CWGC 100th Anniversary – Part VII
27 July 2017

Today we continue our series on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, looking at the labour required to collect the dead amidst the destruction and utter desolation of the battlefield.

(Read last week’s post here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/cwgc-100th-anniversary-part-vi/ )

Following the constitution of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter in May 1917, the Commission was officially charged with the care of the dead from all of the British Empire’s armed forces. The scope and magnitude of such an undertaking was and still is perplexing. Even the seemingly “simple”, (though it never was), task of collecting the bodies represented an astronomical amount of required manpower. An example of the scope of work facing the Commission can be found in the description of Lorette Ridge by Corporal Becker, 75th (Mississauga) Battalion, who observed the area while in the Lens sector during the build up to Hill 70 in July 1917:

A field grave exhumed by a Graves Registration Unit. Such hurried burials and scattered remains would have covered battlefields like Lorette Ridge by the time the Commission could reach them.   
Credit: IWM, Q 100630   © Jeremy Gordon-Smith .

“It was said that the bones of at least 40,000 men were bleaching on that hill… British Labour Battalions were now at work gathering up the remains, identifying them from the discs found here and there among the bones, bundling such personal articles as remained and tagging them for French authorities who would subsequently forward them to next of kin… The memory of that great battlefield is with me yet. I wandered through the shell pitted area frequently in those two weeks and even now can see the white bones, fragments of red pants and blue coats, the small caps… the grey of the German uniforms, the leather boots with foot bones in them, the broken rifles, the rusty ammunition, the skulls – many with bullet holes in them – the watches, decayed leather wallets with personal articles in them, the wire and stumps and stones and trenches and shell holes. It was impossible to identify any particular skeleton… The Labour units had not made much headway on it in the two months they had been there… Here and there one would come upon a rifle stuck bayonet down in the ground with the remains of a cap on the butt – mute evidence of the effort of the soldier whose skeleton lay alongside to bring assistance to him as he lay helplessly wounded – assistance that had not reached him for two and one-half years. I wish that some of our fire-eaters at home could have seen that ground as I saw it in 1917. (Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 105).