Reading the local newspaper in Calais last weekend, a picture caught my eye. It was of a gravestone on which was carved: "In Loving Memory of Harry Ieuan C. Jones, the Beloved Son of Harry and Bridget Jones of Velindre, Carmarthenshire, Wales, who died at the Queen Alexandra Hospital, Dunkirk on December 3, 1918. Aged 18 Years." Well Bridget Jones, I had to go on reading.
It was a lovely little local story. A local man, Philippe Persyn had become intrigued by the grave which he had noticed in the cemetery of Petite-Synthe, in the center of Dunkirk. Harry Jones had died on December 3rd 1918, so was probably part of the Allied forces. But what was he doing in Dunkirk? And curiouser and curiouser, why was he not buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, either at the nearby ones of Zuydcoote or Leffinckoucke?
Persyn contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and was told that Harry Ieuen C. Jones was not in fact a soldier and they had no records of him. Persyn then contacted Carmarthenshire archives. They told him that Harry Jones was a sailor on the steamer Ruapehu, taking on the status of a soldier while ships took soldiers home from Dunkirk. He had died of pneumonia, as so many millions did. But to Persyn, that was not the end of the story. He knew that the owner of the ship was a New Zealander, so he contacted the New Zealand Shipping Company who sent him on the trail to discover the official documents which were either in London or in Newfoundland, Canada. As the article then said, all this 'without speaking a word of the language of Shakespeare!'
Persyn was then helped by Jill Simpson, director of the Seamen's club of Calais, who wrote to Newfoundland. The university archivist discovered a document signed by Philip C. Sarkel, the British Consul in Dunkirk at the time. Harry Jones, along with five other seamen, was admitted to hospital on November 25th, 1918, and died a few days later of Spanish flu.
So the story of the lone grave of Harry Ieuan C. Jones in a cemetery in Dunkirk was solved.
With the anniversary of the start of World War I rapidly approaching, interest is high and Philippe Persyn has continued to do research on the ship, the British consul, and the hospitals in Dunkirk during the war. Perhaps there will be another story soon of another lone grave discovered in France.
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England
Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915
More on World War I in Nord-Pas-de-Calais
- New Memorials of World War I
- Wellington Quarry, Arras
- Three-Day Tour of the Western Front
- Wilfred Owen Memorial
Image: Wellington Quarry, Arras