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The incredible and moving story of the dead British soldier found clutching a picture of his wife and child – and the German foe who returned it to his family

By Sam Creighton

  • Return of photograph was British soldier’s dying wish
  • German sent the picture to the Red Cross who returned it to England
  • It has been uncovered by grandaughter nearly 100 years later
  • Soldier’s family finally know details of his death
  • Return of photograph meant body could not be identified for burial
With the Battle of Passchendaele raging around him, Sergeant Percy Buck – dying from a fatal wound – clutched a picture of his family.On the back, he had written his dying wish, that someone would return it to his wife.

He would have hoped one of his comrades would fulfil the request, it can’t have crossed his mind that it would be honoured by an enemy – let alone the one who had killed him.

However, this is the incredible story that has come to light now the soldier’s grandaughter has unearthed the photograph among her father’s belongings.

Christina Reynolds, 58, has uncovered the black and white photo almost 100 years after it was taken. It pictures the soldier with his wife, Bertha, and son – Mrs Reynolds’s father – Cyril.

Along with the photograph, Mrs Reynolds found the devastating telegram that informed her grandmother of her husband’s death and a letter from the German soldier, explaining the picture’s incredible journey from the Western Front back to Mrs Reynolds in Hitchin, Herts.

Mrs Reynolds, whose late father was only three when his Sgt Buck died, said: ‘My father barely knew his father but he had these items in a box.

‘The box has been passed down to me and in it were these letters by the German soldier and the Red Cross explaining the return of the photo to my grandmother in 1917.

Photograph taken on the same occasion as the one returned by the German soldier. (Back row, left to right) unknown, Percy Buck, brother Ted Buck (front row) Bertha with son Cyril and Bertha's mother Mrs Stevens

Photograph taken on the same occasion as the one returned by the German soldier. (Back row, left to right) unknown, Percy Buck, brother Ted Buck (front row) Bertha with son Cyril and Bertha’s mother Mrs Stevens

 

 

A translation of the letter sent by Gefreieter Josef Wilczek to the Red Cross

A translation of the letter sent by Gefreieter Josef Wilczek to the Red Cross

 

The letter sent by the Red Cross to Bertha Buck along with her husband's photograph

The letter sent by the Red Cross to Bertha Buck along with her husband’s photograph

 

‘It was this German soldier who probably killed my grandfather in an act of war.

‘He didn’t have to take the time out and maybe risk punishment to fulfil my grandfather’s wishes. He could have left it there.

‘The two men didn’t know each other but it was very kind of him to do what he did for a fellow soldier.’

The German who recovered the poignant image from Sgt Buck’s body was Gefreiter Josef Wilczek – Gefreiter is an army rank for enlisted soldiers equivalent to a private.

In a remarkable act of humanity, Gefreiter Wilczek sent the photo to the Red Cross in Geneva along with a forwarding note.

He wrote: ‘He was holding the card in his hand and the finder was asked to forward it to his wife. I, wishing to fulfil the last will of the dead comrade, send it to you.

‘May he rest in peace.’

Percy Buck, far right, pictured with his fellow soldiers in the Hertfordshire Regiment

Percy Buck, far right, pictured with his fellow soldiers in the Hertfordshire Regiment

 

A recent photograph of the area where Sgt Buck received his fatal wound

A recent photograph of the area where Sgt Buck received his fatal wound

 

However, in a sad twist, by carrying out the stranger’s final wish, Gefreiter Wilczek may have deprived Sgt Buck of a war grave for his family to visit.

The photo would have been a key item that would have helped identify his body. It is thought Sgt Buck was instead buried in an unmarked grave in Flanders.

Sgt Buck served in the Hertfordshire Regiment and trained troops in rifle practice before being sent to the Western Front in December 1916.

In July 1917, the men took part in a major dawn offensive in the Third Battle of Ypres, known as  Passchendaele.

 

The night before the men went over the top, Sgt Buck wrote the request on the back of the photo and showed it to a colleague.

The letter that officially informed Bertha Buck of her husband's death. His body has never been found

The letter that officially informed Bertha Buck of her husband’s death. His body has never been found

 

The next morning his battalion were at St Julien at Flanders and came under heavy machine gun fire which caused them to conduct a fighting withdrawal.

Sgt Buck was shot in the side and fell into the shell hole.

Until now, Sgt Buck’s family have not known the details of his death but, with the help of the Herts At War project, set up to mark the centenary of the First World War, Mrs Reynolds has been able to fill in the blanks.

As a result of her coming forward with the documents, researchers for the Herts At War team have uncovered an eye-witness account of Sgt Buck’s death.

In 1918, a Private Ramsell told the Enquiry Department for Wounded and Missing: ‘We went over the top together at St Julien front.

‘I did not see him (Percy) hit but several other fellows did. He was hit in the side and fell into a shell hole. He was too severely wounded to move.

‘He showed me a photo of his wife and child the night before. On the back of it he had written his wife’s address and the words ‘whoever finds this please forward’, or words like that.

‘We never saw him again and his body was never found.’

Mrs Reynolds said: ‘All the family knew was that my grandfather was missing in action and then confirmed as killed in action.

‘His body has never been found and we have never really known what happened to him until now.

‘We still don’t know where he is, only that he is buried out there somewhere.

‘I just wish my father was still alive today because he would have wanted to know.’

Dan Hill, of the Herts at War project, said: “We are covering 20,000 different stories and this one stood out because it was an incredible moment of humanity in the carnage of war.

“It was right in the thick of the action and this one German soldier took it upon himself to do a dying comrade this remarkable favour.”

Sgt Buck was aged 26 when he was killed. His widow Bertha, who he married in 1912, died in 1962.

Gefreiter Wilczek did not survive the First World War either, he was killed on October 31, 1918, just two weeks before the Armistice.

– “DM”

CLICK HERE to go to the Original Publication

Native Americans and Russians share the same language: Dialects reveal how ancestors migrated 13,000 years ago

By Victoria Woollaston

  • Study used a technique called linguistic phylogeny to analyse languages
  • Researchers found a link between the current Na-Dene languages of North America and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia
  • Around 40 languages were found to have diffused across Asia and the U.S.
  • The findings also reveal that migration may not have been a one-way trip
  • This diffusion of languages suggests some people returned home, taking their dialects with them

It’s been known for years that some Native Americans and Russians share ancestors, and new research claims to have confirmed this link by discovering they also share language traits.

Scientists from Georgetown University used a technique called linguistic phylogeny to discover a direct link between the Na-Dene family of languages in North America, and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia.

Their findings also revealed the migration of people from central Asia to North America around 13,000 years ago may not have been a one-way trip – with some people returning home to Siberia, taking their language back with them.

Scientists from Georgetown University used a technique called linguistic phylogeny to discover a link between the Na-Dene family of languages of North American tribes and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia. Stock illustration of an Apache Indian is pictured

Scientists from Georgetown University used a technique called linguistic phylogeny to discover a link between the Na-Dene family of languages of North American tribes and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia. Stock illustration of an Apache Indian is pictured

 

In 2012, DNA research found genetic markers that linked people living in the Russian republic of Altai, southern Siberia, with indigenous populations in North America.

Scientists believe that during an ice age between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, inhabitants of Siberia crossed a stretch of land known as the Bering Land Bridge into North America.

This stretch of land is now buried under the waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

By studying mutations in the languages of these two regions, scientists found a lineage shift approximately 13,000 and 14,000 years ago – when the inhabitants are thought to have made this journey across the ice.

However, because of the wide spread of languages, and the fact links still remain in Siberia, the researchers suggest some of these migrants returned home.

This map shows the outlines of Siberia, left, and Alaska, right, with dashed lines. The broader area in darker green represents the Bering Land Bridge used by Siberians to travel into North America. The latest linguistic research, however, suggests some Siberians may have returned home, taking their language with them

This map shows the outlines of Siberia, left, and Alaska, right, with dashed lines. The broader area in darker green represents the Bering Land Bridge used by Siberians to travel into North America. The latest linguistic research, however, suggests some Siberians may have returned home, taking their language with them

 

An engraving showing Native Americans running, shooting arrows and throwing balls in Florida during the 1500s. Most Native Americans are descended from a small group of migrants that crossed a 'land bridge' between Asia and America during the ice ages more than 15,000 years ago

An engraving showing Native Americans running, shooting arrows and throwing balls in Florida during the 1500s. Most Native Americans are descended from a small group of migrants that crossed a ‘land bridge’ between Asia and America during the ice ages more than 15,000 years ago

 

To investigate this further, scientists used a technique originally created to investigate evolutionary relationships between biological species, called phylogenetic analysis.

This involves creating a tree that represents relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits.

The researchers used a linguistic version of this phylogeny to discover around 40 languages that had diffused across North America and Asia.

They began by coding a linguistic data set from each of the languages and establishing relationships between this data.

They then applied these links to the known migration patterns from Asia to North America.

WHERE DID THE ‘FIRST AMERICANS’ COME FROM?

The people we know as Native Americans arrived at the continent in three separate great migrations.

Most Native Americans are descended from a small group of migrants that crossed a ‘land bridge’ between Asia and America during the ice ages 15,000 years ago.

These migrants, known as the ‘First Americans’, populated most of North and South America.

By studying variations in Native American DNA sequences, a team of scientists recently found that while most of the Native American populations arose from the first migration, two subsequent migrations also made important genetic contributions.

The second and third migrations have left an impact only in Arctic populations that speak Eskimo-Aleut languages and in the Canadian Chipewyan who speak a Na-Dene language.

Eskimos show the most differences, with just 50 per cent of their DNA coming from the ‘First Americans’.

The findings highlight an early dispersal of Na-Dene along the North American coast with a Yeniseian back migration through Siberia.

Study co-author Dr Mark Sicoli said: ‘We found substantial support for the out-of-Beringia dispersal adding to a growing body of evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age.’

He added that although they cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results – and stated the study does not necessarily contradict the popular tale of hunters entering the New World through Beringia – it, at the very least, indicates migration may not have been a one-way trip.

‘This work also helps demonstrate the usefulness of evolutionary modeling with linguistic trees for investigating these types of questions,’ concluded Dr Sicoli.

The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

– “DM”

CLICK HERE to go to the Original Publication

The chilling implications of an ancient virus dug up in Siberia: Diseases from the past could once again ravage humanity

By Professor Jonathan Ball

At first, oil worker David Smith thought he had something like the flu. He wasn’t that surprised, as he normally caught some sort of bug after the flight from Moscow.

He spent the first day back home in Manchester in bed, head and muscles aching. He felt wretched, although he had enough strength to muster a laugh when his wife accused him of suffering from ‘man flu’.

The next day, he felt a little better, and managed to take the dog for a short walk to the local pub. The next day, he thought, he would be back at work.

Biohazard: A virus can live for 30,000 years in permafrost and could potentially once again sweep through humanity

Biohazard: A virus can live for 30,000 years in permafrost and could potentially once again sweep through humanity

 

However, David never made it to work the following day, or even any other days, because when he awoke, he found his face, trunk and limbs were covered by a rash of small, hard spots.

His wife put some cream on them, all the time muttering that this was what happened if you spent your life helping companies drill for oil in Siberia.

Initially, the doctors were mystified, but when the test results came through, they were astounded. David Smith had smallpox, a disease that — save for one small outbreak in 1978 — had not been seen in Britain for several decades.

An emergency was declared, and everybody who had come into contact with David was traced, isolated and inoculated. By the end of the next week, David had died. His wife followed a few days later.

It is perfectly possible that an oil company could drill in an area where ancient corpses lie and some of these corpses may contain viruses such as smallpox. File picture

It is perfectly possible that an oil company could drill in an area where ancient corpses lie and some of these corpses may contain viruses such as smallpox. File picture

 

Their deaths made headlines across the world, not least because other cases were beginning to emerge from as far away as Caracas and Sydney, all of which were connected to David’s flight from Moscow.

By the end of the month, scores of cases had been reported. One of mankind’s biggest killers was back.

Such an apocalyptic scenario is, thankfully, at the moment mere fantasy, but there is a small chance that one day it might come true.

Last week, some of my fellow scientists ‘brought back to life’ a virus called Pithovirus sibericum, which had been lying dormant 100ft down in the Siberian permafrost for some 30,000 years.

Smallpox in an unvaccinated child in 1915. In the last century alone, smallpox killed 300 million people

Smallpox in an unvaccinated child in 1915. In the last century alone, smallpox killed 300 million people

 

As a professor of molecular virology, I find it fascinating that a virus could survive for so long.

We freeze viruses in laboratories all the time, as it’s the best way to preserve and store them, but the viruses we study are never more than a few years old — let alone thousands of centuries.

Before anybody starts to panic, the virus found in Siberia is harmless to humans, and is only really a problem if you are an amoeba.

However, as the project’s leader, Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, declared, the reanimation of Pithovirus sibericum raises the disturbing possibility that other, far more dangerous viruses could emerge from the permafrost — the layer of soil that remains frozen for years on end.

Today, some of that layer is starting to melt, and as a result viruses that have been safely frozen for thousands of centuries could emerge.

But another way they could emerge is companies drilling through the permafrost on the hunt for resources such as oil.

‘It is a recipe for disaster,’ said Professor Claverie. ‘If you start having industrial explorations, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from.’

It’s that danger that I describe in the doomsday scenario above, in which the smallpox virus is released during the drilling for oil in Siberia.

It is perfectly possible that an oil company could drill in an area where ancient corpses lie. Some of these corpses may contain viruses such as smallpox — a disease that afflicted many of our ancestors all over the world.

In the past century alone, some 300 million people were killed by smallpox, which was eradicated only by the huge vaccination campaign masterminded by the World Health Organisation. The disease was certainly present in the Arctic, and many people in the far east of Russia are known to have died of smallpox.

End of the scourge: Smallpox was largely eradicated by a global vaccination drive

End of the scourge: Smallpox was largely eradicated by a global vaccination drive

 

In 2004, French and Russian scientists found several graves in the vast Russian republic of Sakha in which the corpses were infected with variola — the virus that causes smallpox.

Of course, as this was a strictly controlled scientific project, the corpses would have been handled with the utmost care. Such excavations usually take place inside sealed tents, and anybody associated with the project is inoculated against smallpox.

During industrial drilling for oil, huge cores of ice are brought up to the surface, which are then left to melt in the sun. In theory, these could be contaminated.

But let’s just say — for the sake of the scenario — there was a virus, even though the chance of that would be incredibly small.

Viruses don’t like being left alone, and they need to get on board a host quickly. The fictional David Smith would have been one of the workers handling these cores, and he could become infected.

‘Both oil exploration and changes in the climate are capable of releasing not only smallpox, but potentially even viruses we have never seen before’

This would be the crucial moment when the reanimated virus, perhaps frozen for centuries, suddenly finds some warm living human tissue in which to make its new home.

David would not realise for almost a week that he had smallpox, and while living and working in close proximity to his colleagues, he would be incubating the deadly virus.

And then, despite starting to feel wretched, he gets on an aeroplane, which are notorious places in which infections can be passed, and furthermore, spread around the world. If this ever happened, it truly would represent a global emergency.

Hospitals would have to work flat out to isolate and cope with patients, and unless the health authorities reacted quickly, it is quite possible that hundreds could die, as so few of us are inoculated against the disease. For those who caught the disease and survived, they would be left with horrific scars for life.

I should, however, stress that such a possibility is extremely small indeed. The chances of such a pandemic being caused by a reanimated virus should certainly not keep us awake at night.

There is other good news as well. Last week there was some speculation that virus-bearing corpses exposed by the melting permafrost could also release their deadly agents into the living population.

This is even more unlikely, as the corpses that are exposed in this way spend a lot of time in what geologists call the ‘active layer’ — the surface part of the earth that is affected by the seasonal changes in temperature.

For a virus, being buffeted between thawing and freezing is the worst thing that can happen, as it tends to destroy them.

However, as a scientist, I accept that there is always risk, no matter how small. Both oil exploration and changes in the climate are capable of releasing not only smallpox, but potentially even viruses we have never seen before.

If my doomsday scenario did ever take place, we would need to act fast. However, in the meantime, you should be more concerned about the viruses that are already out there.

  • Jonathan Ball is Professor of Molecular Virology, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at Nottingham University.
– “DM”

CLICK HERE to go to the Original Publication