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When the 'War Detectives' emerged from the shadows

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For all the entertainment it offers, television rarely has a real impact. While many shows amuse and entertain, few live long in the memory. But in one case that all changed dramatically on an otherwise entirely ordinary October evening last year, when ITV dedicated 90 peak-time minutes to the unheralded work of a small MOD team and catapulted it into the national spotlight as part of a Long Lost Family special.

Very few of the millions of viewers gripped by the documentary, hosted by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, could previously have had much inkling of the existence of what is officially known as the MOD Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) Commemorations Team, which for years had operated quietly in the shadows. But the intensely moving broadcast opened the onlookers’ eyes to the painstaking work of the dedicated people known unofficially as the ‘War Detectives’.

The all-female Gloucester-based team, part of MOD Defence Business Services, has the task of seeking to identify British servicemen when remains are found, often up to a century after they fell, usually in farmers’ fields or after civil engineering works. The ‘War Detectives’ begin their research by painstakingly consulting historical records that can help them ascertain the circumstances of a casualty's death, trace living relatives whose DNA could help to identify the casualty and then organise a full military funeral service in commemoration. Even remains that cannot be safely identified are honoured.

It’s a lengthy, often emotional process for all involved; for descendants who may not have known of a forebear’s selfless courage and the JCCC team workers too amid the highs and lows of seeking to pay full tribute to those who gave so much. It’s hugely rewarding to identify servicemen, trace descendants and arrange a suitable military burial service, but it’s also a big disappointment when lines of inquiry draw a blank.

The Long Lost Family collaboration, which focused on ceremonies at a British military cemetery in France in honour of Private Frank Mead, Private Henry Wallington and an unknown soldier, certainly stood out for Tracey Bowers, JCCC’s Commemorations Team Lead, as she looked back over 2019, although her team is motivated by its work rather than any desire to be in the public eye.

‘Within the team 2019 will stand out as a most unusual but rewarding year,’ she said. ‘Not only have we processed a high volume of case work but we all learnt what working with a full TV production team entailed and managing the increased workload that comes from the spotlight being shone on what we do.

‘We worked alongside the Long Lost Family team of Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell for many months. Following this we also worked with the BBC and Sky Digital, so a great deal of time has been spent on media engagement.’

She added: ‘Holding 17 burial and seven rededication ceremonies last year has meant all members of the team have been extremely busy but the rewards have been huge, with some lovely feedback from family members and the team being shortlisted in two civil service award categories.'

Most of the services in 2019 took place in France and Belgium, although two burials were held in Italy and there was a rededication and special memorial in the Netherlands. The first of the year was on 19 March and the last on November 7, before wintry weather makes the ground unsuitable for ceremonies. Over the winter the JCCC team members devote themselves to research in preparation for the services to be held the following year.

The task of the JCCC will never be complete – sadly, many hundreds of thousands of fallen servicemen are thought still to be undiscovered. But the work continues and the energy and commitment of the ‘War Detectives’ remains undimmed.

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