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Before 1800 soldiers killed in combat were generally buried in communal graves which were not marked specifically as military burial sites. Only certain leaders or famous heroes were given the honour of a marked individual war grave. However, in some of the battles in the 19th century, namely the Mexico-American War (1847-1850), the Crimean War at Sebastopol (1856) and Solferino (1859) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the practice of burying soldiers in marked military burial sites was started. However, the remains of the individual soldiers were still not separated into individual graves.


Photograph 1: A British soldier's grave in the Ypres Salient (IWM)The scale of casualties caused by the fighting from the early months of the Great War of 1914-1918 confronted the warring nations with the question of what to do about the burial of the dead. As a result, war graves registration services were set up during or soon after the war.

During the course of the Great War thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefields in individual graves by their comrades; they were buried where they fell in action, in a burial ground on or near the battlefield, or near the field hospital where they died.

The families who had lost a loved one and the soldier's comrades naturally expected that a record of the soldier's grave would be kept for pilgrimage visits or for the body's repatriation.

The difficulty of the task for the war graves registration services was increased by the nature of the fighting, which often moved back and forth over the same ground during the five years of the war in many parts of The Western Front; graves and burial grounds were often damaged by subsequent fighting resulting in the loss of marked graves. Added to this, the technical developments in the weaponry used by all sides frequently caused such dreadful injuries to a man that it was not possible to identify or even find the complete body for burial.

These factors were generally responsible for the high number of "missing" casualties on all sides and for the many thousands of individual graves for which the identity is inscribed as "unknown".

The British & Commonwealth Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme battlefield, France (© memory of the British and Commonwealth dead whose bodies have never been found there are several Memorials to the Missing on the Western Front. One of these is at Thiepval on the Somme battlefield in France. The memorial commemorates the names of 73,357 officers and men for the period from July 1915 to 20 March 1918. This is the largest number of names inscribed on a British memorial on the Western Front.


Photograph 1: (IWM) Neg. no. Q100691: Photograph by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum Department of Photographs

Copyright Joanna Legg & Graham Parker 2000 All rights reserved