Before the 19th-century soldiers killed in combat were generally buried in communal graves which were not marked specifically as military burial sites. Only certain leaders or famous heroes were given the honour of a marked individual war grave.
In some of the 19th-century battles, namely the Mexico-American War (1847–1850), the Crimean War at Sebastopol (1856) and Solferino (1859) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), soldiers were buried in marked military burial sites. However, the remains of the individual soldiers in these sites were not separated into individual graves.
The scale of casualties in the First World War was unprecedented. Thousands of soldiers were being buried on the battlefields in individual or communal graves by their comrades. They were often buried where they fell in action, or in a burial ground on or near the battlefield. A simple cross or marker might be put up to mark the location and give brief details of the individuals who had died. In the early weeks of the war, the British Army had no official register to whom these battlefield burials could be formally reported with a name and the location of the grave.
Those individuals who reached a hospital in a safe area behind the fighting lines and who died of their wounds would usually be buried in a cemetery near to the hospital. Often it would be in an existing town or village cemetery or in a specially created annexed burial plot. These burials could be registered and their locations marked.
The large numbers of the dead also confronted the warring nations with the question of what the military authorities and official authorities should do about registering the burials of the dead. The families who had lost a loved one would naturally expect that a record of the soldier’s grave would be kept for pilgrimage visits or for the body’s repatriation.
As a result, official war graves registration services were established by many of the fighting nations during or after the First World War.
The difficult task for the graves registration services was increased by the nature of the fighting on certain battlefronts, such as the Western Front. The characteristics of siege and trench warfare on this battlefront meant that fighting often moved back and forth over the same ground. Between battle actions, the day to day survival in filthy holes or trenches dug into the ground and the hazards of exploding artillery shells, snipers and grenades resulted in many casualties from sickness and wounds. Many casualties were lost in collapsed underground tunnelling operations to mine under enemy positions.
Conditions in the landscape often added to the number of casualties. Heavy, prolonged rain could turn the landscape into a sea of mud. Accounts by soldiers during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele at Ypres tell of men drowning and disappearing in the waterlogged shell craters and deep, deep mud.
Graves and burial grounds situated in the area of a battlefront were often damaged by subsequent fighting across the same location, resulting in the loss of the originally marked graves. Some bodies simply could not be retrieved from underground.
Added to this, the technical developments in the weaponry used by all sides frequently caused such dreadful injuries that it was not possible to identify or even find a complete body for burial.
These factors were generally responsible for the high number of “missing” casualties on all sides and for the many thousands of graves for which the identity is described as “Unknown”.
The nations involved in the First World War have chosen to commemorate the missing in various ways. There may be an official tomb or coffins in which an “Unknown” burial has been selected to represent the thousands of unidentified war dead of that country. There may be memorial walls in military burial grounds with names carved in stone or etched in bronze. Or there may be monuments with many thousands of names in battle sites to commemorate the individuals who are known to have died in that area but who have no known grave.
It is usually the victors who have the opportunity to put up memorials to honour their military dead. There may be many military dead, known or missing, from some nations who will never have their memory carved in stone or etched in bronze. Indeed, the German war graves agency, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräber Fürsorge (VDK) considers that there are still possibly approximately 80,000 German soldiers who fell in action in Flanders and whose remains cannot be accounted for. There is a similar figure for British casualties whose remains have never been found. They are all still “missing” in Flanders.
It may be surprising to learn that military “missing” dead from the First World War are still being found almost 100 years since the guns fell silent in 1918.
After the Great War, the battlefields were carefully cleared of equipment, ammunition and debris. Known burial sites were examined and many burials in small cemeteries or individual graves were moved to larger concentration cemeteries. Some burial sites were left to a nation in perpetuity in gratitude for the sacrifice of these individuals.
However, some military dead has remained undiscovered for nearly 100 years since they fell. Some bodies have been disturbed by the construction of roads and houses. Some have been found by chance in the undergrowth in remote places.
The remains of Private George Nugent of the Northumberland Fusiliers were found in October 1998. He had been killed on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme 1916. He had been recorded as missing in action. His body was found close to the mine crater blown on that day, known as Lochnagar Crater. He was reburied in the nearby Ovillers Military Cemetery on 1 July 2000.
In 2007 the remains of hundreds of British and Commonwealth military dead, believed to be mostly Australian soldiers, were discovered in a mass grave burial pits near Bois Faisan (“Pheasant Wood”) near Fromelles in France. It was believed that they were buried there in 8 pits by the Germans after the Action at Fromelles (19 to 20 July 1916), when very heavy casualties were suffered by the British 61st Division and the Australian 5th Division. Although the area was searched after the First World War, and the location had been marked on trench maps from the 1914–1918 period, for whatever reason these burials were not discovered and officially marked.
On 31 July 2008, a statement was issued that all of the remains would be exhumed and reinterred in a new military cemetery. In April 2009 there was a formal announcement that DNA samples would be taken from the human remains to provide the best chance of any possible future identification of the bodies. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission took on the task of the exhumation and reinterment. The new military cemetery was constructed and the official dedication ceremony took place there in July 2010.
Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, France
Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery is the first new war cemetery to be constructed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for fifty years. The cemetery was started in early 2009 and was completed for a dedication ceremony on 19 July 2010.
The remains of Australian and British casualties were discovered in a number of mass graves in 2008. It is believed that between 225 and 400 Australian and British soldiers were buried by the Germans near a wood known as Pheasant Wood on British Army maps after the Battle of Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916. Casualties were very high during this battle, with over 5,500 Australians killed, wounded and missing and over 1,500 British casualties killed, wounded and missing. According to the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the number of dead by the end of the battle were 1,780 Australian and 503 British soldiers.
Aerial view of the design for the new cemetery dating from May 2009, superimposed in this photograph. CWGC
Some 400 of the casualties reported missing, believed killed, were believed to have been buried by the Germans in as many as 8 mass burial pits. In the early 2000s Lambis Englezos, a Greek-born retiree resident in Australia, set out to trace the location of the remains of Australian soldiers listed as missing. In 2007 and 2008 research carried out by Lambis, working with British historian Peter Barton, led to a limited excavation requested by the Australian Government in the location believed to be the site of the mass burial pits near Pheasant Wood. Following the dig, there was conclusive evidence to suggest that Australian and British soldiers were buried in 8 burial pits.
Work was started from May 2009 to excavate the site and recover the remains of the dead for reburial in individual graves. The first reburial to take place in the newly designed cemetery was carried out at a ceremony in February 2010.
From the middle of the 19th century, a number of treaties were agreed to protect war graves in Europe. After the Second World War, there were new problems for the war graves registration services to overcome. Many of the First World War cemeteries had still not been renovated before 1939 and following the Second World War, there was more war dead to register, bury and care for
The treaties were as follows:
- 1856: Treaty of Paris
- 10th May 1871: Treaty of Frankfurt. The French and German governments agreed in the treaty to allow the military dead of either nation to be taken back to their national soil for burial.
- 28th June 1919: Treaty of Versailles. Agreements by the signatories giving French land necessary for the purpose of maintaining a military cemetery.
- 26th November 1918, 31st October 1951: Franco-British Agreements
- August 1927, October 1947, October 1956: Franco-American Agreements
- 19th July 1966: Franco-German Agreement
- 2nd December 1970: Franco-Italian Agreement
German war dead of World War 1
Like all the other nations that fought in Flanders Germany lost thousands of soldiers. They as well lie in cemeteries across Flanders.
“In this place, Soldiers’ Cemetery rest 44,833 German soldiers, 1914–1918.
This “Soldatenfriedhof” run by the German War Graves Commission is one of the starkest reminders of what a charnel house northern France was during a conflict that idealists once optimistically called the War to End All Wars.
A staggering 44,833 Germans, most of whom would have died in the trenches or “going over the top,” are buried in serried rows in this beautiful, desolate place with only songbirds and the sound of the wind to comfort them. There are so many German war dead buried under an immaculate carpet of grass that there are four names written on every grey cross. The only interruption to the perfect sense of order is the presence of several dozen gravestones with the Star of David etched on them. A stark reminder of what life was like in Germany before Hitler and his henchmen started on the path to World War 11
It is not actually a surprise to see Stars of David representing Jewish Germans lying next to their Catholic and Protestant compatriots, Jews were well integrated, important members of Imperial German society before Adolf Hitler came to power. They served, and often with distinction, during the last days of the Second Reich as Hitler, a foot soldier himself at that time, would have known.