Osmond Bartle Wordsworth - An Unknown Officer killed during the Great War has now been identified as collateral descendent of poet William Wordsworth
In late October, volunteers at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock received good news after years of research that took them on a journey from a garden in Northern France to across the United Kingdom, Australia, The United States of America, Ireland, Canada -and back to the battlefields of the Great War.
After collaborative work with the Ministry of Defence, Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), human remains found near Arras in the last decade were finally confirmed to be of Second Lieutenant Osmond Bartle Wordsworth, missing since 1917.
“The donation of these artefacts and the search to identify the missing soldier predates the opening of the museum in 2014. It is a story we have visited many times and to finally have closure is a remarkable achievement to everyone involved”, said Ursula Corcoran, Museum Director, Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum.
The story began in 2013 when a local farmer was digging in his private garden in the village of Hénin-sur-Cojeul discovered the remains of a body. Once the local gendarmerie had officially declared the find could not be of any criminal interest it became a case of trying to identify a missing soldier.
In due course it was established that the remains were from an officer of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry based on the discovery of artefacts including a regimental button and fragments of uniform. The unknown officer was reburied ‘Known Unto God’ in 2015 with dignity alongside comrades in arms at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s H. A. C. Cemetery at Écoust-St.-Mein, a village near Arras.
In 2016, the artefacts original found with him were transferred to the Museum so that volunteers could continue their research to try and identify the soldier.
Regimental records documented that on the 3rd May 1917, the 5th Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry attacked the enemy holding a well-established and fortified trench system in the general area. In addition to losses from artillery, the Battalion sustained heavy casualties from accurate machine gun fire and snipers, encountering an unexpected, well manned and heavily wired trench that they successfully occupied.
The survivors were forced to withdraw back to their original positions after a series of strong enemy counter-attacks. 8 of the 12 officers and 291 of the 523 non-commissioned officers and men who went into action were listed as killed, wounded or missing that day, including five junior officers. Subsequent research discovered that one officer had died of wounds as a prisoner of war; a subsequent DNA comparison by JCCC was negative, and a third officer had been reported killed so would have likely been left where he fell.
The volunteers concentrated on the two unresolved missing officers. Could the remains have been those of John Legge Bulmer from North Yorkshire, educated at Marlborough College before going up to Merton College, Oxford in 1913 where he knew T.S. Eliot? Could they have been of Charles Croke Harper of Broughton in Buckinghamshire who before the war was a chartered accountant and a farmer in the outback of Western Australia?
Our conundrum was that although the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were only in the area once during the Great War, the body was found approximately nine kilometres from the battlefield. In the confusion and fog of battle, was the young officer wounded and taken to a medical aid station by men of the neighbouring brigade, then buried where he died. These were questions the volunteers could not answer, so had insufficient evidence to present to the JCCC to re-open the case. The story of The Missing Officer and the search up to this point, can still be read on our Objects and Stories page.
In mid-2017, one of the volunteers discovered that an officer serving in the 21st Company, Machine Gun Corps had transferred in 1916 from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry before he was killed, and was buried alone by his men on the 2nd April 1917 in Hénin-sur-Cojeul, one week before his division had established a formal burial location outside the village. The volunteer’s thesis was that it was possible that the young officer may have continued to wear his original Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry uniform.
That officer was identified as Osmond Bartle Wordsworth, a collateral descendent of the poet. In late 2018, the Museum had the artefacts on display to assist in the search for relatives and as luck would have it a visitor advised staff that he knew another Wordsworth descendant and contact was made with the family.
The volunteer presented a detailed submission to the JCCC to re-open the case with the Museum trustees, staff and volunteers rewarded for their efforts after they received the report that a DNA comparison with a relative had resulted in a match with the remains.
Having had no known grave before now, Osmond Bartle Wordsworth is currently remembered on Bay 10 of The Arras Memorial in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Faubourg-d'Amiens Cemetery, France.
Even before his war service, O. B. Wordsworth had a history of gallantry. Having been working as a Lecturer at Trinity College, Toronto, Canada, on 1st May, 1915 Osmond Wordsworth boarded the SS “Lusitania” at New York with his sister, Ruth Mary Wordsworth, as he returned to England with the intention of enlisting in the army. On the 7th May the "Lusitania" was off the Irish coast when she was hit by a torpedo fired by the German U Boat U20. During the last minutes of the vessel sinking Osmond gave his lifebelt to another passenger, but managed to escape, being one of the last to leave the ship, and was rescued. Almost 1,200 lost their lives and around 761 survived. Ruth & her brother did not know each other’s fate until they reunited in Ireland.