When the First World War came to an end in November 1918 war graves were scattered throughout all of the regions where fighting had occurred. The locations and sites of many graves were no longer known, and individuals still lay, unburied, in areas where fighting had been fiercest.
It is in this context that the majority of the CWGC Archive casualty records came in to existence. The Commission was set up to provide perpetual commemoration to those who had died while serving in the Commonwealth forces during the war. However, in order to achieve this aim, it first had to collect the necessary details regarding those individuals, including the location of their graves. This information was provided by Labour Companies and Graves Concentration Units who were set up under the control of the military authorities and tasked with searching for the graves and remains of the war dead, and conducting the battlefield exhumation and reburials which resulted.
Where burials had occurred in established burial grounds, with clearly marked graves, the graves were simply recorded and registered. In most other circumstances, the bodies required exhumation and reburial, during which process attempts were made to identify the individuals.
Old battlefields were searched for small cemeteries (usually of less than 40 graves), isolated graves and the previously unburied dead. All of those found were gathered into 'concentration' cemeteries, either newly created or built up around already existing burial grounds.
Despite the difficulty and unpleasantness of the work, the exhumation squads were methodical and meticulous in their searches and, most of them having seen active service
themselves, were painstaking in their search for anything that would help identify a fallen comrade. Nevertheless, battlefield conditions meant that many of these vital indicators were lost and a high proportion of the bodies found remained unknown.
It was the job of the officer in charge of these search parties to record details about each body recovered, including the location where the remains were found, whether a cross was found on the grave, and any regimental particulars or other means of identification found at the time. These details were written on a ticket which was attached to the remains prior to their removal and reburial. The cemetery officer would be present at each reburial, and it would be his duty to record, on a Burial Return form, all the information that had been written on the original ticket, as well as recording the plot, row and grave number of the reburial. These forms were collected daily and passed to the Army Burial Officer, who would then arrange for a copy to be sent to the Department of Graves Registrations and Enquiries. The Registration officer was then responsible for registering the new graves, and for preparing comprehensive reports of the new cemeteries.
The grave registration, concentration and exhumation records produced as a result of this work were passed to the Imperial War Graves Commission, and form the basis for the information we hold on those we commemorate. From these core records, the Commission was able to produce the various other documents which can be seen here, including the register entries (which provide the basic information about the individual) and headstone schedules (which were used to record what should be engraved on their headstones).
For those with no known graves, the Commission was provided with a list of missing individuals by the relevant military authorities, which allowed the Commission to create their register entries. It also enabled a decision to be made on where the most appropriate place of commemoration was for each individual, and to then set out the design and layout of the memorial panels on which their names would be recorded.
All of these documents were created in the pre computer age, and many of the grave registration and concentration records were usually typed up from hand-written reports produced in the field, in all types of weather and conditions. The records would have been typed up by an army of administrative staff based in offices and base camps at various locations. While the Commission has always strived for accuracy, it is therefore not surprising that mistakes were made in the data recorded, and this partly explains the Commission's desire to contact the individual's next of kin to provide additional verification for the records it held. During the years after the end of the war, the Commission sent out hundreds of thousands of verification forms to next of kin, seeking corroboration of the details it held, and additional information where needed. Where the details recorded on the original documentation was shown to be inaccurate, corrections were made and the documents annotated as required.
British Graves Concentration Units who worked in the Netherlands
1 Grave Concentration Unit
34 Grave Concentration Unit
36 Grave Concentration Unit
39 Grave Concentration Unit
48 Grave Concentration Unit
55 Grave Concentration Unit
80 Grave Concentration Unit
90 Grave Concentration Unit
Canadian Graves Concentration Units who worked in the Netherlands
1 Canadian Graves Concentration Unit
3 Canadian Graves Concentration Unit
During WWII the Grave Registration Units had to see to it that soldiers who were killed were identified and buried. Personal possessions were carefully cataloged and returned to their loved ones back in the States. These men often had to work close to the front-troops. This section of the website will try to give you a better understanding about the work the men of the Graves Registration Units did during WWII.
Leaders had to be experienced in civil engineering and topographical drafting to enable tehm to locate and lay out cemeteries. The remainder of the personnel are trained to supervise the collection and burial. The company did not have sufficient labor or personnel to dig graves or transport the dead. This work was performed by quartermaster service and truck units. The burial was registered on a report of interment and sent through channels to the Quatermaster General.
The Quartermaster graves registration company was the principal unit performing the function of supervising the burial of the dead, of recording and marking graves, collecting, receipting for and disposing of the personal effects of deceased soldiers.
Under combat conditions the Graves Registration Company was ordinarly broken up into it's four platoons. Each one of three platoons then served a combat division. The fourth served the corps troops and assisted the other platoons. A further break-down into sections operating with combat teams was possible.
As soon as a battlefield was free from extreme danger, the operating units entered and picked up the men who had been pronounced dead, and so tagged by the Medical Corps. The bodies were then moved to cemeteries designated by the division commander. Because of the imminence of diseases or in order to maintain morale of the troops, hasty burials were often necessary. In that case the leader would make a sketch so the location of grave could be determined after the cessation of hostilities.
Every effort was made to identify the dead. If identification tags were attached, the problem was comparatively simple; otherwise it was necessary to determine the identity from such clues as letters, dental work, fingerprints and perhaps even the proces of elimination, if the body was badly mutilated.
In the "Stripping Line" grenades and ammunition were removed with great care. In the field the men had to be extra carefull, because booby-traps were sometimes placed under the bodies of the dead soldiers. Personal effects were removed just before burial, placed in a bag or a handkerchief, and tagged with the soldier's name. An inventory of the property was made and sent with the property to Headquarters, Graves Registration Service.
The Graves Registration Company was responsible for the respectful burial of the dead. For this purpose, the service of a chaplain could be obtained. Please look at the next image to have a better understanding of the Grave Registration Unit's work.
Graves Registration Companies who worked in the Netherlands
605 Graves Registration Unit
3059 Graves Registration Company (Groesbeek)
3060 Graves Registration Company
6857 Graves Registration Company
This video contains some disturbing scenes
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Philip Reinders, 2016