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Lost Cornish soldier laid to rest 70 years after the war

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 04, 2012

  • Private Lewis Curtis, above, from Liskeard, Cornwall, was buried at Oosterbeek, near where he fell, with full military honours. His family laid a wreath at his grave during the funeral, below

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A soldier from Cornwall has finally been buried in the Netherlands almost 70 years after he was killed in action in the Second World War, and nine years after his remains were found.

Private Lewis Curtis, from Liskeard, South East Cornwall, who served with 5th Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment, was laid to rest at the Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery in a funeral with full military honours yesterday.

Pte Curtis's remains were found in an unmarked field grave by builders clearing the way for a new housing estate, but it took five years to identify him using forensics.

His family, including his great nephew Rifleman Richard Edwards, 20, who has just returned from Afghanistan with 5th Battalion the Rifles – the Wiltshire Regiment's successors – were at the funeral.

Pte Curtis, who survived the Normandy landings, was killed aged 19 in the Netherlands in an artillery barrage during Operation Market Garden on October 2, 1944.

He was buried in a shallow grave where he fell, but the markers for the plot at De Laar Farm were washed away when German military engineers flooded the area. His burial site was lost, and his family believed he had died in Belgium.

Six decades after his death, in 2003, his remains were unearthed by builders excavating the old Dutch battlefield to make way for a new housing estate. Since then, a Dutch forensic team has been using scientific tests including DNA analysis to try and discover who he was.

It was only after old dental records were uncovered in 2008 that Pte Curtis's identity was revealed.

Warrant Officer Class 1 Geert Jonker, the head of Recovery and Identification Unit for the Royal Netherlands Army, said the lengthy process to confirm remains is not unusual.

"It can take anything from three days to seven years to be able to identify remains because it's important to get it right for the next of kin," he said, "so when we can make a positive identification it makes all those years of research worthwhile. It's the ultimate reward, but sometimes it is about luck.

"In this case it was only because we went for a second opinion on the age of the soldier that told us he was a lot younger than we originally thought.

"Lewis had an undiscovered growth defect that would not have caused him any problems but made his remains seem older than his 19 years. Based on that information we had seven new names we were considering, three of whom had dental records. One of which was Lewis, who was a perfect match."

Pte Curtis's sister Alice died 20 years ago but her children, Susan Wilbourne and Robert Cole, who are in their 50s and still live in Liskeard, grew up with tales of their Uncle Lewis, and flew to the Netherlands for the burial.

"Mum was always talking about Lewis, so it's unbelievable to be here now to finally lay him to rest after so long of not knowing," said Mrs Wilbourne. "It's been quite an emotional rollercoaster since we found out.

"It is just such a pity that mum couldn't be here to bury her little brother, but I can feel her here. She was always very close with Lewis."

The pair buried their uncle with a glass marble – one of the few keepsakes their mother had of her young brother.

"It feels right to return it to him," Mr Cole added.

To this day, 18 soldiers of the old Wiltshire Regiment are still unaccounted for, an Army spokeswoman said, and some lie buried in unnamed graves marked "Known unto God" in Allied War Cemeteries in Oosterbeek and Nijmegen.

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