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Remembered Today:

Self Combustion Of The Dead


Died-In-Hell

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Died-In-Hell

I’ve been reading Ivan Heald‘s Hero and Humourist and am struck by a passage in it where he describes the dead in no mans land self combusting:

 

“The dead men are not so bad now because most of them are burned. They set alight in some mysterious way and at night you can see them blazing in front of the parapet and all their ammunition exploding like squibs and sending up sparks. 

 

Firstly, does anyone have any evidence to corroborate Heald’s story and secondly, does anyone have any theories as to how this happened?
 

It is important to know that the letter in which he wrote this description was penned in mid September and he states that it is getting much colder as autumn nears...

 

Respectfully Yours

 

Andy 

 

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I suspect it's more likely going to be the burning of the bodies for infection control that it reported to have gone on - to someone who didn't know that someone was out there setting fire to them it would look just like they'd burst in to flames.

 

Craig

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Died-In-Hell

That’s what I thought but he also states that where he is, they are only a dozen yards from the Turks and anyone popping their head up is immediately shot at. I’ve not read any accounts of men crawling out to burn the dead, and considering their just beyond the parapet, wouldn’t crawling out to burn the dead be very risky....elsewhere when reading accounts of the dead laying out in the open, they are there for months just rotting away. 
 

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Died-In-Hell

Thirdly, surely those in the frontline trenches would have been made aware of the fact that someone was out there setting alight the bodies and therefore told not to shoot...?

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clive_hughes

Many years ago when reading an original copy of "Deeds That Thrilled The Empire" (Mainly VC and DCM etc. citations from about 1914-?16) I recall one Western Front Other Rank was decorated at least in part for for going out into No Mans Land at night to investigate a strange light.  When he made his way closer it was seen to be an enemy body which had mysteriously caught fire.  There was even a artist's reconstruction of the scene!  

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Jeff Pickerd

Andy,

 

From the reports of men of the 8th, 9th & 10th Light Horse Regiment's on Russell's Top, the following accounts of bodies being burnt by the Turks were made in the following days from the charge at The Nek, 7th August. Attempts were made by the men of the three regiments of the 3rd light Horse Brigade to try and recover some of the bodies that could be reached lying out from the parapet. Grappling irons were thrown out from the front trenches and saps, to try and drag in bodies; a few were recovered by this method.

 

Sgt Cameron of the 9th LHR wrote in his diary ten days later: “We are still holding Russell’s Top, and the strain is telling terribly on all ranks. Whenever one looks in the direction of the Turkish trenches one sees the bodies of our chaps in almost the same places as were the bodies of the Turks after the 30th June. Nothing can be done to get them buried or brought in except those which are very close to our own trench. The smell is dreadful. Nothing can compare with decomposed human flesh for horror. The intervening space is continually lit by flares and bombs and several bodies have been burnt thus. It seems cruel, but from a health point it is better, whoever does the burning.”

 

Tpr John Mack No. 524, “A” Troop, “A” Sqdn, 8th LHR, in a Red Cross statement on the 1st Oct, stated: “Most of the dead had to be left out on neutral ground but some were burnt by the Turks who saturated the bodies with kerosene after dark and laid a train to their trenches to fire them with.”

 

This is backed by Sgt Gaunt who stated: “Two days later blackened bodies were found burned by the Turks and unrecognizable.”

 

Tpr E. J. Ballinger No. 704 of the 10th LHR also mentioned the fact that bodies were destroyed by kerosene being ignited by the Turks, in a Red Cross Wounded and Missing Statement.

 

The attempt to burn the bodies seems to have been only partially successful, for reports continued to describe the horrific stench of rotting corpses lying out in no-man's land that could not be reached to recover.

 

Jeff

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From the 28th Australian Infantry Bn history (The Project Gutenberg eBook, The 28th: A Record of War Service in the Australian Imperial Force, 1915-19, Vol. I, by Herbert Brayley Collett):

 

The last day of the month was marked during the evening by the arrival of a fog, which seemed to come over Sari Bair from the Asiatic side. It poured down into the valleys—for a time quite obscuring the country to the west and north. The enemy became very restless and shortly opened a heavy rifle and machine fire somewhere to our right. This, combined with a fire which suddenly sprang up in front of the Apex, gave occasion for extra watchfulness, and the reserve companies were ordered to be in readiness to move. By 9 p.m. the fog had cleared and all was quiet again. The fire was believed to have originated through a bullet striking the ammunition in the equipment of one of those who still lay out in front of the trenches. Sometimes the clothing would catch fire and then the body, which for nearly two months had been lying out in the open, would burn for hours. 

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