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I remember how, only a few weeks ago as a train thundered through France, a woman sitting opposite to me in the dining car said "The English". I looked through the window over the green fields, and saw row on row, sharply white against the green, rising with the hill, and dropping again into the hollows - keeping a firm line as they had been taught to do - a battalion on its last parade.

from H.V.Morton: The Heart of London (1925)


Like a peaceful gardenBecause of the scale and chaos of the battlefields at the end of the war there were staggering problems for those trying to recover the bodies of the dead and give them a secure and identifiable resting place. We know how well those responsible succeeded in their task. Seeing the tranquil well-tended gardens in which the armies of the dead lie it might seem now that it was always accepted that the majority of those who had died would remain where they had fallen on the battlefields of the Western Front. But history, as always, is more complex than that.

The Americans, for example, on entering the war, had pledged to bring back any man who might be killed in action. Congress had appropriated over $8 million, or roughly 250 a body for the purpose, and was also willing to pay $650 dollars to any war mother or widow who wanted to travel to Europe to visit a grave. Eventually, around three-quarters of those who died were returned.

Grim task on the quaysideStephen Graham, visiting the devastated regions in 1920, while writing The Challenge of the Dead saw huge stacks of boxes on the quay side at Calais: "At great cost of time and labour the dead soldiers are being removed from the places where they fell and packed in crates for transport to America." There were some unfortunate errors caused by this grim undertaking. Problems over identification were not uncommon, and it was said that more than one US citizen who had returned home from Europe alive and well was shocked to be instructed to go and fetch his own body from the local depot.

American War CemeteryAfter the Great War eight American military cemeteries were established in Europe, two in Belgium, five in France, and one at Brookwood in the UK; containing a total of 31,000 American war graves. Initially it had been planned to mark each grave with a white marble cross, but in 1927 pressure from the organisation of Jewish War Veterans brought about a change in the law and the American Battlefield Monument Commission was obliged to place Star of David markers on the graves of Jewish soldiers buried in war cemeteries in France.

The French of course, had mostly died defending their own country from the invader, and so technically could not be repatriated. France is a large country, however, and there were many bereaved parents and wives living great distances from the devastated regions who wanted their sons and husbands brought back to their home town or village. Emotion was on their side, but so was logic. The living had done their duty and had been demobilised and allowed home; it would be unjust to deny the same rights to their dead comrades.

At first the authorities were inclined to go along with those who took the opposite view, namely that the soldiers should stay on the battlefields where they had so nobly died for their country. The French government declared that it was more fitting, and fairer to the thousands whose relatives had no known grave, that the dead stay where they were, and initially turned down any request for repatriation.

Ossuary at VerdunThey were in favour of grand gestures like the astonishing ossuary at Verdun (pictured left). Here are displayed the bones of thousands of French soldiers reclaimed from battlefield graves, though there are doubts whether it would have been possible to completely distinguish German from Frenchman on that battlefield. It has been claimed that during 1916 at least 1,000 soldiers died for every square metre of that shell-blasted, blood-soaked and now barren land.

But it proved to be impossible to stop private enterprise taking over in the matter of repatriation. There was an undignified trade in dead heroes, when parents made private deals with gravediggers to exhume their sons, then brought them home secretly. This form of bribery was not open to poor parents, who often, when they did manage to scrape together enough money to pay for the long journey to visit their son's grave were distressed to find the ground churned up, and the cemetery in a general state of chaos.

Eventually, in September 1920, the French government gave in, and bereaved families were given the legal right to bring home the bodies of their loved ones at state expense. The process did not always run smoothly. There were frequent disputes over identification of a particular body, or battles for 'custody' of a dead soldier between parents and widows. By the end of 1923, however, some 300,000 French soldiers out of the million who had died in the Great War had returned home

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Aftermath - when the boys came home

Saturday 11 February 2006