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Burying the Dead


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What units were responsible for removal of the dead from the trenches and their internment in cemeteries behind the lines? I originally thought it fell under the field ambulances, but after pouring over pages of war diaries I have yet to find that listed as one of their duties, even before a known offensive or attack. Was it just understood that the FA would bury the dead, or was it the responsibility of the individual regiments to bury their own dead?

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One of the overriding impressions of the Western Front was the stench of rotting human and animal corpses and the millions of rats that fed on their corpses.  In his biography William Orpen, war artist, recalled an officer who remarked that anyone who had been there could paint the Somme from memory but 'not one could paint the smell'.

In other words after a major offensive many bodies remained where they fell or sank into the mud with the wounded often crawling into a shell hole to quietly die.

 

As the cited article above notes, for the first time under the terms of the Geneva Convention 1906 the Army was given responsibility for the disposal of both their own and the enemy dead. , Field Service Regulations 1909 Part II (as amended 1913) set out the procedure for dealing with the dead. including the enemy, and their effects.  This was largely administrative and it seems the presumption was that the dead would be buried as required by the Convention rather than thrown into a nameless pit.  In the event the casualties of the war overwhelmed this responsibility and the Army’s response is described in the article.


If a man was killed in the daily attrition of trench warfare then he might be given a hasty burial, usually at night. The responsibility for the administration of his death would fall to his Commanding Officer.

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193872

 

Every medical facility in the evacuation chain had provision for a mortuary it might be just a tent or an outbuilding where the dead were placed to await burial.

 

In major offensives the CCS were reinforced by fifty men who were unfit for front line duty, later in the war by  men who were being treated for venereal disease.  These men were used to unload casualties, cleaning duties and burials.  It was exhausting and arduous work.

In the Bickersteth diaries Julian (an army chaplain) describes his duties at a CCS after the opening days of the Battle of the Somme, and the exhaustion of everyone dealing with the wounded.  After four days all the casualties  had been evacuated but they were left with seventy dead with no-one to bury them. 

The Assistant Provost Marshal tells Julian he will get some men, presumably these were defaulters or even prisoners he does not say.   Julian notes it was impossible to dig single graves so they dug a shallow trench and laid the dead side by side. 

 

In the rear areas in the Base Hospitals men who were on ‘Base Details’ performed a similar function to these 'fatigue parties'.

 

Ken

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To put this thread into context, I'm frying to locate information on the burials of twelve men of the 12th Bn. Royal Scots who were killed by a single German shell in the QUARRY at 36c.S.8.b.3.8 on 6/9/16. Nine of them are buried in Villers Station Cemetery and one is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. The identity of the remaining two killed are unknown to me. I searched war diaries for the 12th RS, the 27th Brigade, the 27th Field Ambulance and the 9th Division and no mention of burials, burial officers or cemeteries. Any suggestions on where to find this information?

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Are the 9 men later concentrations? If not one would think they arrived at Villers Station as wounded. CWGC doesn't give much detail other than VS was used by commonwealth field ambulances predominately Canadians.

Try the other 9th Division FAs, see if they mention VS. Ditto for 9th Division ADMS.

Failing that you'd need to know the Corps for 9th Div. as an FA from another division may have been based at VS.

TEW

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TEW, feel free to follow this post to get up to speed on this thread - too much to type!

 

"Wartime Burial Information"

 

I look forward to your input and assistance!

 

Regards,

 

Steve

 

 

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Had a quick look and the SAFA were based at Villers au Bois 6/9/16. However, it seems they were running Baths, Laundry and a sick centre 11/8/16 and were still there as far as I can see for 6/9/16.

9th (Seaforths) Pioneers were building a workshop at Villers 9/9/16, can't make out what it was for though.

9th Div. were with IV corps along with 37 & 63 (RN) divisions.

TEW

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If it helps at all the 9th ADMS diary has a diagram for evacuations for end of Aug 16. There was an RAP not far from the quarry with two routes to the rear. One by duck boards via Souchez to ADS or via another RAP down First Avenue to ADS at Cabaret Rouge. The latter RAP run by 28 FA.

Saw no mention of a light railway being used for wounded (although I wasn't looking for that at the time).

TEW

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2 minutes ago, TEW said:

If it helps at all the 9th ADMS diary has a diagram for evacuations for end of Aug 16. There was an RAP not far from the quarry with two routes to the rear. One by duck boards via Souchez to ADS or via another RAP down First Avenue to ADS at Cabaret Rouge. The latter RAP run by 28 FA.

Saw no mention of a light railway being used for wounded (although I wasn't looking for that at the time).

TEW

Thanks TEW - I did come across that in the diary; I checked the 28th and 27th FA with no mention of the 12 killed - only the 14 admitted. I'm currently checking the list of all those killed on 6/9/16 to see it someone stands out - all 700 in total!

 

I did come across a Pte WA Hurley 7412, 1st South African Infantry Regiment, that was killed on 6/9/16. The 1st SA was moving into the trenches when the shell fell. Their war diary mentions one killed by shellfire during the relief - perhaps he was one of the two unidentified. The 12th RS only mentions "Casualties during relief 12 killed (3 died of wounds) 14 wounded."

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SAFA diary for 3/9/16 shows they attached one NCO and 12 men to 12/RS for temporary duty.

 

It did occur to me that with Baths set up at Villers au Bois and having discovered that numerous huts, workshops and billets were under construction around Villers au Bois at the time it seems to be a busy place with lots of potential workforce at hand.

 

Diary for 20th Sanitary Section, 9th Division. has a fair bit to say about units around Villiers au Bois;

24/8/1916 A good report from Villers au Bois re 27th Inf Bde HQ, Signals, TMB, 11th Entrenching Btn, 9th Staffords & 8th Lincolns.

 

Nothing that mentions burials or cemetery but perhaps the Sanitary Section had a role?

 

19 hours ago, TEW said:

9th (Seaforths) Pioneers were building a workshop at Villers 9/9/16, can't make out what it was for though.

 

Seems this was a Divisional workshop for the manuafacture of sanitary apparatus!

TEW

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TEW was that South African Field Ambulance? Where did you find their war diary? If on Ancestry, under what heading did you search? I'm more convinced the two I cannot account for were South Africans.

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Yes, South African Field Ambulance and not easy to find on ancestry. I tried the piece number (1760) in keyword box with no luck. I then got fed up so just found any old diary and edited the url to read 1760!

 

However, I think it can be found under Various (Divisional Troops) - 9th Division.  Then piece 1760 etc. 20th Sanitary Section is in same dairy.

 

I wasn't suggesting the NCO & 12 Men attached to 12/RS were wounded or missing. I would guess those men dealt with the 12/RS men wounded 6/9/16.

TEW

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  • 1 month later...
On 20/11/2019 at 04:35, stevie1944 said:

What units were responsible for removal of the dead from the trenches and their internment in cemeteries behind the lines? I originally thought it fell under the field ambulances, but after pouring over pages of war diaries I have yet to find that listed as one of their duties, even before a known offensive or attack. Was it just understood that the FA would bury the dead, or was it the responsibility of the individual regiments to bury their own dead?

While researching for my Grandfathers diaries I came across an entry in the war diary of the 7th battalion East Surrey Regt "The crowds in the trenches is terrible, we have only 1,000 yards of front and there are two regiments in the trenches as well as about a thousand cavalry who are burying" 3rd October 1915.

 

In an earlier entry my Grandfather writes, "Our Chaplain buried two men today, the funeral was shelled in the process, so they all had to take cover, some of them throwing themselves into the grave which they had dug."

Dave D

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stevie1944
4 hours ago, RegHannay said:

While researching for my Grandfathers diaries I came across an entry in the war diary of the 7th battalion East Surrey Regt "The crowds in the trenches is terrible, we have only 1,000 yards of front and there are two regiments in the trenches as well as about a thousand cavalry who are burying" 3rd October 1915.

 

In an earlier entry my Grandfather writes, "Our Chaplain buried two men today, the funeral was shelled in the process, so they all had to take cover, some of them throwing themselves into the grave which they had dug."

Dave D

Dave, very poignant reading. It appears that the men buried their own that were killed in the trenches. Thank you for the reply - Steve

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There are entries in war diaries when relieving battalions complained that the previous occupants had not buried their dead.

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53 minutes ago, squirrel said:

There are entries in war diaries when relieving battalions complained that the previous occupants had not buried their dead.

 Morning Squirrel, Probably far to dangerous to the living to attempt retrieval of the dead. In the diaries my Grandfather talks about the brave Highlanders lying where they fell the first day of the Battle of Loos, days after the battle.  "It was a typical battlefield, littered with bodies of our brave Highlanders who led the assault with bombing parties. They still lay stiff with their arms outstretched in the act of throwing the bomb." It was the same for the German dead, he writes about entering the German trenches where a good many dead littered the trenches and dug outs.

Dave D

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10 hours ago, stevie1944 said:

Dave, very poignant reading. It appears that the men buried their own that were killed in the trenches. Thank you for the reply - Steve

Stevie, It seems attempts were made when feasible, the burial of the two men by the Chaplain would have been at the hospital set up at Armentieres behind the lines, but, still a dangerous occupation it seems!

Dave D

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