This article looks at the subject of how the dead were treated on the battlefields of the First World War. It is a subject that should be covered in order to fully understand the reality of the horrors of all-out war. To be frank, the preparation of the article was quite harrowing and many texts and images were not used as they are simply too shocking for publication in a journal such as this. Some might still find the article and images upsetting and decide not to read it.
It is probably fair to say that the one thing we all associate with the Great War was the slaughter of vast numbers of troops. When modern technology, in the form of machine guns, mortars and artillery, came face to face with the old-fashioned tactics of a frontal assault by unprotected men walking in serried ranks across open ground, the outcome was all too predictable. Carried out on an industrial scale, it left indelible scars on communities all over the world. Even today the debate continues as to how those at the top could either have not foreseen the deadly consequences, or whether they were simply immune to suffering and deaths of so many young men.
Photographs of the war frequently showed death in all its horrible forms. Bodies lying on barbed wire, or partly buried in mud. Corpses left in the open for months or even years, some partly clothed, others mostly bones. And then there were the images of someone apparently asleep – just sitting against a bank or still kneeling as they were doing when the bullet took their life.
But, for each body lying exposed on the ground, there was another person under the soil or simply lost forever as a result of artillery bombardments, trench diggings – or entombment when entrances to dug-outs were blown in by shells or mines. In some respects it is these “missing dead” that play the most important part in our modern services of remembrance; paying tribute and offering homage to all those who are still out there.
Burial of the dead was important for many reasons. It reduced the likelihood of disease spreading – as long as they were properly buried of course. However, it also gave the families a degree of certainty about the fate of their loved ones, as the process of collecting and burying a body involved checking for the ID disc as well as any personal possessions found with the body. These were placed in a small cotton bag, tied with the ID tag at the neck.
The other main reason involved morale. Soldiers hated to see their own dead lying on the battlefield and in some cases the ground in front of the opposing lines were literally covered in bodies. Given that the lines were often close, it was an appalling prospect to wake up to, watching friends gently slide into decay. There was also the fear that the next artillery barrage would obliterate the remains so that they could never be identified again. The feelings were so strong that it became a serious source of grievance amongst soldiers returning on leave and eventually reached the War Office at official level.
The collection of bodies was carried out on ad-hoc basis early in the war. Units were assumed to be responsible for collecting their own dead. Divisional and Corps Burial Officers were later appointed and who worked with the Directorate of Graves Registration & Enquiries (DGR&E) which had been established in February 1916. The Burial Officer’s job was to mark graves as soon after a battle to aid in later removal and identification. However, the actual job of removing the dead was an increasing problem.
A badly smashed battalion recently removed from battle was often in no position to go out and recover bodies. They were usually sent to the rear to rest and re-organise. The troops replacing them in the front-line were therefore unaware of many of the details of what had happened and so the dead frequently lay where they had fallen. Moreover, there was the small consideration of what the enemy was up to; a prolonged attack over a period of days or weeks might not allow for burial parties to wander unharmed in no-man’s land. Weeks and months might go by and then, when things became too awful, recovery parties were sent out.
If you are upset about such matters please skip the following italicised section.
The accounts of what the soldiers had to go through when recovering bodies makes for some of the most terrible reading.
Numerous bodies were found lying submerged in the water in shell holes and mine craters; bodies that seemed quite whole, but which became like huge masses of white, slimy chalk when we handled them. I shuddered as my hands, covered in soft flesh and slime, moved about in search of the disc, and I have had to pull bodies to pieces in order that they should not be buried unknown. It was very painful to have to bury the unknown. Private J McCauley Aug – Nov 1918.
It is piteous work this collecting of dead…after three or four days in the forward area too, it tries the nerves and causes a curious kind of irritability which was quite infectious – all the party being cross and out of temper, and it was quite easy to find oneself heatedly arguing some trivial point for no apparent reason. Reverend J. Bickersteth.
I don’t know how many we buried. I’ll never forget that sight;…the most dreadful experience even I have had … I retched and have been sleepless since… No words can describe the ghastliness. Unknown
The senior commanders were faced with a dilemma. There were sensitivities about allowing another unit to collect a battalion’s dead. Would they treat the men with respect? Might not a fellow soldier recognise a body even though no ID disc was present? However, on the other side of the coin, the effect of seeing your mates lying in some Flanders Field were equally depressing. One officer in the 51st Highland Division, when detailed to organise collection and burial of the divisional dead, wrote:
“Quite a number [of the men] were related to the ones who were dead, brothers, cousins, and they of course were very upset, very very upset. “
By the end of the War, it was estimated that some 500,000 soldiers were simply missing, with another 160,000 in isolated graves that had to be moved to the new cemeteries being established by the Imperial War Graves Commission. And then there were the small group-burials in unofficial cemeteries that also had to be removed and re-buried. It was a daunting task and additionally problematic as the experience of soldiers detailed off to collect the dead after a battle was almost universally awful as has been described above.
The Army decided to ask for volunteers and gave each man an extra half-a-crown a day for the work. (That’s twelve and a half new-pence to those unfamiliar with proper coinage.) This was to be done at a time when the Army was being demobbed as fast as possible, and stories of breakdowns in unit discipline amongst what were basically civilians in uniform were not uncommon. It was also started at the beginning of winter 1918 and the weather was so bad that by January 1919 work stopped when the ground froze.
Up to that point it had been reckoned that it took up to six men to exhume, move and re-bury a single body. When worked resumed in February, it took nine men to do the same work due to the ground conditions. The task was such that, by March 1919, only 1,750 exhumations had been completed in the British sector – which excluded the Canadians who wanted to clear their own dead. It was soon realised that tens of thousands of men would be needed to collect the dead and that time was working against them for many reasons – including the fact that the local people were returning to reclaim their land.
We sometimes forget whole communities were forced out of the front-line areas. In some cases they went before the fighting started; others when it was impossible to live in a house as it was destroyed around them. After the war there was a fear that the French government was going to take the opportunity to impose an efficient new system of land-tenure in Northern France. The Catholic Church, amongst other institutions, was worried that this would undermine their strong support in the conservative countryside, and so encouraged landowning families (which often meant quite poor, subsistence farmers, with very few acres), to return, often in contravention of French orders putting large tracts of land out of bounds. As soon as they returned, often living in shanty buildings made from scrap war-material, they set about restoring the land so that they could resume farming and try to earn a living once more. Unaware of the effects of their hard work, it is likely that many graves were effectively lost as a result.
Finding a grave was in any case not easy. Grave Registration Squads of about 30 men would go out armed with a map marked up with information provided by the Directorate of Graves Registration & Enquiries. 500yd by 500yd squares were marked out and the team would then search each spot marked as a burial. However, the information was often inaccurate, or the body had been removed or destroyed since first being marked.
The Squads frequently had to develop a sixth sense to locate burial sites rather than rely on records. This helped even where a burial was marked by the traditional upturned rifle or a helmet on a stick. Other signs included grey or green water that had leached out of a corpse and vegetation that was more lush than its surroundings. Other less savoury indications included rat holes, with fragments of bones nearby. And of course there were the obvious signs of personal equipment coming to the surface which might indicate the presence of a body.
Although the ground was starting claim back its own (“dust to dust” and all that), some soldiers reported the presence of the pervasive smell of death as being a strong clue to the presence of bodies. In some cases though, this was said to be all in the mind. The same went for areas where people had a strong inkling of the presence of dead soldiers but whose minds were filling in the gaps with a sense of dread and sadness which might manifest itself in the form of smells and other signs. This was by no means always the case. One man who served in the exhumation squads was asked if he saw ghosts. He said he did not, and did not even feel the presence of anyone while working. He did however admit this might have been a form of self-defence and that if he ever gave in to those feelings he might go mad.
By the middle of 1919 the work was picking up, with a number of new teams going over from England who had not been through the war. This gave them a certain distance which seems to have helped them cope. However, there were still reports of men having nervous breakdowns after a few weeks of working. Some seem to compensate by going at the task with as much vigour as possible and there were a number of accusations of Squads meeting their quotas by deliberately dividing remains into two and entering them as two separate corpses.
Perhaps drink helped. Discipline after the War was much slacker and, in the case of the Australian exhumation troops, it was noted that the officers and men were a very tough bunch who did their own thing, were frequently the worse for drink and who even occasionally went on strike. The Canadians seem to have been the most conscientious and effective, with plenty of volunteers who wanted to do a good job and find as many of their fellow troops as possible.
The question remains as to how effective the whole process was in actually determining who it was that was buried in the mud of France and Flanders. It is suspected, for example, that where there was a strong desire to provide families and the authorities with “closure”, it is likely that evidence was planted or contrived to prove that a specific person had been found. It is also known that best-guesses were made where a number of bodies were recovered together with a jumble of rank-badges and ID tags. In 1920 it was reckoned that, “of corpses found with effects, 20% were identified by identity discs; 25% were confirmed by discs; 30% were identified by other methods; with 25% unidentifiable”.
By 1921 the main effort had become the recovery of the dead rather than identification. Some 600 bodies a week were being exhumed by that time, of which only a fifth were able to be identified. By August of that year it was reckoned that 204,000 bodies had been recovered from “isolated graves” and moved to cemeteries. However, the rate of discoveries was still running at some 200 a week when the Army handed over the task to the War Graves Commission. The Army feared the worst once the public found out that it had apparently given up on almost 300,000 men still lying beneath the battlefields. They were not wrong.
Questions began to be asked in Parliament and examples emerged of people going out to France to try and find their lost husbands and sons; in some cases they succeeded where the army said it had searched and failed. Locals were actually paid to report a body, but it is accepted that the finding of a valuable engraved cigarette-case or watch might not make the two-franc reward worth the effort of reporting the remains. Besides, for the locals intent upon getting back to some sort of normality, finding bits of a body became part of everyday life. By the early 1920s many were asking for permission to plough over ground that almost certainly contained remains. Where this was not forthcoming some simply went ahead in any case.
It would be wrong of us today to condemn them for doing so. For many it was a case of simple survival in a harsh world. In any case, many kept on reporting finding bodies up to the mid-1930s. 28,000 were found between 1921 and 1928, with another 10,000 between then and 1937. Of the 4,000 found between 1932 and 36, 30% were reported by French farmers alone.
The Army had had to hand over to the Imperial War Graves Commission as a matter of expediency. It had started to run out of funds and men. It had also started to lose the will to carry on, preferring to ask the Government to fund the War Graves Commission and hire gangs of locals and imported labour to do the work as a concession to public opinion in the UK. (The process still goes on today, of course,with remains being found as a result of diligent research but also by chance when a new road or building project involves digging up the old battlefields.)
However, it was recognised that although time had started to soften the visceral need to find every last man left in France, the feeling of betrayal might never go away. In that assessment, they were right, and it is perhaps partly because of the way the process of recovering our dead of the 14-18 War was allowed simply to peter out that we still feel a need to honour those we left behind and who will, in all likelihood, never now return.
And that is also one of the reasons we use the Poppy to remember the men who are still lying in a field in France or Belgium.
Let us not forget the animals who were taken to war. TMT will publish a piece on their work and treatment in the War