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  • Claire Jordan

How Not To Give Up

When Australian-born 2nd Lt Eric Francis Seaforth Hayter was shot through the head and killed serving with the Royal Field Artillery on the first awful day of the Kaiserschlacht in March s1918, his Dad, Colonel Frederick Hayter was desperate to know where is boy had been buried.

He was assured the exact location of Eric’s grave would no doubt become clear once the War was over the battlefields cleared.

He was not happy. He chafed and he waited.

In 1919, he was greatly surprised to receive a parcel in the post from a German soldier. It contained Eric’s paybook and a tracing of a map which showed exactly where his body had been found with two other English soldiers, and buried by the Germans who had taken the ground that day beside a sunken road between the villages of Morchies and Lagnicourt.

This spot was very close to where his 87th Battery had been in action that day.

Colonel Hayter was not about to let this go.

Setting out on a personal odyssey for his son, he spent long hours on the battlefields in the months ahead, often accompanied by former German soldiers whom he had tracked down, men who had fought Eric around the time of his death.

He checked every grave he could find, asked everyone who would listen.

He also kept on at the Directorate of Graves Registration & Exhumation which was then in charge of bringing in the remains of lost soldiers from the battlefields, identifying and reburying them in designated cemeteries for the Imperial War Graves Commission to look after.

He sent them all he could about Eric. He was 25, he told them, just over 6ft tall, he had dark brown hair and he told them that ‘of special notice’, Eric’s back teeth had five gold crowns.

Still nothing.

In the spring of 1920, Colonel Hayter received a letter from the DGR&E letting him know that they were fairly sure the grave of an Unknown English Office in Queant Road Cemetery was that of his boy. Would the Colonel like them to place a headstone with Eric’s details over the grave?

But the Colonel was not to be so easily fobbed off.

He knew the place that the place from which this Unknown Officer had been brought in was some way away from the spot where he knew his boy had fallen.

So he made them exhume the Unknown and bless him, whoever he was, he had no bullet wound through the skull and no gold crowns.

This would be the first of many exhumations wangled by Colonel Hayter in the search for Eric.

The following year, on 6th August 1921, twelve graves at Lagnicourt Hedge Cemetery which had been marked as Germans were opened. The Colonel was convinced they were not German but instead British lads buried by the Germans after the battle.

Well, the exhumation revealed a total of twenty bodies, five of which were indeed British.

None of them was Eric Hayter.

All through 1922 and 1923, the Colonel continued to spend long weeks in France, negotiating with the local farmer on places he could dig in hopes of finding his son.

Nothing ever came of the digging parties.

And after so many false starts and dashed hopes, the Colonel was trying to make himself accept that he would not find his boy.

In June 1923, he asked the local farmer if he could buy a small plot of land close to where he believed Eric had died, on which he could erect a monument.

The negotiations took months and eventually came to an irrevocable halt when the landowner refused to budge from the astronomical price he was demanding from the grieving father.

The field opposite this place happened to be owned by a kindly French countess and on hearing of the Colonel’s troubles, she was glad to let him have a small plot of her own land for a trifling sum.

Six and a half years after Eric’s death, in the autumn of 1924, the contractor engaged by the Colonel broke ground to dig down to lay the foundation of the stone memorial.

The Colonel, of course, was there to watch; it was the final thing he could do for his son.

Three feet down, work ceased.

There was a body.

He had RFA regimental buttons, the rank badges showing him to be a 2nd Lieutenant, and there glinting in the autumn sun, were five gold crowns in his teeth.

The Colonel confirmed his identity on the spot.

He decided that after all this time, Eric’s body should not be moved and so a concrete coffin was sunk around it, over which the intended memorial stone was placed.

The Colonel was friends with the founder of the IWGC who agreed that in this one very particular case, he would allow an easement of the usual policy of bringing in the bodies to established cemeteries, and that the Commission would maintain Eric’s grave, at the Colonel’s expense, until his death.

Reporting the story, a correspondent for the Dundee Advertiser wrote:

“The story of a father’s undying faith, of a strange battlefield meeting and of a coincidence so miraculous that I should hesitate to write of it, were not the facts fully substantiated, has cause an almost superstitious wonder among the inhabitants of this part of France.”

And as I write this, the same is also true of this part of England.

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