- Family make emotional visit to long-lost grave of war hero grandfather Private Thomas Bryan – the first family visit in a century
- Chance encounter with Virgin Trains employee and amateur historian Wayne McDonald helped 85-year-old Rita Armin solve family mystery
A war widow has finally visited the grave of a long-lost grandfather killed in France in WWI, after a Virgin Trains employee helped her track down his final resting place.
The whereabouts of Private Thomas Bryan was a mystery his family had carried since he went to war in his best suit more than a century ago. It was eventually solved thanks to a chance encounter between his granddaughter, 85-year-old Rita Armin, and Virgin Trains employee Wayne McDonald last year after striking up a conversation on a Virgin Train to London..
Mr McDonald, an amateur war historian, helped find Private Bryan’s grave, and made a promise that he would take her to Northern France to pay her respects. Making good on that promise, Wayne accompanied Rita on the visit to Béthune Town Cemetery this week, travelling courtesy of Virgin Trains and Eurostar.
Accompanied by her 23-year-old Grandson Sam, amidst emotional scenes, the pair laid wreathes at Thomas’ grave, and in doing so became the first family members to pay their respects in more than 100 years.
Rita travelled down from Stockport on Virgin Trains, before a quick hop over to Lille on Eurostar. A short taxi ride later and Rita was finally able to get some closure.
“It’s really hard to express how I felt’” explained Rita. “It wasn’t a sad day. Far from it. It will be a day I will remember for the rest of my life and I can’t thank Virgin Trains and Eurostar enough for helping to make it happen.”
“It has given all the family some closure. I didn’t know how I’d react so in the end I just started chatting to Grandad as if he was there. I felt so close to him and it meant so much to meet Paul, who tends to the cemetery, as I know Thomas will be in safe hands.”
“I don’t mind admitting there was a tear in my eye when I listened to Rita talking to Thomas at his graveside,” commented Wayne McDonald, Train Manager at Virgin Trains. “To be able to find Thomas and to share his story with his grandchildren, who themselves are now in their 80’s, and their families is a real privilege. Rita is now a good friend and it has been an honour to share this day with her and Sam.”
Private Thomas Bryan was laid to rest in 1915. The cemetery, now looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), was created during the First World War to support the military hospitals established in the town. Today, it contains more than 3,000 Commonwealth burials of the First World War and 19 Second World War graves. The cemetery also contains French and German war graves.
CWGC spokesperson Peter Francis said: “This is a wonderful story and Wayne is to be commended for his act of kindness and remembrance. It demonstrates just how important the Commission’s work of honouring our war dead still is, and how much it still means to people like Rita that, 100 years on, we still care, and they have somewhere to visit and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us.”
Bethune is where the idea of commemorating our war dead first began. While working through what was then a temporary soldier’s cemetery, CWGC’s founder, Fabian Ware, felt something had to be done to remember the sacrifice of our service personnel. Before the First World War there was no system in place to record, mark or care for the graves of our war dead. Fabian Ware forever changed that and established the cemeteries and memorials that still stand today as focal points for our acts of remembrance.
Rita’s Chance encounter with Wayne
While travelling to London on a Virgin train from Stockport to Euston, the 85-year-old was assisted on her journey by Train Manager Wayne McDonald who just happened to be a war enthusiast. As Mrs Armin and Mr McDonald got chatting on the two-hour journey and it transpired that the family had been unable to find out where her Grandfather, Private Thomas Bryan of the 2nd Ox and Bucks Regiment, was buried since his death during the Great War in 1915.
She asked Mr McDonald if he could anything to help find out the full story as he had an interest in the history of the conflict. A few days later Rita received an e-mail from Wayne with the most amazing information that he had tracked down the location of her Grandad’s grave. Not only this, but Mr McDonald visited Béthune Town Cemetery where Private Bryan was buried to pay his respects and take a photograph of the burial site for Mrs Armin.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Bethune Town Cemetery is looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The CWGC cares for 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two World Wars and maintains their graves and memorials at 23,000 location in more than 150 countries and territories worldwide.
Bethune is where the idea of commemorating our war dead first began. While working through what was then a temporary soldier’s cemetery, CWGC’s founder, Fabian Ware, felt something had to be done to remember the sacrifice of our service personnel. Before the First World War there was no system in place to record or mark or care for the graves of our war dead. Fabian Ware forever changed that and established the cemeteries and memorials that today still stand as focal points for our acts of remembrance.