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Recording the Dead. How it Began. Recovering, Identifying and Burying the Dead

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

The problem of recovering, identifying and burying the dead was apparent from the beginning of the war. As the fighting went back and forth the dead often lay around and many could not be recovered with many more buried only for their grave to be churned over by the artillery fire their bodies to join the thousands of the missing. Graves and cemeteries sprang up in a random fashion and the recording of the dead by the various units was on an ad hoc basis. The first person to identify the need to record the dead and the magnitude of the task was Fabian Ware. (Pic of Fabian Ware wikipedia.org)

The British and Commonwealth war dead totalled one million, one hundred thousand men and women during the First World War. The war was fought by millions of ordinary citizens and those who died ‘could no longer be shovelled into a hole….and so forgotten’ as Thackeray indignantly commented about the field at Waterloo. The British moved beyond this casual approach to their dead in the campaigns of the nineteenth century and the Boer War. The Government gave a steel cross, where there was no private memorial. It was the work of a British Red Cross unit, sent to France in 1914, under the leadership of Fabian Ware that was to be the catalyst for the founding of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Ware arrived at Lille in northern France in September 1914 to take command of a group made up of private cars and drivers that made up the Red Cross ‘flying unit’ The group was ‘made up of middle-aged and young alike’ and had been operating in the British sector treating the wounded and even venturing into German held territory to rescue prisoners of war. Searching for the wounded was their chief role, but they also ‘began to collect evidence about the British dead, noting down who they were and where they had been buried.’ This was not unusual as the British Red Cross had kept in touch with their German counterparts via Geneva and shared information on the missing men and whether they had been taken prisoner. During this time Ware and the unit had worked from Amiens, mainly assisting French casualties and building up a chain of contacts with the French and churchmen who advised them of British wounded and dead. Arrangements were also made with Lord Robert Cecil who lead the British Red Cross mission from Paris to work together over ‘enquiries’ about the missing.

During October 1914 the unit received a visit from Dr Stewart a Red Cross Medical Assessor. This visit proved to be an important one in the development of the unit into a Graves Registration Unit (GRU). Stewart and Ware had been on a visit to the cemetery at Bethune and according to Ware ‘... they found a number of English graves all with plain but carefully made wooden crosses on them.’ It was while on this visit and standing in the cemetery that Ware realised that there was no evidence that the position of the graves had been recorded or registered and no one seemed to have responsibility for their maintenance. It was Dr Stewart who committed the Red Cross to paying for durable inscriptions for the crosses and for providing the means to enable Ware’s unit to mark and register all the British graves it could locate. All through the winter of 1914 and into the spring of 1915 the search for graves went on. One member of the unit by the name of Broadley found the work hugely satisfying, ‘...to find the grave of some poor fellow who has been shot in some out of the way turnip field and hurriedly buried, but I feel my modest efforts amply rewarded when I return a day or two later with a wooden cross with a neat inscription and plant it at the head of his grave, for I have the proud satisfaction of knowing that I have done some slight honour to one brave man who has died for his country’.


By 1916 the GRU had become a part of the army and had been renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGR&E). The following information is extracted from the Adjutant Generals Instructions to the BEF:


The establishment of permanent graves was afforded by the French Government by law on 29th December 1915. France provided land that would be maintained in perpetuity for British war dead. The Director of Graves Registration and Enquires (DRG&E), as representative of the Adjutant General, had sole and global responsibility to work with the French Government for the establishment of these cemeteries. The office of the Director of Graves Registration and Enquires was located in Winchester House, St James, London. Below this office each Field Army had a Deputy Assistant DRG&E. Grave registration in the field fell squarely on the shoulders of the unit Chaplains. They were responsible for filling out the proper form (AF W3314) that included the information about the grave, and forwarding to both the DADGR&E and the DAGGHQ 3rd Echelon. Information submitted included map references using the 1/40000 or 1/20000 trench maps, or detail descriptions of localities on the back of the form, in addition to the usually expected basics such as the man’s name, unit etc. He was also responsible for the marking of the graves. However, many dead were interred into already authorised cemeteries. In this case special instructions were issued as each authorized cemetery was usually under the care of a Graves Registration Unit. The actual interment of graves was up to the unit. The term “unit” could mean many things; internment by the unit of the actual casualty, internment by Casualty Clearing Stations, Field Ambulances, General Hospitals, Graves Registration Units etc. Grave registration units were non-permanent units, that is some lucky unit was detailed to perform that task and it could be any one. Basically graves registration was the responsibility of the unit responsible for the casualty or the unit finding the casualty.

A Permanent World Wide Organisation

Fabian Ware recognised that a permanent, world wide organisation would be required to build and maintain in perpetuity the thousands of cemeteries that would be required for the Empire dead. In 1917 his work was rewarded with the establishment of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) which was renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and it was the Commission that took the decision not to repatriate the war dead but that they would be buried on the battlefield near to were they had fallen. This decision provoked a bitter backlash from the many war widows and mothers with many letters being received demanding that the families should have the right to repatriate the body for a private burial. It was not just an issue of who owned the dead but also one of cost of bringing back the dead as it was felt that it would be grossly unfair to allow the wealthy to bring back their dead for a private burial. The cemeteries were to be established upon the principles of individuality, equality and cultural sensitivity and the dead were to be buried without the distinction of rank, class and in accordance with their religion. The cemeteries were designed by architects that included Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Reginald Bloomfield and Sir Edmund Lutyens and Rudyard Kipling was appointed as the literary advisor for the inscriptions. For Kipling this was deeply personal work as his son John had been killed and listed as missing at the Battle of Loos in 1915, although his grave was identified by the Military Historian Norm Christie from the CWGC records in 1992 and he is buried in St Mary’s ADS Cemetery, Haisnes, France. Kipling’s work gave us poignant biblical phrases found on the ‘Stone of Remembrance’ in each cemetery ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’ and on the headstone of the unknown soldier ‘A Soldier of the Great War … Known unto God.’

The cemeteries are immaculate with the dead set out in neat rows of uniform headstones conveying equality and giving the appearance of a battalion on parade. Each headstone has the regimental badge, name , rank, regiment, date of death and a short inscription supplied by the next of kin. They are set in well tended plants and lawns and each cemetery has a common feature of a ‘Stone of Remembrance’ and the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and they range in size from a handful of graves to thousands.


There are 172 CWGC cemeteries in the Ypres Salient and the Falkirk District dead can be found resting in seventy five of those cemeteries with the names of the missing listed on three memorials at the Menin Gate Memorial, Tyne Cot, and Ploegsteert Berks Memorial. These cemeteries are a powerful testament to the sacrifice of war and became important places of pilgrimage for the families who could afford to visit. In the inter-war years Thomas Cook offered cheap three day visits to the battlefields and there were also group visits organised by the Veterans Associations and the Royal British Legion.

(Dochy Farm Cemetery)


The pictures below show Vlamertinge Military Cemetery which was begun by the French in 1914. A small number of British dead were buried here in 1914, one being Sgt A S Fleming, 1st Battalion, Black Watch, age 31, killed in action on 9 November 1914, and who lived at 9 Victoria Road, Falkirk. Grave A.5 (See his listing in the Falkirk, Bainsford & Camelon section). It did not become an official British cemetery until 1915. It was then used until June 1917, when the available space was filled. Vlamertinge was an Allied centre for hospitals, camps and ammunition dumps. The images show the war time view and the view today.


Their Fates Differed Greatly

For men who were killed in the fighting area the varying nature of their deaths in the front line and the specific conditions at the time of their death meant that their ultimate fates differed widely. These can be split into three categories:


1. Men would have been identifiable and probably buried close to the front line. This would have included, men killed by a sniper or shell explosion whilst holding a trench or on a road close behind the lines; men dug out of a collapsed mine, trench, sap or dug-out; and men dying of wounds having begun their evacuation, but whilst still in their Battalion or Brigade area. These men would be identified by comrades, NCOs or officers.


2. Men would have been less easily identifiable, but probably buried in cemeteries or burial plots still quite close to the firing line. This might typically have included those men who had attacked and been killed or died of their wounds, but whose bodies could not be brought in because the place they were lying was under fire. Eventually when the fighting moved away, their bodies would be buried if possible. In this category too would be men who died in a successful advance, whose bodies would be cleared by units other than their own. Identification would be through pay books, tags, and other physical means by men who did not know the individuals.


3. Men would be unidentifiable, if the damage to them was such that they ceased to exist as a body or where any form of identification had been lost. Fragments of men, once found, would be buried if possible. Many men were simply not found, although post-war battlefield clearance reduced the total of missing.


In her book ‘They Called it Passchendaele,’ Lyn Macdonald recounted the story told to her by Lieutenant P King, 2/5 Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment. He was tasked to go with men to the Frezenberg Ridge and bury the bodies of the successive waves of soldiers who had been killed there in the previous two months of fighting at Beck House and Borry Farm before they fell on 20 September 1917. He recounts:


We were each told to take a section of men and one NCO, draw rubber gloves, sandbags, and extra run ration for the men, and take our section out to the battlefield area to bury the dead. They were mostly Scottish soldiers - Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Black Watch. It was an appalling job. Some had been lying there for months and the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition; and some were so shattered that there was not much left. We did have occasions where you almost buried a man twice. In fact we must have done just that several times. There was one officer whose body we buried and then shortly after we found an arm with the same name on the back of a watch on the wrist. We had to open their tunic pockets to get out their AB64s, which we had to put separately in a sandbag. If they had any identity discs, then we marked the grave - just put the remains in a sandbag, dug a small grave and buried him. Then I had to write it on a list and give the map reference location. Where the bodies were so broken up or decomposed that we couldn’t find an identity we just buried the man and put ‘Unknown British Soldier’ on the list. It was a terrible job. The smell was appalling and it was deeply depressing for the men.

Of course, the battle had passed well on by then, but the ground was totally destroyed. We could see nothing but these two abandoned pillboxes. There was no sign of civilisation. No cottages, no buildings, no trees. It was utter desolation. There was nothing at all except huge craters, half the size of a room. They were full of water and the corpses were floating in them. Some with no heads. Some with no legs. They were very hard to identify. We managed about four in every ten. There were Germans among them. We didn’t bury them. We hadn’t been told to. We did that job for two days running. And we didn’t dump them into a hole. We committed each one properly to his grave. Said a little prayer out of a book issued to us. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ The men all stood around and took their hats off for a moment, standing to attention. ‘God rest his soul.’ A dead soldier can’t hurt you. He’s a comrade. That’s how we looked at it. He was some poor mother’s son and that was the end of it.


A number of Falkirk District men fought and died in the fighting at Frezenberg Ridge for Beck House and Borry Farm during the months of August and September 1917. Undoubtedly Lieutenant King and his section would have buried their remains.

Many thousands of small burial plots were created on or very close behind the battlefields. They were often damaged by shellfire, and in 1918 many were over-run first by the advancing enemy and later by the Allies pushing eastwards again. Plots were destroyed as the ground was shelled, and the locations of many graves that had been registered and known about were made uncertain.


View back to Frezenberg Ridge from Beck House

The Search for the Dead and Missing

Post-war, clearance of the battlefields and the search for the dead and missing continued with certain parts of the battlefields taped out into grids and searched at least six times. This activity went on well into the 1920’s, on a large scale. The search parties (Exhumation Companies) did not dig over all of the land marked out by the grid. Instead, they looked for clues that indicated that a body or bodies could be buried there. For example: rifles or stakes protruding from the ground bearing helmets or equipment; partial remains and equipment that had come to the surface; small bones and pieces of equipment brought to surface near to rat-holes; discolouration of grass, soil or water. (Grass was a more vivid colour were bodies were buried and water turned a greenish-black). Once a grid had been searched and possible bodies marked then the gruesome task of exhumation began. Remains once discovered were put onto cresol soaked canvas for a careful identification. If any uniform remained, pockets were searched and badges and buttons identified. If a Scottish soldier was found, the tartan was recorded. Next they looked for identification discs and personal effects: watches sometimes had useful had inscriptions, for example. Sometimes knives, forks and spoons that had been placed down the puttees carried the man’s name, initials or number. Webbing was checked because that also often had soldiers names and numbers stencilled on. If the remains were deemed to be an officer (Bedford cord breeches and privately bought army boots being a good indication) and the skull or jawbone was intact then a dental record of the teeth, fillings, false ones etc was also made in an effort to confirm the identification of the man. The remains would then be taken to one of the cemeteries that was open for burial. Thus many of the small wartime burial plots were expanded with the post-war additions; indeed many bodies were exhumed from small cemeteries and concentrated into larger ones. Those remains that could not be identified were buried as an unknown soldier. Human remains are still being recovered from the battlefields to this day.

(IWM Image)


For those men who died on the casualty evacuation chain, cemeteries were created at most of the places where the Casualty Clearing Stations (CSS) and the less mobile Base Hospitals were located. These cemeteries were rather more orderly in terms of layout, tended to be rather larger due to the concentration of death, and some had the benefit of attention to the grass and flowers around the graves. In most cases, the man was identified and usually his burial was attended by a Chaplain. Some of the these cemeteries suffered from shellfire or other damage, particularly as those laid out in 1914-1917 were overrun by the enemy and then the counter-attacking Allies in 1918.

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. Site of Casualty Clearing Stations. 10,898 British & Commonwealth dead are buried here

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