first battle of the Somme has been honoured after lying in an unmarked grave since he died from his wounds a century ago.
Private Charles Gordon Shaw was interred at Christ Church, in his home town of Chesterfield on 11 July 1916, but, ten years later, when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission came to erect a headstone, the exact location had been lost. Instead, a stone recording his burial “elsewhere in this churchyard” was placed close to the church.
Then, earlier this year, his niece, Doris “Dodo” Innes, now 83, determined to find her uncle, and enlisted the aid of a local historian, John Holmes. “Doris was in desperation,” he said. “She wanted to find him before she died. Doris lives 25 miles away in Derby, and had come on the bus four times to search for the grave before she met someone who put her in touch with me.”
At first, his search was fruitless. “I found a handwritten burial record, but unfortunately there was not a single date in it, just a series of entries cataloguing the rows; but that meant nothing, as there was no map with it. However, in Row 45, there was a grave described as just ‘Shaw’. There was also a burial plan — a very sketchy series of squares, with just surnames — but nothing cross-referencing it to a burial map.
“I spent hours going round the churchyard, trying to find row 45 and line up names on the register with names on the very few gravestones. Charlie had lived with his aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Taylor, and on the plan the plot was marked Taylor Shaw. Everyone must have thought it was someone with a double-barrelled name. I was very fortunate, as it turned out that the body was buried near the church, where there are more gravestones.”
Last Monday, Mrs Innes, and Pte Shaw’s great-nephew, Ian Shaw, joined other relatives and former members of the soldier’s regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, for a rededication service led by the regimental chaplain, the Revd Kevin Ball. Mr Shaw read a poem that he had written about the first day of the Somme, in which his great-uncle was fatally wounded by a shrapnel shell, and his wife, Tina, read Psalm 23. British Legion buglers sounded reveille and the Last Post.
Also present were relatives of Sgt Dick Wagg, who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for rescuing Pte Shaw and two other soldiers from no man’s land.
A temporary oak cross was placed on the grave, and, later this year, the War Graves Commission will erect a newly inscribed headstone.
Mr Shaw also gave a presentation on the battle in which Pte Shaw and fellow members of the 6th “Chesterfield Pals” Battalion were mown down as they went over the top near Gommecourt, at about 8.30 a.m. on the first day of the Somme offensive.
Mr Shaw had known nothing of his great-uncle until Mrs Innes began her search, and he recalled the moment last Easter when Mr Holmes showed them the unmarked grave. “It was very emotional, because at that stage I was very new to the project,” he said. “But it kind of took over.
“I did a lot of research on Charlie and the 6th Battalion, and last month we went to the Somme, and put a pair of wooden poppy crosses where he was wounded. It was a spooky moment as, just as I put them in, I found close by a German shrapnel shell like the one that fatally wounded Charlie. It was absolutely unbelievable.”