Mystery Photograph: Do You Recognize this Soldier?


Unknown Lieutenant in the 47th Battalion CEF

Can you help identify the soldier in this photograph? It was treasured by its original owner and is now in the possession of her granddaughter.

All that is known for sure is that he is a Lieutenant in the 47th Battalion and that the original owner was Miriam Gladys Mathews, a nurse who lived in London and Grantham, England during the war. The 47th Battalion was raised in New Westminster, B.C. although as the years went by it was reinforced by men from other parts of the country.

I’m hoping that if enough people see this image someone may recognize the face from a family photo album, newspaper clipping or military archive. Please share this image with friends, family and followers.

There is an inscription on the back of the photograph which mentions the names of three soldiers, one of which, David Julian Cust, is believed to refer to the Lieutenant. Unfortunately to date this inscription has raised more questions than answers:

  • The word “Cust” has been overwritten and it ends with a period, implying it may be an abbreviation rather than a surname.
  • It mentions that the soldier was killed in 1915 however the 47th didn’t arrive in France until the summer of 1916. It’s possible he died before this time or that he transferred to another unit after this photograph was taken, however…
  • The name “Cust” is uncommon and according to the Library and Archives Canada “Personal Records of the First World War” database there are only two men with this surname who served for Canada  and neither were officers or died in service. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database lists ten men with the name “Cust” who died during the war but none were officers, served for Canada or were named David (or Julian). Furthermore the Royal Westminster Regiment Museum confirmed that no one with the surname “Cust” served with the 47th Battalion during the war. Despite this I did check nominal rolls for the 47th Battalion (including three reinforcement drafts) as well as the 7th, 29th, 121st and 131st Battalions.
  • I also looked into the possibility that the surname was an abbreviation for Captain or Lieutenant and searched for possible candidates with the surname “Julian” or “David”. This provided no plausible leads, nor did looking for a “David J” with a surname that began with the letter “C”.

With the name-based search turning up nothing we are now concentrating on distributing this image to as many people as possible. I’ll be putting a call out on Twitter and Facebook and we will keep our fingers crossed that a crowd-sourcing approach might work. If you have any information that might help solve this mystery please contact me. Thanks!

The back of the photograph featuring a Lieutenant in the 47th Battalion.


11 replies

  1. Tough one Steve … do we know the name of the nurse? … has she left any letters or documents? I take it they were never married? love puzzles, Ph

    • It is a tough one and asking someone to recognize a face in a photograph more than a century later is a long shot. Nevertheless it is an excellent quality photograph so it’s worth sharing and we’ll see what happens.

      Thanks for the suggestion, I just updated the article to include the name of the nurse. I’m afraid there are no letters or diaries and the exact nature of their relationship is unknown.

      Thanks again,

  2. Since we are unsure of who the picture is of, I searched all of the names and dates on several large databases for WWI casualties.

    I searched and the only person I could find with the name David Julian as even part of their name was a private, not a Lieutenant. The word Cust has a larger spacing in front of it as if it was intended to be separated from the name. Also, there is what could be a period at the end of the name Julian.

    She was a nurse, so what I think, is that the picture was one person, but the names on the back were each a different person that affected her on a personal level to the point that she wished to remember them.
    That would explain the multiple names on the back.
    The pic became a memorial.

    I did find here a, J N Harland 2nd Lieutenant Died 1916 Royal Field Artillery, so that may be the gentleman in the picture. It says “sculptured head” near his name on the back, and perhaps she is referring to his picture on the other side, and also, if you look at that pic, he does seem to have a sculptured appearance with well defined facial features.
    That is the only Lieutenant with that name listed on the site that died in 1916.

    Page 9 of the search has it

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks very much for your comments. The possibility does exist that the names on the back do not relate to the Lieutenant in the photo. This is definitely the case for the other two soldiers noted at the bottom because they are known to the family … a photo exists of Clarke as does a sculpture of John Harland’s head done by Miriam’s sister.

      Miriam did tell her granddaughter that her soldier was killed within 10 days of arriving at the front. The information on the back may have been added at a much later date at which point the year of death was written down incorrectly. I don’t understand however how the name of someone so important in her life could be wrong, although the fact that the original name was partially obscured by the overwritten “us” is an issue.

      Thanks again for taking the time to do some digging and for commenting,

  3. That almost looks like what was to be written on his grave stone. Could it be that the other names be beside his? It looks like the second letter could be an A. If it was an abbreviation the C could be for Canadian. If the second was A it could be for army. S for service or? T for transportation/trade/ or?

    Looking at the Wikipedia, could he have gone over with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914 before the Canadian Militia arrived in 1915? There are military history websites out there that could help too. Another thought is to go the genealogy websites and see what they could tell you. They did do changes in battalions or units during the course of the war.

    Maybe Miriam was his nurse after he could have been injured and treated in a military hospital there.

    • Hi Colleen,

      Thanks very much for your comments. The last word could definitely be an abbreviation and although I was thinking it might refer to his rank it also very possible that it was to the unit or corps that he served in.

      He may have gone over in October 1914 with First Canadian Contingent and then been transferred to the 47th at a later date. The 47th was authorized in November 1914 and sailed to England a year later so the photo could have been taken at any point after November 1914. If he transferred to another unit almost immediately it is possible that he was KIA in 1915.

      I did search for a David Julian and a Julian David but there were no good matches. There was one David Julian who died in 1916 however he was a Private in the 1st Battalion. I’ve searched through a lot of lot of military records and genealogy sites too, even some newspapers, but the mystery remains.

      Thanks again for your suggestions.


    • Hi Ken … thanks very much for the tip. I will follow it up and if it results in a breakthrough I will definitely let you know. Thanks again, Steve.

  4. Miriam Gladys Mathews was David Julian’s fiancee: the other soldiers mentioned on the back of David Julian’s photo were other cherished friends she lost in WW1. I have had this photo for 25 years now and really want to know where David J came from since I live in Canada and it would seem he was from BC. I am so grateful for any help that can be provided. His portrait stands next to my grandmother’s photo. She ended up marrying William Palmer Robins, who was in the Artists Rifles, and had 3 surviving daughters from their short lived marriage. But this man David Julian was special to her and I feel very pressed to find out who he was so he can be remembered accurately and with affection in my family.

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