100 years later, war work goes on

Serving soldiers honour Polish Second World War serviceman Jan Skuliniec

The task of identifying World War One soldiers and giving their remains a dignified burial continues

A century after the end of World War One, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission still recovers the remains of soldiers every year and gives them a formal burial.

Remarkably, they can identify some of those they find who died and were left on the battlefield - as was the case as recently as November 7, 2019, when Frederick Thomas Perkins, a corporal with the Essex Regiment was buried at a war cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, Pas-de-Calais. He had been killed in action on April 22, 1917, at the age of 25.

Steve Arnold (pictured, left), the commission’s horticulture technical manager, said: “Officially I am in charge of dealing with maintaining lawns and flowerbeds, but I also recover remains.

“I’m not the only one, there are six or seven of us, but there aren’t many qualified people.

“We recover around 40 soldiers a year. Usually people are doing building work or de-mining prior to putting up a building and find bones, so they stop work and call either the police or us and we take over.”

De-mining is necessary because there is still an enormous amount of unexploded ordnance buried in France’s battlefields.

“These remains are a century old, so what we recover are bones, teeth and metal artefacts – military kit, water flasks, bullets, helmet, rifle, etc – and those are what give an initial identification. We can very quickly know the nationality of the soldier.

“If he was German, we contact their authorities,” Mr Arnold, who is based near Arras, explained.

Once the remains are recovered, they are transferred to offices in Arras where they are cleaned, reassembled and inspected.

“We know the nationality and sometimes the regiment from bits of the kit, and we also look at the location, which can give a clue.

“British soldiers didn’t wear metal dog tags during World War One, which makes identification tricky.

“Many German soldiers had a metal ID disc on them, and later on they wore oval dog tags designed to be snapped in half.

“They had the ID on both halves, so if someone discovered a corpse but couldn’t remove it, they could take the ID away with them, but if the corpse was subsequently lost again, it was still carrying ID.”

British soldiers in World War One usually wore only cardboard dog tags, and fabric badges showing battalion and regiment.

Some soldiers had their own dog tags made, which – even today – makes identification easier. “Many [also] scratched their names or their initials on to their tin mugs, or the barrel of their rifle, or their tin hats.”

The remains of soldiers from World War Two were more thoroughly recovered after the war, and are rarely found nowadays, but due to the conditions of trench warfare and the sheer number of dead, World War One soldiers are still being found.

“Once in a while we find remains that do not have any military metal items with them and we turn those over to the police, because a soldier would always be recovered with at least some military items.” 

Once back in Arras, with the artefacts and remains cleaned and reassembled, everything is photographed and documented.

“We send all the information back to Maidenhead in the UK, where they do the real detective work, hunting through the database to see if they can find a match.

“It’s hard, but because the records are now computerised, I think we identify a larger percentage than they were able to just after the war when they had to hunt through the files.”

A recent case was Dragoon Jan Skuliniec, who served with the 10th Dragoon Regiment of the Polish 1st Armoured Division. He died on August 15, 1944, and was buried in Vendeuvre but his name was wrongly marked on his grave, meaning that after the war he was buried as an unknown soldier in Bayeux War Cemetery.

A local French historian and researcher, Adrian Pohl, tracked down his identity and at a formal ceremony this April he was given a new headstone bearing his correct identity and dates.

His grave will be tended in perpetuity by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Mr Arnold got into the work because his grandfather was a soldier who fought in the war and fell in love with a girl in Belgium.

“So they got married and he never moved back to the UK. My grand-father started work for the War Graves Commission in 1946, and my family have been here ever since, so it really is a family affair.

“When we manage to identify someone and find their relatives, it is wonderful. That’s perfect, but we’re used to not getting names.

“Sometimes I feel a bit guilty that it’s taken us 100 years to recover someone. But at the end of World War One they did really spend a decade actively hunting for the fallen.

“There were so many, they recovered thousands of soldiers, but there were still thousands unfound.

“You can hardly imagine what it must have been like to have gone through four years of war and then return to the trenches and spend 10 years unearthing ordnance and remains. It must have been traumatic.

“And some of those people later became our first gardeners.

“It’s important that we remember. It’s only 100 years ago but it was a sacrifice, and soldiers of today find it comforting when they volunteer to come to France to attend burials.

“They like to know that even if you go missing in action, someone will find you and look after you. It’s the least we can do.”

A new visitor centre is opening this month in Arras, where members of the public can learn more about the work of the commission.

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