JOHN SHEEN and TOM MORGAN
Shortly after I published John Brandon's account of how he and others discovered the remains of Pte. Nugent, I received an email from one of the men mentioned in the story - John Sheen. John is the author whose wide knowledge of the Tyneside Irish and Scottish Battalions made him an obvious choice when the Ministry of Defence began looking for expert help in identifying the remains which had been found. John's email included a phone number and an invitation to call him for a chat. This I did and this article is a combination of the email and the very enjoyable talks we had over several evenings which followed. Incidentally, John is the best kind of expert - one who considers himself merely an enthusiast and therefore willing to freely share his knowledge with others.
|After the body was found in November 98 the MOD contacted John Sheen in the first week of Dec 98 to see if he would be able to help them with identification. At that stage the Ministry of Defence and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission did have some information on Pte. Nugent, but only the information which is available to the rest of us - his entry in the CWGC database and his entry in "Soldiers Died in the Great War," which gave his place of birth, residence and enlistment as Newcastle and his place of commemoration as the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, Somme, France. At this stage in their enquiries, the Ministry of Defence had not revealed that they had found a razor with a service number on it.|
However, the Great War "grapevine" is very effective and many people knew the possible identity of the soldier before it was officially announced. John Sheen certainly did, when he went for his meeting with the staff of PS4, the Army department which looks after casualty and compassionate matters.
To begin with, there was some gentle probing, with the army representatives being very reluctant to reveal a name in which they were interested, and John having to repeat that without a name he was unable to even begin to look into the possibility of his having any useful information. Eventually, John revealed that he already knew the name they had in mind and had brought some information to the meeting with him - information which he and his co-author Graham Stewart had already researched for their book, "Tyneside Scottish:"
Private Nugent's date of enlistment, from the "Newcastle Evening Chronicle;"
His home address from the same source;
Details of Pte. Nugent's Section and Company from Red Cross missing lists;
A report that Pte. Nugent was reported missing, taken from "St. George's Gazette;"
From the same magazine, a report dated February, 1917, stating that Pte. Nugent was presumed dead.
All this information enables us to paint some kind of picture of Pte. George Nugent and it gives ample evidence, together with battalion records, that Pte. Nugent's movements before he became missing on 1st July, 1916 would certainly have brough him to the area of the Somme Battlefields where John Brandon found the remains. But it doesn't actually identify the remains or validate the only piece of evidence - the razor bearing Pte. Nugent's number. The staff at PS4 had little or no experience of researching WW1 soldiers - to be fair to them, this was not really their job - and John showed them the nominal rolls from his first book "Tyneside Irish" and gave them a briefing on what, where and how to go about it. He also showed them the rolls that he and his co-author, Graham Stewart, were preparing for "Tyneside Scottish." Having established the authority with which he could speak on the Tyneside battalions of so long ago, John called into play his 25 years' experience as a serving soldier in addition when he said that then, as now, soldiers were expected to shave every day, and to shave themselves. Thus a soldier's razor is one piece of kit which he carries with him into action. Furthermore, no soldier would shave with another man's razor if he could possibly avoid it, for obvious health reasons. Therefore, the only reasonable assumption was that the soldier found at the Lochnagar Crater, carrying Pte. Nugent's razor, was indeed Pte. Nugent. The meeting lasted for about three hours.
At the end of the meeting John was shown the case file and the photos of the remains and the artifacts that came from the grave. A copy of this last photo was given to him with permission to publish it in "Tyneside Scottish."
On the day of the launch of "Tyneside Scottish" John's 15 year old son James found a photograph of George Nugent in the "Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle." This was rapidly copied and enlarged by the staff in Newcastle Library local studies department and was "unveiled" at the launch.
Since the discovery, there have been many rumours concerning the identification, and I am guilty of passing some of them on in my "News" section, being dependent on newspaper reports and hearsay for my information, so it was useful to be able to ask John for some of his views on these stories.
The first story, which I got from my local newspaper and from other sources, said that the army had been reluctant to accept the razor alone as positive identification and that forensic advice had been sought. As a result of this, Pte. Nugent's records had been checked, and it had been found that his recorded height matched the expert's measurement of the skeleton and the boots found with the remains were the correct size. Other reports suggested that dental records had also confirmed the identity.
"Unbelievable rubbish!" was John's answer. He has a large collection of Tyneside Irish and Scottish documents and nowhere are there any references to shoe size, or dental records. "Besides," says John, "Army regulations at the time stated that a dead soldier's documents may be destroyed one year after his death. How many dead soldiers' documents have turned up at the Public Record Office at Kew? As far as I'm aware, the army accepted the razor alone as proof of identification."
I asked John why, in that case, was there a fairly long gap in hearing news of Pte. Nugent? There was a space of several months during which no progress seemed to have been made and there were stories that the identification had not been completely accepted. John says that this was just a gap in which no news was forthcoming while the authorities were attempting to trace relatives of Pte. Nugent so they were, in fact, committed to their identification decision throughout this quiet time.
Another reason for this part of the process taking so long was that the Northumberland Fusiliers as a whole lost three soldiers called George Nugent in the Great War. Two of them were Privates, two of them came from Newcastle, two died on the Somme in July, 1916 and all three were among the Missing! Relatives living 80 years later would probably be unaware of all of this, and in the details given with the appeal for relatives, would see at least two pieces of information which suggested that their relative was the man.The army had quite a lot of questions-and-answer stuff to do.
Like me and like John Brandon, John Sheen is surprised at the amount of interest which has been shown in the case of Pte. Nugent and, on account of his special knowledge, slightly amused at some of it. I'm lucky that both Johns contacted me at roughly the same time and gave me the opportunity to learn the real story. There's a chance that we'll all meet for the first time at Pte. Nugent's funeral on 1st July, 2000.
Copyright © John Sheen, Tom Morgan, June, 2000
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