Commemoration for First World War soldier unknown to family for 98 years
- Credit: Archant
Following a chance discovery by a family historian, the relatives of First World War soldier Private Solomon Bird have had a chance to celebrate his life.
Veterans, servicemen, rabbis and members of a family from both sides of the Atlantic gathered in an East Ham cemetery last week for a special commemoration.
But unlike most posthumous services, there was something unusual about this one.
None of the family members knew Solomon Bird even existed until a few months ago.
Private Bird served with the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War, but died from a burst appendix in England on June 13, 1917.
Born on February 13, 1898 as the middle of 13 children growing up in Stepney Green, he was later laid to rest in Plashet Jewish Cemetery, High Street North, East Ham, but the wider world only found out by chance.
Historian Stan Kaye, 61, who grew up in Mile End but now lives in Peterborough, stumbled across the grave – which had a recently installed headstone – and tracked the family down through genealogy websites.
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“This has been a bit of a labour of love for me,” he said.
“I came across Soloman’s headstone about 14 months ago and wanted to know who he was and where he came from.
“I never expected to find anyone because looking up the name Bird is like looking for a Smith.
“When I finally heard from the family it came as a bit of a shock.”
The headstone had been placed alongside the original bronze plaque by the War Graves Commission after an anonymous tip-off, with very little information known about Private Bird.
Photographer Jerry Bird, 84, from Leeds, only found out about his Uncle Solomon when contacted by American cousins in February.
He was amazed by the secret, made all the more mysterious by the fact his Aunt Getrude, Solomon’s oldest sister who lived to the age of 101, made no mention of him.
“I just don’t understand why we didn’t hear before,” he said.
“Aunt Gerty was the matriarch of the family and actually identified his body, but she never mentioned anything.
“I suppose in those days people didn’t talk about things like that. Things that were unpleasant were just swept under the carpet.”
Wreathes were laid by representatives from the family, Newham Council and the War Graves Commission on Friday, August 21, while members of the Association of Jewish ex-servicemen and women (Ajex) held flags.
Retired hairdresser Sue Wells, 65, from Waltham Abbey, is the granddaughter of Gertrude and said the service was a special occasion: “It’s still important to the family, it shows that Solomon hasn’t been forgotten.
“He’s someone in our family that went to war for his country at a very young age, so although we never knew him, it’s something to be proud of.”
Rabbi Major Reuben Livingstone, who led the service said: “Solomon deserves to be remembered eternally for his sacrifice and for his contribution.”
“Private Bird symbolises the unknown, the uneducated and often unremembered soldiers, seamen and airmen.
“We must never ever, at the risk of diminishing ourselves, forget their legacy.”