Public asked to identify unknown soldiers who took part in key First World War

It was the winter of 1917 and, having survived one of the most significant battles of the First World War, the officers of various British regiments lined up for a group photograph.

Yet, despite having just taken part in the historic Battle of Cambrai – the first tank battle in history – their names were lost to posterity and to this day remain unknown.

Only one of their number has ever been identified; Captain Thomas Box, of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The other 30, whose photograph was taken by a young German photographer following their capture during the battle, remain anonymous.

Now historians have appealed to the public to help them name the men and track down their surviving descendants.

Identifying the men would, they say, allow them to be properly commemorated on what is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of the Great War.

The Battle of Cambrai marked the first use of the new technology of armoured tanks in mass formation against enemy troops.

But after some initial British success on the first day, the Mark IV tanks they deployed began to break down, with others falling to German artillery and infantry defences. However it did point the way forwards in breaking the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front.

The British suffered 47,596, casualties, of whom 9,000 were taken prisoner , with the Germans suffering a total of  41,000 casualties.

The photograph, showing the men lining up for the camera outside a sturdy brick building which may have doubled as their prison quarters, was taken on November 30, 1917, by Walter Heinsen, 17 year old who served on the Western Front as a German Army photographer.

The young Walter Heinsen in his German Army uniform

Credit:
From the Archives of Walter A. Heinsen/John D. Heinsen

After inheriting the photographs following Walter’s death his American grandson, John Heinsen, has in recent years been travelling to and from Northern France to piece together the stories behind the images.

Mr Heinsen, 47, a filmmaker and TV executive from Pasadena, California, has made it his mission to preserve the collection, and, with the help of the There But Not There project, identify the men in the group photograph.

“My grandfather was very anti-war, like many artists of his generation,” said Mr Heisen. “And I want to spread this message of forgiveness and reconciliation to generations going forward.

“This is a very exciting and emotional project. Only in the last few weeks have we started to identify some of the men’s uniforms.”

Indeed the uniforms, regimental insignia and service ribbons provide strong clues to the men’s identities.

The photograph, showing Captain Thomas Box and his fellow POWs

Credit:
From the Archives of Walter A. Heinsen/John D. Heinsen

One is a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers or the Royal Artillery and wears the Military Cross. Another is an officer in the Somerset Light Infantry. A third, his kilt clearly visible, is a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. They look mostly sullen, perhaps resentful at having to be photographed by their captors. But a handful are smiling, in what could be interpreted as cheeky defiance.

It is thought most of the men in the photograph survived the war, having been captured late into the conflict and enjoying certain privileges as officers.

Cpt. Box was identified after Mr Heisen and a researcher identified his uniform and Military Cross (MC) and Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) ribbons and matched these details against a list of members of the King’s Liverpool Regiment who had been captured at Cambrai.

A professional soldier Cpt Box was born in Dublin and fought in the Boer War and in India before he rejoined the Army on the outbreak of war in 1914.

He received the MC and DCM for his bravery in cutting a section of barbed wire while under fire, before leading his men in a charge, while again under fire.

Following the Armistice Cpt Box returned home to Liverpool, where he worked as a house superintendent at Lewis’s department store in the city.

His granddaughter Alison, 67, a maths teacher from Hale village, Merseyside, said: “I was just blown away to see a photograph of my grandfather among his fellow British prisoners of war. It’s important to name these soldiers and trace their families. For many people it will complete their family histories and bring these boys alive again.”

Now the There But Not There project, set up to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice between 1914-1918, is calling on the British public to put names to the 30 men photographed with Cpt Thomas, so that fitting tribute can be paid to the service they gave.

For every man identified, There But Not There will present a 10 inch statuette of the silhouette of a Tommy in reflective pose to his descendants, engraved with the soldier’s name.

The Tommy statuettes are also on sale to the public to raise money for veterans of subsequent conflicts.

General The Lord Dannatt, Patron of There But Not There and former Chief of the General Staff, said: “Our enduring hope is that these Tommies can bring some measure of solace to the descendants of these brave men, and will inspire others to buy their own and raise money for our veterans today.”

  • If you know any of the men in the photograph please contact patrick.sawer@telegraph.co.uk