Lost, then found, but never forgotten
For 84 years, Private George Nugent 22/1306 was among the Missing of the Somme, one of the 80,000 British and Empire soldiers, sailors and airmen, whose bodies were never found or identified after the brutal battles of 1916. His remains were discovered by British tourists beside the Lochnagar crater (La Boisselle) in 1998. They were then succesfully identified.
The Tyneside Scottish, operating within the British 34th Division, were part of the vast volunteer army, raised by Lord Kitchener in the first months of the war.
Like most the 4,000 soldiers in the original Tyneside Scottish battalions, Pte Nugent was probably from a Scots family which had moved to the Newcastle area to find work in the shipyards or mines.
In July 1916, the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish were to attack the intricate and heavily fortified German first lines, east of the town of Albert. Mining engineers had tunnelled under the first line of German trenches and laid enormous mines. The British were pulled back from their front lines to shelter from the blasts.
Then, on the morning of 1 July 1916, the mines detonated in two huge earthquakes (one of which was Lochnagar) at 07.28. The Tyneside Scottish then went over the top, led by their pipers. The assault was supposed to be a formality of occupation.
As the Tyneside Scottish advanced at a walk, carrying packs weighing 80lbs and more, they were easy targets for German machine-gunners and artillery, who had used the time to come up from their protected bunkered trenches. The Tyneside Scottish were very nearly annihilated.
Remnants of the battalions – including Pte Nugent’s unit – captured a short section of German line (one of the few successes of the day). But Pte Nugent did not himself get that far. He died on the British side of the mine crater.
On 31st October 1998 whilst walking round the crater, at the far side from the entrance, a Mr Drage of Colchester noticed what he thought might be the remains of a soldier, emerging from the chalk. Mr Drage later visited Tommy’s cafe, and told the proprietor, who contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. After the French authorities had been informed and the relevant approvals had been given, the remains were exhumed on Tuesday 3rd November 1998 and removed to the CWGC mortuary at Beaurains. The remains consisted of a human skeleton, the skull of which was broken. Various items of army kit were found with the skeleton, including a rifle, bullets and water bottle, as well as personal items, including a pipe mouthpiece, a silver pen holder and a folding cut throat razor. It was the razor that held the key to identifying the remains. The razor was inscribed “Private G. Nugent 1306”. However, the army required more formal proof for identity because razors can be lost or borrowed. So, the surviving information on Pte Nugent’s height and boot size were checked by pathologists against the bones discovered and they matched closely enough to allow the army to announce that they are satisfied Pte Nugent has been found at last.
From the position of the remains, he is believed to have been killed in the withering machine-gun fire or in the incessant shelling before he reached the smoking ruins of the mine explosions and still short of the German lines. Unfortunately for the British, the Lochnagar crater mine was sited, and therefore detonated, just short of the German trench lines and was not as successful as it could have been. The huge explosion was over-engineered and the force went vertically upwards, creating a (relatively) narrow, but very deep crater.
When the surviving Tyneside Scottish paraded after the first day of the battle, they had lost three-quarters of their men, killed or wounded. The toll included almost all their officers, from the colonel down.
Pte Nugent’s name appears on the roll of the Missing of the Somme, at Thiepval, about a mile from where he was last seen alive. Little by little, the scarred soil of Picardy is giving up its dead. The remains of nearly 20 British soldiers are found each year on the Western Front battlefields in France and Belgium. Not all are identified, however.
Pte George Nugent has been re-interred in Ovillers Cemetery. The ceremony was performed on 1 July 2000, exactly 84 years after he was killed in action.