Mac's maps help solve Aussie grave mystery

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Filed under Library News:  Maps, Data, GIS Mills

McMaster's collection of First World War maps has helped put an end to the 84-year-old mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Private William Phillips' remains.

That's how long Phillips, an Australian soldier killed in the final months of the Great War, was buried beneath another man's headstone.

Katie Daubs, a reporter for the Toronto Star, is currently walking the Western Front and wrote about the story here.

An excerpt from the story is below:

Bray-sur-Somme, FRANCE — For 84 years, Pte. William Phillips was missing, lying underneath another man’s headstone.

The soldier was killed in the final months of the war, when the front lines were moving quickly. He was buried on the battlefield near Bray-sur-Somme, but when the graves were moved into cemeteries in 1919, he was recorded as missing, his body classified as an unknown soldier.

The popular jockey was one of the thousands of Australians with no known grave commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial. It was something that wasn’t questioned by the family, who were never told many details about his final resting spot.

The location didn’t come from a DNA test, or an exhumation. It was a curious relative who, after years of archival research, found a very specific map on the other side of the world, at McMaster University in Hamilton.

More than decade ago, out of general interest, 54-year-old Scott Arthur decided to “have a peek to see exactly where this bloke is.”

The bloke was his Great-Uncle William Phillips, a thirty-something jockey, five foot two officially, when he signed up for war. Will, as he was known, left behind a sweetheart who never married, and adoring nieces and nephews. He was one of the 416,000 men to enlist in Australia, then a British dominion with just under five million people. He was one of the 61,513 who never came home.

When his mother Alice found out the bad news, she went to her room and never came out. She died in November 1918.

Arthur, who lives in Newcastle, a city in New South Wales, Australia, thought it was one of those old family legends, but later found a newspaper clipping about Poor Alice Phillips.

“I felt sorry for her, the vision of that old woman going to her bed and never getting back out,” he says. “She fretted herself to death.”

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