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Battlefield Clearance Post War


Guest Ian Bowbrick

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Guest Ian Bowbrick

Are there are papers or articles dealing with the clearance of the Western Front Battlefields after the War. I am aware that units of the Labour Corps (including one of my great-uncles) were retained on re-burying war dead duties, but was there an overall Inspectorate responsible or Plan to deal with the clear up.

Ian

:D

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Hello Ian,

While I cannot provide the answer you are looking for I can provide some information about the subject that might be of interest. After the war was over the German P.O.W.'s were often involved in battlefield cleanup that included filling in trenches, collection of war debris and most likely recovery of bodies.

The oddest thing I found was that a German battalion flag buried in 1914 in Becourt Wood was discovered in 1919 during the cleanup and was hidden around the body of one of the prisoners who successfully kept it secret until he was returned to Germany several years later.

I have come across a number of references of Germans involved in the cleanup, mostly those held by the French. I do not know if this was the same with the British held P.O.W.'s but someone else might know.

Ralph

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The German POWs were forced to clean up from Nov 1918 until March 1920. The responsible French Office was feared due to its brutality and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The name - "Etat Civil"! There is a remarkable book out there, describing the POWs clean-up work and daily life in Etat Civil: "The Invisible Monument", written in German....

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Ian.

There is a (small) section on this subject in Nigel Cave's "Battleground Europe" book (the one that spawned the series)on pages 134 - 135.

This is one of the photos from it.....

Dave.

post-3-1052200537.jpg

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Ian

There seems to be very little on this aspect of the war or so it seems.

I will look out what I have and send copies to you off forum but it is not very much!

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Ian,

If you want a book on this subject try In 'After The Ruins. Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War' (1996) Professor Hugh Clout.

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Hi Ian:

Norm Christie in his For King & Empire series of books devotes 7 pages to clearing the battlefields. Here's a summary of the clearance:

The Royal Engineer Labour Companies were organized to systematically clear individual battlefields. "The exhumation company was organized into squads of 32 men and subdivided into squads of four. Each squad was supplied with a 500-square-yard map (already surveyed and designated by the Survey Officer), two pair of rubber groves, two shovels, stakes to mark the location of graves found, canvas and rope to tie up remains, stretchers, cresol (a poisonous colorless isometric phenol) and wire cutters."

When post war villages were being reconstructed, remains found were recovered by the exhumation company's 'Flying Squads.'

Those in charge of the clearance:

1) Survey Officer - laid out the search area and instructed the exhumation companies where to conduct the search.

2) Army Burial Officer - in charge of the exhumations and completing the paperwork.

3) Registration Officer - responsible for all digging parties inside the permanent cemeteries, digging new graves, erecting crosses, and completing paperwork.

The clearances continued from 1919 to 1921.

Hope this is of some help.

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Ian

"My Boy Jack" by Tonie & Valmai Holt goes into quite a lot of detail on battlefield clearance. The book describes the search for Rudyard Kipling's missing son John ("Jack") who went MIA during the Battle of Loos.

The ground was divided up into grids and searched systematically, sometimes several times by lines of men working across it. When remains were found a Burial Return was completed by the Officer in charge which gave the precise location by reference to the grid eg "G.25" or H.25". Any identification was recorded. Sometimes this would be conclusive Eg ID Disc or letters etc amongst the papers in pockets etc. Rank and unit were also recorded from pips or chevrons on the uniform, cap badges, buttons etc., even were these were unobtainable where possible an attempt was made to distinguish between officer or OR ( eg was he wearing a Sam Browne?). Units could be identified by button arrangement (eg Guards), and in the absence of other evidence an educated guess as to unit could be made depending on the disposition of various units during the battle.

Sadly in many cases the return UBS "Unidentified British Soldier" was made in the Burial Return. Other information given in the Burial Return included whether or not the original grave was marked by a cross? The name of the cemetery for reburial was also recorded, including Plot, Row and Grave number.

Most of the clearance work was undertaken by Labour Companies including Chinese, Russian, and Egyptian commanded by British Officers. Whilst in theory the system was methodical and as accurate as the technology of the time would allow, it was unpleasant work (not many people would have enjoyed going through the pockets of a decayed body), the labourers probably lacked the motivation that comrades of the fallen would have had, and the thoroughness of attempts to identify the bodies may not have been as good as it could have been. This may be a reason why there were so many UBS returns, although in fairness there were numerous other reasons including rats and carrion birds, and in places the relentless pulverisation of the battlefield by artillery.

Tim

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Also have a look at Phillippe Longworth's Unending Vigil, the official history of the Imperial War Graves Commission. It has some very good information on the early days. I think there is a recent reprint of the book, so it shouldn't be hard to find.

Out of my interviews with children of inter-war IWGC-staff I know that their fathers, who were mostly in the post-war labour corps before joining the commission, found the battlefield clearance a most depressing job, worse even than trench-warfare! It seems like none of them really liked talking about it. One man seems to have found dog-tags and bodies near the Bluff, of several men he knew well during the war. He didn't talk about it till just before he died in the mid- 1970's!

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Are the Burial Returns available for public viewing at the PRO or elsewhere? The Holt's book 'My Boy Jack' has reproduced copies of originals.

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What haunted , depressing, God forsaken places those battlefields must have been during the years of clearance - and hugely dangerous as well.

I think a strong nerve would have been needed for the job -especially when working in areas that you had known in the war years. I suppose it is no wonder that those involved did not write of their experiences.

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Guest Ian Bowbrick

Wow!

The Forum as always lives up to its expert reputation!

Everyone/Dave/Ivor, many thanks.

Ian - you're right there mate! Imagine having served on the Western Front, the Armistice comes and you think its all over, then you get posted to do battlefield clearence while your mates are demobbed!

When will the nightmare end :(

Ian

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Ian

I think all the references Iwas going to send you have already been published here.

However it might be worth pointing out a couple of additional points.

In 1919 the Army asked for volunteers to re-enlist for 1 year's service in France for exhumation and reburial duties. They were paid extra money for carrying out this unpleasant work BUT only on the days they were actually employed on exhumation.

Battlefield clearance was extremely dangerous men being injured or killed by unexploded ordnance. Interestingly experience has shown that these casualties do no appear in SDITGW.

We must not forget that Battlefield Clearance was about both reburial and salvage work. For the salvage side have a look at WO 107/ 71 through to WO 107/74.

Finally, at the risk of being pedantic, I would quibble with Norm Christie's reference to Royal Engineers Labour Companies. The R E Labour Companies became part of the Labour Corps in 1917 and these 10 Companies were only a small part of the clearance teams.

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Guest Ian Bowbrick

Ivor,

Many thanks as always. I will check out the WO 107 series next time I am at the NAPRO.

Ian :)

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  • 5 weeks later...
If you want a book on this subject try  'After The Ruins. Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War' (1996) Professor Hugh Clout.

I was given Prof. Clout's book as a birthday present a couple of years ago, mainly, I think, because it was advertised with its cover of a nice 20s railway poster of Amiens. This was the only picture of that kind in it (on it?) and the rest is high-powered technical geography about the restoration. Lots of data, with charts and tables but not a bedtime read and mostly, I seem to remember, about the Southern, French, sections of the line.

There must be somebody who'd like to produce something modern about the gritty and fascinating business of cleaning it all up.

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For what its worth at this late stage, there is also an account by Stephen Graham, author of Private in the Guards, in a later book of his essays. It includes the comments of some of those undertaking disinterment. I am away from home but if of interest I can provide fuller details. I do recall that one of the diggers said that he could quite clearly tell the difference when the spade hit a German or British body - the texture was different! That may sound strange but many soldiers also commented on the very different smell of German bodies and dugouts. I have also seen a German's account that notes that he found British bodies and trenches smelt different, so perhaps the tale was true.

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if of interest I can provide fuller details.

David - I'd be very much interested in any further information that you are able to provide please.

Marc

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David,

I would be fascinated as well in any details you can provide. Details on the book would be interesting also - sounds like a volume for the library.

Patrick

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  • 1 month later...

Apologies for the delay in coming back to you. The book is "The Challenge of the Dead" - described by Graham as " an impression of the battlefields after the war while they still smelt of explosion and death". First published in 1921. My copy is "Benn's Essex Library (Ernest Benn Ltd, London) 1930. As ever Graham wrote with great style and elegance. I have never seen it listed by any dealers - but then I havn't been looking for it!. Try Abe.com. Hope this helps.

Regards

David

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One of my relatives, Captain E H Llewellyn stayed on in France involved in battlefield clearance. He spent his honeymoon in Lille. His daughter, my aunt, sadly died a few days ago. She showed anyone who cared albums of photos taken during the post war period, nothing but desolation. The family still sends a christmas card to his batman's family !

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  • 14 years later...

Has anything been published on the exhumation and reburial of the dead by the Americans?

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   The work of the Chinese Labour Corps seems to be attractting more attention. There are 2 theses available online (from a friendly university library?)-   Neither author seems to have turned these into books

DISSERTATION

The Chinese labor corps in the First World War: Forgotten allies and political pawns

Frey, Shirley; Adam, Thomas (advisor) ; Has-Ellison, John (committee member) ; Reinhardt, Steven (committee member)
ProQuest Dissertations Publishing 2009
ProQuest Dissertations and Theses
 
 
 
 
 
 
DISSERTATION

Calling up the Empire: The British military use of nonwhite labor in France, 1916-1920

Kilson, Robin
ProQuest Dissertations Publishing 1990
ProQuest Dissertations and Theses
 Coloured Lab. Bn. SANLC Chinese Labour Corps British... ). See also, Judith Blick, "The ChineseLabour Corps... Corps: N.J. Griffin, The Use of Chinese 
 
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9 hours ago, Rum Ration said:

Has anything been published on the exhumation and reburial of the dead by the Americans?

 

There is a Dutch language book about the Flanders Field Cemetery in Waregem, see http://www.flandersfieldbook.be/

 

Jan

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