The body of a First World War veteran is to be exhumed from his grave in Spain and repatriated to the UK following a row over the cost of tending to his plot.
Lieutenant Colonel Sir Gilbert Mackereth MC, whose only remaining relative John Sloan lives in Knowle, Solihull, commanded the 17th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers towards the end of 1914-18 conflict and won the coveted Military Cross in April 1917.
He survived the war and retired to San Sebastian in Spain, where he was buried in a municipal grave.
But an ongoing row over the cost of tending the grave has led to a decision to move his remains.
He will be the first British First World War veteran to be exhumed since the burial of the historic Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey in 1920.
His remains will then be cremated and his ashes placed in the Gallipoli Garden adjacent to Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury.
Mr Sloan had never met his illustrious relative and he was shocked when he learned that authorities in the northern Spanish city had threatened to evict the soldier’s remains from the grave in a dispute over unpaid local fees and taxes.
A high-profile publicity campaign saved the day and initial costs to satisfy the demands of the Spanish bureaucrats were met by a national newspaper.
However, it was discovered that Sir Gilbert failed to leave a will or any instructions about where he wanted to be buried. There were also no clues to his preferred destination for a vast array of medals and artefacts from his globe-trotting career.
Authorities in Spain revealed that the cost of maintaining Sir Gilbert’s remains in the existing San Sebastian grave would be €3,200 (about £2,990) for 25 years or €5,300 (£4,890) for 49 years.
But Mr Sloan and former members of Sir Gilbert’s regiment were concerned about the long-term viability of the burial plot.
So, following months of soul-searching, Mr Sloan, 85, who lives with his wife Sheila in Knowle, has decided to bring his cousin home to a final resting place in his native Lancashire.
Mr Sloan said: “Retaining my cousin’s grave in Spain would pass the problem onwards a maximum of two generations. Repatriation of his remains to Bury is an enduring solution which will ensure he is not forgotten and create the opportunity for his and other soldier’s deeds to be better remembered.”
Sir Gilbert joined the forces as a private in the Royal Fusiliers and was commissioned to the Lancashire regiment in France in September 1916 as a 2nd Lieutenant. In August 1917, he was seriously wounded on the front line, but rejoined the battle in June 1918 and commanded the battalion from August 1918.
After the war he joined the Diplomatic Service, and married in 1921. However, Sir Gilbert and wife Muriel never had children.
The war hero’s Foreign Office career began in the Middle East and East Africa and he was Consul-General in the East Indies, now Indonesia, in 1946 when Japanese troops were used to maintain law and order.
He helped restore order following Japan’s surrender and was promoted to the highest echelons of the corps.
During his final appointment as Ambassador to Columbia from 1947 to 1953 he was knighted.
The couple retired to San Sebastian, but Sir Gilbert died in 1962 and was buried in one of the city’s municipal graveyards.
The exhumation and cremation will take place in the Basque capital and Terry Dean, an official of military group The Western Front Association will bring the ashes back to the UK to be scattered in Lancashire.
Mr Sloan added: “The family was very proud of Gilbert and talked of him a great deal, although I never actually met him. His widowed mother lived at our family home for a time while I was in the army, so I missed out on actually meeting him.
“We were unaware that the money had to be paid to maintain the grave plot until we heard from Mr Dean’s organisation.”
The former bank manager said he was concerned that war relics and medals belonging to Sir Gilbert, which he believes could be in Spain, are recovered.
“I hope someone knows where they are because they are heirlooms and we would like them to remain in the family.
“It will be a very poignant moment when Gilbert’s remains are returned to the UK. Hopefully this can coincide with the Armistice commemorations on November 11,” he said.
Meanwhile, a book about Sir Gilbert’s story has been published this week.
A Line in the Sand, by James Barr, charts the ex-soldier’s work as a diplomat in the Middle East after the First World War. It tells of Sir Gilbert’s role in uncovering an alleged French plot to support Zionist terrorists in their campaign against the British.