Burying the dead

In 1914 a mobile ambulance unit run by the British Red Cross arrived on the Western Front.  It was headed by a former civil servant and journalist named Fabian Ware, who at 45 was too old to join the Army. Realising the improvised nature of burials and grave marking, Ware lobbied higher authorities to turn his unit into a dedicated team for the dead.

Wooden cross on make-shift grave in waterlogged mud, black and white photograph

A wooden cross marking an anonymous grave at Thiepval, France. The cross reads ‘R.I.P. In Memory of an Unknown British Soldier Found & Buried 25.11.15’.  © IWM Q 1540.

Isolated Graves

Once the War Office agreed, the unit was transferred from the Red Cross to the British Army and became known as the Graves Registration Commission (GRC).  In 1916 the remit of the unit expanded to handle enquiries from bereaved relatives, changing its name again to the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGRE). 

DGRE staff on their camp and searching the battlefields

Body Density Maps estimating the number of people killed in areas of the Somme and Ypres Salient. © IWM.

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As well as marking and recording existing graves, the DGRE was tasked with searching for missing bodies, moving isolated graves or burial plots to larger cemeteries (a process known as ‘concentration’), and trying to identify bodies that were found or disinterred.  The former battlefields were painstakingly divided into grids to be searched. These annotated maps record the number of known burials and temporary  grave markers, to help the teams to find and remove them for reburial in a cemetery. The blue numbers do not include existing cemeteries or unburied bodies.

By the time work ceased in 1921, tens of thousands of bodies had been recovered and reburied.  Just under 20% were identified, using name tags, uniform features, personal effects and even teeth.

Searching for bodies in northern France.  © CWGC.

“The mere fact that these officers visit day after day the cemeteries close behind the trenches, fully exposed to shell and rifle fire, accurately to record not only the names of the dead but also the exact place of burial, has a symbolic value to the men that it would be difficult to exaggerate.”

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, March 1915

Field Marshal Douglas Haig stated that although this work was “purely sentimental”, it had “an extraordinary moral value, to the troops in the field as well as to the relatives and friends of the dead at home”.  However, Ware and others soon began to grow concerned about the longevity of these sites, and who would care for the graves after the war was over…