Posts Tagged ‘war’


I attended the premiere of the Breathing Fire documentary on last May’s search for the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at Mametz (Somme) last night at the home of the Royal Engineers – Brompton Barracks in Chatham. Many of the team involved came from all over the country and it was good to meet up again with them and to catch up with the officers, NCOs and sappers who had been such an integral part of the dig.

A replica flame projector stands between the marquees

The Corps had excelled themselves once again and three marquees had been erected to provide appropriate cover from the rather unwelcome showers that greeted us on arrival. These also housed the bar, tables and a good deal of information on the dig site including photographs and biographical details of Captain WH Livens and his various weapons of war. To add an authentic note to proceedings there were several serving soldiers kitted out in Great War period uniforms. The most impressive element was a small scale replica of the flame projector (approximately 12 ft long) which had been constructed in the square. Apparently it had been tested and could fire flame 30ft but this was (perhaps wisely) considered a bit of a risk with so many civilians around and so remained benign all night.

Even the showers could not dampen the evening

After canapés and bubbly we all made our way (via the red carpet) to the auditorium and after welcoming speeches we sat down to watch the long, international version of the ‘Breathing Fire’ film. A break was provided halfway through with time for ice-cream and then afterwards a curry supper was provided.

The auditorium during the ice cream break

As the film highlights the skills of the Royal Engineers – in 1914-18 and nowadays too – it was well received by all. The evening was held in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund and was a resounding success with approximately 250 people attending. My thanks to all of those personnel who were part of the project and yesterday evening – it has been a remarkable experience to have been involved.

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I was contacted by the Canadian Portrait Academy (CPA) when I first wrote a blog entry on the positive identification of Thomas Lawless. I initially saw news of this via my Twitter feed and realised what a good news story it was. I like to keep tabs on ‘news from the front’ and knew that this story fitted the bill perfectly. Little did I know the interest it would generate. Since that first post I have been heartened by the enthusiasm and generosity of those involved in the process to share their time and material so willingly.

The CPA have been wonderful in keeping me up to date with events and, through them, I have made contact with Christian Corbet, the sculptor who worked as the Forensic Artist with the Department of National Defence and others to reconstruct a likeness of Thomas Lawless.

Facial reconstruction of Thomas Lawless 1, Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

Mr Corbet has kindly agreed to let me post images of his work on the facial reconstruction process. These photos are copyright and reproduced by kind permission of Christian Corbet.  They show a few of the stages in the reconstruction process and are clear evidence of the levels of technical quality employed.

Facial reconstruction of Thomas Lawless 2 - Profile, Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

Facial reconstruction of Thomas Lawless 4 - muscles are placed on the skull, Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

Facial reconstruction of Thomas Lawless 5, Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

The facial reconstruction procedure was the initial stage in the identification process and the end result (the sculpture) was used by Dr Andrew Nelson of the University of Western Ontario for computer superimpositions in order to identify the subject. Dr Nelson began his work on this particular identification process in 2007. The condition of the remains meant that Dr Nelson reconstructed the bony part of the midface in epoxy resin and a computer model of the skull was then made. A three dimensional print using bone fragments and photographic superimposition (for the midface) was then created.

Christian Corbet working on the near-finished facial reconstruction of Thomas Lawless

This gave Christian Corbet the base to work from for a forensic reconstruction of the face (as shown in the photographs).  The team had photos of all the proposed subjects and so a comparison could be made between the sculpture and photos. By eliminating those whose facial characteristics did not match, the shortlist was reduced to two soldiers – one from Cape Breton and the other from Ireland. It was at this stage that that Dr. Nelson suggested isotope analysis – the method by which the Irishman, Thomas Lawless was eventually identified. As Christian Corbet wrote to me, this multidisciplinary collaborative project is said to be a first of its kind in identifying a soldier of the Great War. I think that it is the model for future studies and shows what can be done with available resources, time and skilled personnel.

Mr Corbet’s protégé Benjamin Trickett Mercer told me that the 3-dimensional sculpture of Thomas Lawless took approximately 5 days to complete. It is estimated that approximately 25 – 30 hours were spent on finishing the formal portrait. Help regarding the accoutrements of a Great War soldier were provided by the costume department of the Canadian War Museum. This ensured that the correct regimental badges could be sculpted. They even assisted in the providing the essential but easily overlooked measurements for the size of the soft cap.

Burial – 15 March 2011

Mr Corbet and Benjamin Trickett Mercer attended the burial service on 15 March 2011. Mr Corbet had the honour to place flowers on the grave of Thomas Lawless on behalf of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Christian Corbet and his protégé Benjamin Trickett Mercer pointing to the name of Thomas Lawless at the Vimy Memorial. Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

On the same note, I received a Press Release earlier from the CPA. It is shown below in italics along with the photograph.

Newfoundland and Labrador Presents Floral Tribute to Fallen WWI Soldier

Avion, France – In an act of respect the province of Newfoundland and Labrador paid homage with a floral bouquet at the burial of Pte. Thomas Lawless on 15th March in Avion, France.

Premier Dunderdale granted permission to Christian Corbet an Academician of the Canadian Portrait Academy to lay flowers of white lilies and red roses upon the grave of Pte. Lawless. Pte. Lawless’ fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and his identity was recently released after he went missing in action in June 1917.

This floral tribute was the only one presented from a province or territory from Canada.

Christian Corbet who worked as the Forensic Artist with the Department of National Defence among other institutions in order help identify the remains of the World War I soldier stated “This bouquet of flowers was Newfoundland and Labradors way of saying “Thank You for laying your life down for the freedom we so often take for grated today.” The Irish descendants of Pte. Thomas Lawless were greatly appreciative and grateful for such a kind gesture.”

Christian Corbet presented a floral tribute to fallen WWI soldier on behalf of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador at La Chaudiere Military Cemetery, France. Photo Credit: Benjamin Trickett Mercer, CPA.

For more information on the burial: http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/adh-sdh/news-nouvelle-eng.asp

Please find below some more photos of the burial service, courtesy of Christian Corbet.

The coffin of Thomas Lawless is carried into the church of Saint-Martin de Vimy. Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

Canadian armed forces and standard bearers at the funeral service of Thomas Lawless. Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

Thomas Lawless's coffin is carried to his grave at La Chaudiere Military Cemetery, Vimy. Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

Thomas Lawless's coffin is carried past French standard bearers. Copyright by Permission of Christian Corbet

I would welcome any comments you have on the subject.

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I subscribe to monthly emails from the National Archives with their latest news. Quite why, I don’t really know as I almost never read them but I am now glad that I did subscribe. For some reason I opened this month’s offering earlier today and was heartened to see that our new Somme panorama book was advertised. When I went on the website I discovered it was their ‘Book of the Month’!

Just a pity that despite the email using the new cover, the website below shows the old cover.

National Archives Bookshop ‘Book of the Month’

It would save much confusion if the new cover (with revised subtitle) was shown rather than that from the 2006 out of print version. Still, mustn’t complain as all publicity is good publicity….

I would welcome any other mentions of the book in any local newspapers, websites, bookshops etc.

N.B. Edit: 14 March – I was at Kew last week for a day’s research and spoke to the man in the bookshop, asking him who chose the ‘Book of the Month’. He replied that it was his choice and when I explained my involvement with the book we had a good chat. He was very complimentary about it and it was gratifying to hear his comments on content and quality.

Over the past few months I have been in touch with people at the Bristol Evening Post (whose stories also feature in the Western Daily Press and Bath Chronicle) after they ran the story about Alfred Flux’s graffiti in the Bouzincourt Caves on Armistice Day 2010. I had mentioned that the revised version of the Somme panorama volume was out in February and had arranged for a copy to be sent to them for review.

I have just spent weekend away but was texted yesterday by a neighbour who congratulated me on the book being ‘Bristol Book of the Week’. Luckily she had saved me a copy of the review which is attached below. My thanks to Suzanne Savill for organsing this.

The Somme book review from the AllRight! section of the Bristol Evening Post dated 26 February 2011

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