The history of military graves from ancient times to the 19th century


The fundamental question that comes to mind when visiting a military cemetery of the Great War is why did the young people of Europe, from the most civilized (or at least so they claimed) nations on earth, have to make such a terrible sacrifice ?

When you come face to face with the sheer size of a necropolis, discovering the mass fatalities and the individual destinies of the dead soldiers at every headstone or cross, it is a very emotional, even distressing, moment.

The history of military graves from ancient times to the 19th century

From antiquity onwards, successive civilizations in Europe have paid special attention to the burial of soldiers who died in combat. A few examples suffice to demonstrate this. In 338 BC after the Battle of Chaeronea, in which Philip II of Macedonia’s troops fought against the Athenians and their allies, both victors and vanquished buried their dead according to religious rites in order to appease the anger of the gods. The Thebians erected a monument topped with a stone lion on the tumulus which concealed their dead (The site was discovered in 1880 and 226 skeletons were exhumed). In ancient times in Athens, there was a specific cemetery for citizens who died for their country, to the north-west of the Acropolis. Ancient civilizations, in particular the Greeks and the Romans, often built cenotaphs (empty tombs) in memory of their men killed in foreign lands. The Roman legions carefully buried their dead, either individually with gravestones close to their camps, or in mass graves after major battles. This was the case in AD 15 when the skeletons of the legionaries killed six years earlier in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest against the Germanic tribes were buried by Germanicus. Reverence for fallen soldiers is of course linked closely to belief in the afterlife.

By contrast, the lack of respect for the soldiers killed in more troubled times, when foreign and civil war are intermingled, is usually perceived by contemporaries as signalling the collapse of civilization. This was particularly the case in the 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War when mercenaries on the battlefields plundered the dead and slaughtered the wounded, leaving them to be eaten by birds of carrion. A certain degree of progress was made in the 18th century when it came to burying soldiers killed in action. The great royal armies began to make provisions for this in their regulations, usually based on the customs of ancient times.

The Napoleonic Wars were the first to deploy massive numbers of troops in great battles, and the first to produce mass fatalities. It was also a period when basic hygiene concerns were emerging, especially concerns about how to deal with the war dead. The predominant practice at the time was the digging of mass graves into which the men from one’s own camp or the enemy camp where thrown at random. Several of these graves have been since discovered. For example, at Vilnius in Lithuania a mass grave containing the bodies of several hundred soldiers from Napoleon's Grande Armée was found in 2001, and more recently another was located on the banks of the Berezina.

Military cemeteries as we know them first appeared in the 19th century. Their origins coincide both with mass warfare, and the ensuing large numbers of deaths, and the practice of conscription which originated with the French Revolution. From then on not only each family but the entire nation had become involved in the grieving. In addition, it was at this time that the Western world began ascribing importance to the individual over the group, a phenomenon which would only grow.

A major turning-point occurred in June 1859 when the Swiss Henry Dunant observed, in horror, the behaviour of French and Piedmont soldiers towards the dead and wounded Austrians at the Battle of Solferino. This tragic experience led him to the found the Red Cross and promote the establishment of an international law of war which eventually saw the light of day in the Geneva Convention of 1864 and the Hague Convention of 1899. This was the beginning of a process which codified war.

The American Civil War, a terrible war in the United States between the northern and southern states which lasted from 1861 to 1865, marked another important stage in how post-war issues were dealt with. For one thing there were the massive losses, with 600,000 people killed in just four years (the warning offered by this prototype of "modern" industrial warfare was all but ignored in Europe). Once the fighting was over joint military cemeteries were built in which Yankees and Confederates were buried side by side, with individual graves for the bodies which had been identified. The headstones bore the same markings irrespective of rank, social origin or religion. This led to the creation of Arlington Cemetery in Washington, the final resting place for the remains of soldiers from all the wars fought by American forces. This break with the tradition of using mass graves was the consequence of an emerging democratic state which granted respect and equality to each individual.

However during the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War, while most officers were buried in individual graves, rank-and-file soldiers of both sides were usually buried in communal graves close to the battlefields, indeed, the bodies of French and Prussian soldiers were often interred together in ossuaries. Nevertheless some 37,000 soldiers were buried in individual graves dug in special "military plots" located in municipal cemeteries. Secular monuments to the dead were also erected at this time.

In the provisions of Article 16 of the Treaty of Frankfurt, which was signed in January 1871, the governments of France and Prussia undertook to honour the military graves on their territory and provide for their maintenance. This provision was effectively a return to the principles of more ancient times. For the first time in history government legislation had mentioned the notion of the "right to permanent rest" for soldiers who had given their lives for their country. This was one of the first key signs of the new attitude of European nation states towards their soldiers killed in combat. The French state, which was in charge of virtually all of the 132,000 tombs, bought land specifically for the purpose of burying the war dead of both countries.

During the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902), the British Empire established the custom of burying its soldiers (who were conscripts) in individual graves. This was also the practice used during the First World War in order to mark the nation’s recognition of the sacrifice made by each fallen soldier. Since total warfare involved the entire nation, it was only right that the nation honoured those killed in combat. Battlefields had become sacred places.

Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France