The Families Who Never Forgot: Archaeology of The Great War and the Phenomenon of ‘The Missing’


Mr Richard Osgood, Senior Archaeologist for the UK Defence Infrastructure (D.I.O.)

19 October 2014


Richard Osgood works with the Army to help preserve the many ancient monuments on Salisbury Plain, including round barrows and hill forts. He had researched the ANZAC presence on Salisbury Plain during the Great War, and in 2005 published The Unknown Warrior: An Archaeology of the Common Soldier (Sutton Publishing, Stroud). This was essentially a study of the presence of infantry from the Bronze Age to the First World War. His last chapter (of seven) bears the title ‘Marching to Hell: The Poor Bloody Infantry in the First World War’. He points out that in our time, archaeologists have access to the Western Front battle sites before land is disturbed for building or other development, and that new discoveries are constantly being made. This is because of the fact that this part of the war occurred round a trench system running from the Belgian coast through eastern France to the Swiss border, in which hundreds of thousands of men died. Mr Osgood’s research group has links with an historian of the German Army in the U.S.A., and an historian of the British Army based at Durham University.

In his talk, Richard Osgood stressed that ultimately archaeology is about people and their lives, the way the deaths of loved ones affect their families and survivors. A supreme, well-known example of a world-famous figure is that of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and his wife Caroline (‘Carrie’) who lost their only son John at the Battle of Loos in April 1915. John’s body was never found. It is said that Rudyard came to hold an image of his son dying ‘with a smile on his face as he fired on a German machine-gun post close to Chalk Pit Wood.’ Soldiers in John Kipling’s company were interviewed to see if any could provide clues as to how he died. The consensus arrived at, according to Kipling’s biographer, Andrew Lycett, is that John ‘died in agony, with half his head shot away.’ Kipling said some weeks later, in a remarkable public utterance: ‘It was a short life. I’m sorry that all the years’ work ended in that one afternoon - but lots of people are in our position, and it’s something to have bred a man.’

Where men were known to have died, but whose bodies were not traceable, or had no known burial site, the phrase ‘Known Unto God’ came into use, to replace ‘Here lies…’ There are many hundreds of such graves at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ypres (Ieper) where so many Australian, New Zealand and Canadian men are commemorated, alongside men from British regiments. The great battle of Passchendaele took place nearby, beginning with a massive Allied assault on July 31, 1917, and continuing for many weeks. Tyne Cot contains in all 3588 burials, and commemorates 34,872 missing servicemen. In The Unknown Warrior, page 204, Richard Osgood mentions the large Cross of Sacrifice built over one of the huge German concrete blockhouses, visible through a small gap in the Portland stone, and inscribed as having been ‘captured by the Third Australian Division, 4 October 1917.’

Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ypres: site of Blockhouse/memorial; photographed in 2006 by Robert Blackburn

Triumphalism is not a feature of the memorials. At the Butte de Vauquois, 25 km to the west of Verdun, a French poilu is seen armed with a rifle and grenade, looking in the direction of Verdun, one of the war’s longest and bloodiest battles. At the German Langemark Cemetery, four shadowy figures (bronze statues of mourning soldiers) stand over the mass German grave, commemorating over 44,000 German dead. Of these, some 25,000 were buried in a Comrades’ grave (Kameraden Grab) for unknown soldiers from all over Flanders. Richard Osgood mentioned the kneeling man and woman in the German war cemetery at Vladslo, near Diksmuide, north of Ypres, sculpted by the renowned Kathe Kollwitz, whose son Peter is buried there. These two are, of course, mourning parents.

Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres: general view of headstones, 2006. This Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in not far from the site of the Battle of Passchendaele, and most of the dead commemorated were Canadian, Australian, New Zealand or Indian soldiers

Interior view of the Menin Gate, Ypres in 2006. Many of the 55,000 names of the dead can be seen inscribed on the opposite wall

The Käthe Kollwitz mourning parents at Vladslo German War Cemetery, near Diksmuide, Belgium

There are 55,000 names on the Menin Gate at Ypres. Many of the men commemorated on the Gate were atomised by explosions. As everyone knows, the Last Post I sounded by a trumpet-player every evening, in a formal ceremony attended by a great many people, on average 2000. The town of Ypres was completely destroyed in a succession of battles; there were five in all in the Ypres Salient. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, wanted the Old Cloth Hall to be left symbolically as a ruin. Fortunately, this idea was not carried out, and rebuilding of the town, including the Cathedral, began slowly in the 1920s, finally being completed in 1965.The Old Cloth Hall is now a most impressive and technologically up-to-date Museum of the First World War. It was, of course, Churchill who initiated the attack on the Dardanelles in 1915, with the aim of capturing Constantinople, and thus partially knocking Turkey out of the war. The result was the short-lived Gallipoli campaign, one of the biggest Allied disasters of the whole war.

The technology of mines and the technology of poisoning by gas were two of the weapons which made the killing of the Great War so horrifying in its extent. General Bloomer, Commander of the British Second Army, detonated nineteen miles under the German lines. Nineteen out of 21 Allied mines went off ‘successfully’ under the German Front Line.  Siegfried Sassoon, fighting at the Front (he survived, and lived until 1967) saw this as a monumental crime. Tunneller Hackett won the Victoria Cross for his bravery. He stayed behind in the tunnel and was badly burned, while his two companions were rescued.

Crosses at The Vladslo German War Cemetery, near Diksmuide, Belgium

In 1919 the Graves Registration (Act) was passed. Photographs were taken of bodies from a mass grave; the bodies were to be transported by horse and cart to be placed later in single graves. John Laffin, author of Digging up the Diggers’ War, has written about Australian battlefield archaeology. A photograph exists of a man’s grave at Fromelles, on the Somme, from 1916. It shows a man smoking, who was dead within a few minutes of the trench picture being taken. The question might be asked as to whether the Australian training on the Western Front bore fruit in action.

The work of battlefield archaeologists is closely related to up-to-date technology, especially in the field of chemistry and chemical properties. A word of explanation is need at this point. Isotopes figure heavily in this; the word ‘isotope’, deriving from the Greek for ‘the same place’ come in stable and unstable forms.  The broad definition of an isotope is that it is each of two or more forms of the same element, which contains equal numbers of protons, but different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei. Thus they differ in relative atomic mass, but not in chemical properties.   A radioactive isotope is different from a non-radioactive one. Unstable isotopes can spontaneously undergo changes, transforming them into other isotopes of the same or different elements. However, stable isotopes don’t follow this pattern. Some isotopes are very unstable, and exist for less than a second. Others can exist for billions of years, yet still be unstable. In isotopes of an element, the nucleus contains different numbers of neutrons while the numbers of protons remains the same, and determines how the atom behaves chemically.

Battlefield archaeology covers all KIA (Killed in Action), including the buried. Richard Osgood gave the following examples to illustrate the methods applied to contemporary battlefield archaeology:

1.     A corpse was found near the German lines still wearing his boots (One would expect this) He had 150 rounds of ammunition, some dated later than 1917, an iodine capsule, a British helmet of 1916, though he was not wearing it. He actually had his soft capon his head. This was the typical ANZAC ethos, not wearing a helmet. This soldier also had his dish and trench knife, his wallet and coins (some dated after 1916), a water bottle, and his bayonet, a single hand-grenade (he should have had two), a respirator, three gas-masks, a toothbrush, a spoon, an epaulette with a map of Australia, two metal pieces marked AUSTRALIA (one on his shoulder, one in his back pocket) and an Australian Commonwealth Military Forces badge. He had no wire-cutters. The man had just had a haircut, but also had lice. He had a large backpack, though should not have worn this going out to battle. He also had a German spiked helmet (Pickelhaube); the Germans had not worn these for years.  A photograph exists of the Battle of Pozieres, 1915, showing Australian soldiers wearing German helmets. The stable isotopes indicated that he came from Sydney Basin, New South Wales.

2.     The body some thought to be of James Millington, who was five feet seven inches tall, and over thirty years old, was accompanied by his Diary. This indicated a fear of gas. A poem in his Diary shows his view of the Slouch Hat, conveying ethos… The poem also mentions his having a Pickelhaube (see 1). Forensic pathology on this corpse showed that he had dreadful teeth, was a very strong-set individual with major muscle attachments, and SCHMORL’S NODES. These were bits of soft tissue being pushed into the bony tissue of the adjacent vertebrae. He was probably killed by a shell-blast from the left. DNA indicated that he was not Private Millington.

The ruins of the Old Cloth Hall (The Lakenhalle) in the centre of Ypres in 1916

3.     Edward Heath. The question arose here: was this his corpse? There was a picture of Edward Heath’s sister, daughter, and granddaughter. Edward Heath was in the Bush in Australia, one of five hundred Aboriginal soldiers killed in the war. The corpse’s DNA showed that it was not Edward Heath.

4.     Reginald Cowley. A soldier of the 35th Battalion. This corpse had the right isotope, but the DNA was negative.

5.     John Ernest Chapman. He was a miner form Torrington in Devon. There was no DNA match.

6.     Alan James Mather. He was aged 37 at the time of his death at Armentieres. The Red Cross said that he was ‘blown to pieces’. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall, and dental records showed only two fillings. He was a grazier from Inverell, a town in northern New South Wales, Australia, situated on the Macintyre River. The DNA results were positive: it was indeed AJ Mather. There was a photograph of Mather with his family. A funeral was later held, attended by seven family members, including his great-niece and great-nephew, together with three hundred members of the general public. Private Mather was given a standard headstone and five rounds of ammunition were symbolically placed in his grave.

It should be said here that a decision was made in Parliament at Westminster on 4 May 1920 that there was to be no repatriation of fallen soldiers, or any private memorials. British and Empire soldiers were to be buried, or remain buried on the land where they fell in action.  Every soldier’s name would be recorded, either in a cemetery, or on one of a number of larger war memorials. Until 1917, The Imperial War Graves Commission was known as the Graves Registration Commission. It was re-named the Commonwealth War Graves Commission only in 1960.

Three leading architects were asked to implement the principles of the new War Graves Commission - Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield.  The first of the new cemeteries was complete by 1920, and work continued over the following years. On the Somme alone, by 1934, some 150,000 British and Commonwealth dead had been buried in 242 cemeteries. In all, a staggering total of 918 cemeteries were built on the Western Front. There were 580,000 named graves, and 180,000 unidentified graves. Not only that, between 1921 and the autumn of 1939 (the outbreak of the Second World War) the remains of 38,000 men were discovered in Belgium and France, even though the big battlefields had been searched earlier up to six times (information from Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme, Hamish Hamilton, 1994).

In 2009, Richard Osgood and Martin Brown (a specialist military archaeologist with Defence Estates (MOD)) published a detailed account of their work on the battlefield of southern Belgium, in the area around Ploegsteert. This was the place occupied by Australian troops of the 3rd Allied Division, the starting point for the epic Battle of Messines in June 1917. Ploegsteert was known to all Allied troops as Plugstreet, and Brown and Osgood’s beautifully illustrated book tells the story of the Australian troops from their training on Salisbury Plain through to their engagement in the actual fighting, through the archaeological team’s detailed technical exploration of battlefield remains. The title is Digging Up Plugstreet: The Archaeology of a Great War Battlefield (Haynes Publishing, Yeovil, 2009).

© 2016 Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, based on notes taken during Richard Osgood’s talk, and with some additions

The Old Cloth Hall (The Lakenhalle) Ypres, as rebuilt.  Picture taken in 2006. The interior is laid out as a modern Museum of the Great War. The reconstruction of Ypres has been so comprehensive that seeing it now, few would imagine how completely the town was destroyed in 1914-18