Osmund Bartle Wordsworth, the great-great nephew of the English poet William Wordsworth, died on April 2, 1917, a casualty of World War I.
His life up until that moment had seemed almost charmed. At the age of 27, he and his sister Ruth survived the sinking of the Lusitania, a civilian steamer registered to the UK. The ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915; of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard, 1,198 perished. Even though Wordsworth gave his lifebelt to someone else as the ship was going down, he still managed to survive.
Before that miraculous escape, Wordsworth had received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. He then enrolled in their masters’ program, receiving that degree in 1913. A move to Toronto, Ontario, Canada the following year allowed him to serve on the staff of Trinity College there . . . and to publish his first and only novel, A Happy Exchange. However, World War I broke out and Wordsworth, feeling a need to return to his home country and enlist, boarded the Lusitania along with his sister.
He received his commission in the 9th Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in June of 1915 but was transferred to the 21st Machine Gun Company before being shipped to France. September of 1916 found him at the Arras front preparing to engage the Germans. The actual conflict began on April 9th, but while setting up his guns on April 2nd, Wordsworth realized the men at another position were having difficulty with theirs. Rather than asking anyone under his command to risk their lives, he chose to carry his instructions personally; before he could reach them he fell, shot through the heart.
From that point on, there are no records regarding how his body came to occupy the grave of an unknown soldier in Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery in northern France. There were witnesses to his death. At that time the British had introduced dog tags for all those involved in combat so he should have been wearing one. But somehow, in the chaos of war, Osmund Bartle Wordsworth’s body was not identified. His family was informed of his death. But they didn’t really know he had died . . . because there was no body to bury. No grave to visit. He simply never came home . . . and without proof there will always be that nagging doubt. Maybe. Just maybe they were wrong …
Fast forward 105 years. One hundred and five long years filled with grief and sorrow . . . filled with uncertainty followed by desperation, and finally—resignation. And the deaths of anyone who had ever known Osmund Bartle Wordsworth.
The advances of science eventually provided an answer to a question that was literally a century old. Whose body lay in this particular grave of an unknown? DNA testing gave Osmund Bartle Wordsworth back his name. It gave him his final resting place. And it gave his family the closure that only knowledge can provide. Even though it was decades in coming.
Second Lieutenant Wordsworth was honored on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 with a Rededication Service. Members of his family . . . people who only knew of him through the stories passed from generation to generation . . . were presented with the flag of France—a symbol of the nation for which he gave his life—neatly folded and ready for them to place upon the grave. His grave. Now marked with a monument bearing his name, the date 2nd April 1917 and his age—29.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.