Burials during the Great War (1914-1918)

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Right from the first weeks of the 1914 to 1918 war, which were characterized by vast movements of armies in Belgium and in France, the slaughter proved to be on an unprecedented scale. For example, on a single day in August 1914 an estimated 27,000 soldiers were killed. During the first few months of conflict, between August and December 1914, the German Army lost 142,000 men: three times the number of casualties for the entire 1870–1971 war! During the same period the French lost some 300,000 men. Contrary to popular belief the death rate was higher during the war of movement (summer 1914 and spring and summer 1918) than during the subsequent trench warfare, even though the major offensives launched by the military staff to try and break through the continuous front led to terrible slaughter in the space of just a few days.

The enormous casualty figures soon obliged the belligerents to take legislative and administrative action to set up proper military cemeteries. During the first months of the conflict both sides returned to the practice of communal graves. On the French side, General Joffre gave instructions for soldiers to be interred in graves holding up to 100 bodies, while the British authorized a maximum of six corpses placed head to foot; however the German authorities stipulated from the very start that their soldiers be buried in individual graves. This was soon required by all the belligerent countries, acting under the pressure from public opinion, and became part of French law on 29 December 1915. Numerous small cemeteries became the temporary resting places for bodies recovered from the battlefields. These were generally set up near the aid posts, close to the trenches. Many of the dead were declared "unknown" because they could not be identified from their personal belongings. Military plots were also established in the civilian cemeteries of towns and villages close to the front. These were very rudimentary with the graves being marked by simple wooden crosses. The Germans meanwhile built some imposing edifices which were designed to last, such as funerary monuments or large crosses made of stone or concrete.

From the autumn of 1914 onwards the First World War was an artillery war, doling out anonymous and impersonal death to the soldiers of the front line. Artillery fire was responsible for most of soldiers’ injuries and roughly two-thirds of their deaths. In addition, the power and frequency of the shelling ripped up the surface of the battlefield, tearing apart or burying a large number of bodies before they could be properly interred. This phenomenon was recorded by Ernst Jünger in his work Storm of Steel: “This churned-up battlefield was ghastly. Among the living lay the dead… We found them in layers stacked one upon the top of another. One company after another had been shoved into the drumfire and steadily annihilated. The corpses were covered with the masses of soil turned up by the shells, and the next company advanced in the place of the fallen”. The same observation is to be found in the notebooks of French "poilu" Paul Tuffrau: “It's mud and corpses. Yes, corpses. Bits of those who died in the fighting last autumn, who were summarily buried in the parapet, have begun reappearing in the landslides.

Because of the chaos it was often deemed impossible, useless and dangerous to make proper arrangements for the dead. Indeed, even when temporary burials were possible, the cemeteries created close to the trenches were often destroyed by shelling. In some cases burial places were forgotten, such as the last resting place of the twenty "Grimsby pals" found near Arras in 2002 by Alain Jacques, head of the city's archaeology department. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefields, roughly half of all the soldiers killed on the Western Front never being found or identified.

Sometimes the dead went missing without trace, the most extreme case being those who were blown up by exploding mines. Such was the fate of the fifty-three Canadians whose memory is today honoured at the Zivy Crater Cemetery near Vimy.

Yves LE MANER,
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France