Private James Rowan

The story of a Wigan soldier missing in action


A Wigan Soldier Missing in Action
An extract from the Wigan Observer 20th January 2015

picpicThe remains of six victims of the Great War were unearthed by an amateur archaeologist close to a railway siding near the Belgian village of Comines-Warneton during a dig five years ago, instigating exhaustive efforts to identify the bodies and afford them a dignified burial with full military honours. The Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre which investigates such matters, having consulted military records, including war and regimental diaries from the time believe one of the bodies to be that of Private James Rowan killed in battle on the site on October 20th 1914.

picpicPrivate James Rowan was a young Wigan miner, whose family is believed to have moved from their native County Longford in Ireland to Lancashire, where James was born in the late 1800s. As a young man he took a job as a miner at Park Lane Colliery near Wigan before enlisting with the first battalion the Lancashire Fusiliers at the start of the Great War. He is among the “missing in action” remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Flanders.

However to enable positive identification to be made it is necessary to match DNA from the remains with that of living relatives, not an easy task a century after the event. The Rowan family are believed to have moved back to County Longford at some time and it was here that investigators concentrated most of their efforts to find living relatives and put out appeals for information. There was a huge response and several people including a Manchester based priest Father Rowan came forward as potential relatives but in each case no family connections could be established.

Finally after an exhaustive but fruitless search the Ministry of Defence is now planning a re-interment and memorial service for Private Rowan, who unfortunately, because of the failure to positively identify him, is still designated an unknown soldier along with his five other fallen comrades. The ceremony will take place with full military honours on April 16th 2015 at the Prowse Point Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery close to where the remains were discovered, in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.

If anyone can prove a positive link to Private James Rowan in the future, the Ministry of Defence still have DNA from the remains to enable further tests to be carried out holding out the slim possibility that even at this late stage a positive identification could still be made.

The following is taken from the Belgian forum website “Eerste Wereldoorlog” announcing the arrangements for the re-interment.


Members of the public are welcome to attend a reburial service at Prowse Point Military Cemetery in Belgium, for six unknown British servicemen of the First World War. The service will be held at 10:00 hrs (local time) on 16 April 2015.

The six individuals – two from the Lancashire Fusiliers, two from the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, and two unidentified British soldiers – will be reburied with full military honours by servicemen from the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion The Duke Of Lancaster's Regiment. Directions to the cemetery can be obtained from the CWGC’s website. Visitors should please note that parking at the cemetery will be restricted on the day of the reburial

Prowse Point Military Cemetery is unique on the Salient for being named after an individual. It is the site of the stand by the 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment and the 1st Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry in October 1914, which featured the heroism of a Major Charles Prowse. Later, as Brigadier-General C.B. Prowse, DSO (Somerset Light Infantry), he would be killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, whilst commanding the 11th Infantry Brigade. He is buried in Louvencourt Military Cemetery.

The cemetery was begun by the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the 1st Royal Warwicks, and was used from November 1914 to April 1918. It currently contains 225 Commonwealth burials of the First World War and was designed by W H Cowlishaw.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the Wigan Observer for publishing the original story of Private James Rowan and to Roger M. a good friend of the UK who attended the ceremony and took the photgraphs. 

"In a foreign field he lay, Lonely soldier, unknown grave". "On his dying words he prays, Tell the world of Paschendale". (from lyrics by Iron Maiden).

Palfreyman, January 24 2015

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