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Friend, enemy, stranger - the story of Private Percy Buck

30-09-2013 Feature

On a July day in in 1917, the Hertfordshire Regiment of the British army lost 450 men during an  assault on German forces  in Belgium. One of the casualties was Percy Buck, a 26-year-old private from the small market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire.

Private Percy Buck from Hitchin died during the Third Battle of Ypres 

Private Percy Buck, who was killed during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.
© Dan Hill

A German soldier found Percy dying on the battlefield, clasping a photograph of his wife and child. Taking pity on the dying man, the soldier rescued the photograph and used it to pass news of his death to his family – via the Red Cross. Historian Dan Hill, of the Herts at War project, recently uncovered an old newspaper report on the photograph's journey home.

Private Buck had written his name and address on the back of the photograph. The unidentified German soldier sent the photograph to the ICRC in Geneva, where it was translated and sent on  to Percy's family in Hitchin. In an accompanying letter, the unidentified German soldier referred to Percy as 'the dying comrade'.


The reports say that Percy died near the town of St Julien during the Third Battle of Ypres. The bodies of many of those who died have never been identified.

A glimpse of humanity amidst devastation

 


© Dan Hill

For Percy's family, regularly  reading  wartime propaganda demonizing the enemy, to be on the receiving end of such a thoughtful gesture would have been a shock. 'To be in that position, the last thing you ever expect is a letter from the soldier that may have been the

very man that shot him', said Mr Hill. 'It shows how normality is turned absolutely upside down by war.'

 
During WWI, in accordance with the mandate it had received from the 4th International Conference of the Red Cross in 1887, the ICRC created the International Prisoners-of-War Agency, responsible for collecting information about captured soldiers and passing it onto their families. This meant  that the different parts of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement were well placed to help the dying man's photo find its way back to Private Buck's family. Today, the Restoring Family Links programme still continues this work, helping reunite families that have been separated by armed conflict and passing Red Cross messages between relatives.

 

Geneva, Switzerland
A worker at the International Prisoners-of-War Agency
© ICRC / Boinssonnas / V-P-HIST-00569-24

 

Later in 1917 the ICRC received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in wartime. It was the only Nobel Peace Prize awarded in the period from 1914 to 1918 and the second the ICRC received, after Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, was awarded the first ever Prize in 1901.

Herts at War is a community history project which tries to uncover and re-tell the stories of people from Hertfordshire during the First World War, piecing together the stories of civilians at home as well as soldiers like Private Buck, who went away to war and often never returned.