An 85-year-old woman has finally visited her grandfather’s long-lost grave with the help of a Virgin Trains employee.
When Private Thomas Bryan said farewell to his family and left to fight in the First World War, they had no idea that not only would they never see him again, but that his final resting place would be shrouded in mystery.
But thanks to a chance encounter with train manager Wayne McDonald onboard a Virgin Trains service, Private Bryan’s granddaughter Rita Armin has been able to travel to the Béthune Town cemetery in France to give the family closure.
The happy ending to Rita’s life-long mystery came about after meeting Wayne, an amateur historian, during a two-hour journey from Stockport to Euston in 2018. Rita, whose husband Corporal Henry Armin died as a result of injuries he sustained in World War Two, was on her way to Buckingham Palace for a reception to mark Prince Charles’ 70th birthday.
As the pair chatted, it transpired the family had been unable to find out where Private Bryan, of the 2nd Ox and Bucks Regiment, was buried since his death in 1915. All Rita’s grandmother had ever received was a parcel containing the suit Thomas went to war in.
She asked Wayne if there was anything he could do to solve the mystery her family had long given up solving and, to her surprise, days later he was in touch having tracked down the location of her grandad’s grave. Not only that, Wayne visited Béthune Town, where Private Bryan was buried, to pay his respects and take a photograph of the burial site for Rita.
He also discovered that, unbeknown to Rita, Thomas was actually her step-grandad, as her grandma had remarried after her first husband died.
A happy ending
Remaining true to a promise he made to Rita during their first encounter, Wayne took Mrs Armin to Northern France in January, to pay her respects to a man she never had the chance to meet.
Rita travelled down from Stockport on Virgin Trains before a quick hop over to Lille on Eurostar. A short taxi ride later and Rita was finally able to get some closure.
Accompanied by her 23-year-old grandson Sam, the pair laid wreathes at Thomas’ grave – becoming the first family members to pay their respects in more than 100 years.
Rita said it was a day she “will remember for the rest of [her] life”. She added: “It’s really hard to express how I felt. It wasn’t a sad day. Far from it.
“I didn’t know how I’d react so in the end I just started chatting to grandad as if he was there. I felt so close to him and it meant so much to meet Paul, who tends to the cemetery, as I know Thomas will be in safe hands.”
Wayne, who previously worked to restore a war memorial at Piccadilly station, said: “I don’t mind admitting there was a tear in my eye when I listened to Rita talking to Thomas at his graveside.
“To be able to find Thomas and to share his story with his grandchildren, who themselves are now in their 80s, and their families is a real privilege. Rita is now a good friend and it has been an honour to share this day with her and Sam.”