Our Soldier Dead
By MAJOR WILLIAM R. WHITE, Q. M. C.
The Quartermaster Review
“* * * We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that their Nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. * * *”
Little did President Lincoln, or those to whom he spoke on that memorable November day at Gettysburg, dream that in a little over fifty years this nation would be called upon to dedicate in foreign lands, the final resting places of the mortal remains of a mighty host of our warrior sons who had made the supreme sacrifice, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Nations, throughout all ages, have always accorded the highest honors to their military heroes and shared for and reverenced their tombs as holy places, but it remained for this country to develop and expand this deeply patriotic sentiment until it includes the grave of the humblest private who has borne arms in its defense.
EARLY BURIAL CONDITIONS
Conditions existing during the earlier wars of this country made burials on the fields of battle, or within the camps and cantonments, imperative, so there is little record of the graves of those who died or were killed in action in our earlier engagements. The number of which there is a record seems pitifully small when compared with the actual number of deaths reported. Even as late as the Civil War no adequate system seems to have been developed for burial of the dead. In 1861, the Quartermaster Department was first charged by the War Department in General Order No. 75, 1861, with care of cemeteries and burial places for our soldier dead, but it was the duty of Commanding Generals to lay off plots of ground in some suitable spot near every battlefield, and to cause the remains of those killed to be interred as soon as it was possible to effect these burials, reporting to The Quartermaster General the name of every officer and soldier who had died. Burials were made by squads detailed for this purpose, by pioneer troops and by prisoners of war; consequently mistakes were frequent, and the number of our unknown dead remained pitifully large.
When the Florida Indian wars closed in 1842, a fund was raised by the officers and men serving in Military Department No. 9, and the remains of those who had died or who were killed in action during these operations, were gathered together and interred in the post cemetery at St. Augustine, Florida, with full military honors. This cemetery has since become the St. Augustine National Cemetery.
After the close of the Mexican War a plot of about two acres was secured in the City of Mexico, and remains of about 750 officers and men who had lost their lives in this war, were recovered and removed to this plot. When it is considered that the casualties of the Mexican War amounted to about 400 officers and 13,000 enlisted men, and that only 750 of these were recovered, the need of an adequate system for the identification and burial of our dead is strikingly brought home to us. The above condition was due to no lack of reverence for our dead, but to conditions existing at the time, such as campaigning in foreign lands, lack of transportation, and the fact that no adequate system for performing this duty had been devised.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the Quartermaster Department began the enormous task of locating the burial places of the dead, exhuming bodies from distant or isolated graves and concentrating them into cemeteries. The difficulties encountered were enormous, especially in making identifications. An extract from a report of Captain James M. Moore, Q.M.C., dated July 3,1865, to Major General M. C. Meigs, The Quartermaster General, concerning this work on the battlefields of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania Court House, will show some of the difficulties encountered at every phase of the work. These extracts read as follows: “The bones of these men were gathered from the ground where they fell, having never been interred.” Another reads, “Hundreds of graves on these battle fields are without any marks whatever to distinguish them.” However in the face of the arduous task, a grateful government bended every effort to overcome the difficulties encountered in order that those who had made the supreme sacrifice might have a final resting place that would be kept sacred forever.
National Cemeteries as they exist today, were first authorized by Section 18 of an Act of Congress approved July 17, 1862. This Act empowered the President to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed and established as national cemeteries for our soldier dead.
A joint resolution, approved April 13, 1866, authorized and required the Secretary of War to take immediate measures to preserve from desecration the graves of the soldiers of the United States who fell during the Civil War. This work went forward so rapidly that by 1873, seventy-five national cemeteries had been established and they contained the graves of 170,162 known and 147,800 unknown Union soldiers. Later on, Congress appropriated funds to mark the graves of the Confederate dead.
After the Mexican War our Army had no foreign service until the Spanish-American War. Then followed the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Our soldier dead from these expeditions were all returned to the homeland and either turned over to relatives or interred in National Cemeteries.
So thoroughly has our government gone into this task of providing proper places for its soldier dead, that today there are 93 National American Cemeteries located as follows: 83 are in the continental limits of the United States, 1 established in Alaska, 1 in Mexico City, 1 in England, 1 in Belgium, and in France.
Arlington National Cemetery, located in the hills of Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, is the largest of our National Cemeteries. It consists of 408 acres and contains the remains of 33,541 known and 4,713 unknown dead. Many of our most famous heroes have found their last resting place in this beautiful spot. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Arlington National Cemetery, and thousands annually make the pilgrimage to this shrine to do homage to one who represents those who gave their all in defense of their country, but who because of war’s chaos remain unidentified.
WORLD WAR PERIOD
We now approach the period of the World War in which this country took up the cause of the Allies in April, 1917. The Secretaries of War and Navy agreed early in March, 1918, to bury all dead abroad and to return these bodies to the United States at some future date, when practicable.
Based on history and past experience, the need of an organization to properly handle and care for our dead was foreseen, and a Graves Registration Service was organized in August, 1917, for the purpose of establishing and caring for cemeteries, marking graves, recording the burials, identification, and reverent handling of the dead.
The adopted plan of operation charged organizations with the duty of burial as a tribute to their dead and the appointment of burial officers by organization commanders. To chaplains generally fell this duty, and it was wonderfully well and conscientiously performed, often under fire. Instructions provided that a chaplain be present at burials, that the whole battlefield be carefully searched to insure no dead being overlooked, that burials in single graves or small isolated groups be avoided, that graves be carefully marked, and every precaution taken to insure respectful handling of bodies and care of valuables found thereon.
Many of the men making up these Graves Registration Units had become incapacitated for active field service, and were quick to grasp the spirit of the organization and the importance of their work. The dead were their “buddies” for whom they were performing a solemn service that the fortunes of war might easily have made necessary for themselves; the agonized pleas for information and consolation came with a force as if from their own relatives. They responded nobly to the appeal with honor and reverence to fallen comrades, and such consolation to the anguished ones as the meager knowledge of their heroes’ burial places could give.
Under the stress of combat, burials of necessity have to be hastily made and ofttimes under fire; consequently, in many instances grave markings were temporary and locations unsuitable. So thoroughly did the personnel of the Graves Registration Service become imbued with the spirit of service for their fallen comrades, that fidelity of identification became almost a religion. No risk was too dangerous, no effort too great, if it promised identification of a “buddy’s” remains. These units followed closely our victorious troops, searching for the unburied, exhuming the hastily buried, and recording the burials. Many difficulties were encountered, but the work went on ceaselessly.
NATIONAL CEMETERIES IN EUROPE PROVIDED
November 11, 1918, saw the end of the war, and the problem of bringing our dead back home, or providing National Cemeteries in Europe for them. During the war a spirit began to develop among relatives back home that they would prefer to have their kin remain where they had fallen. Impetus was given this sentiment by Colonel Roosevelt’s request that the body of his son, Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, should remain where it was buried after he was killed: in which request he used the expression, “where the tree falls, let it lie.” At this time there were about 2,400 American burial places in England, France, Belgium, Italy, Russia, and Germany. A few were in established cemeteries, but most were in temporary cemeteries to meet the emergencies of military operations. These 2,400 burial places were later reduced to about 700.
When the World War finally ended, the records indicated that our casualties amounted to 79,351 killed in action and those who had died in hospitals. Public discussion immediately arose as to the disposition of the remains. The plans advocated ranged from no returns at all to unqualified return of all the bodies. Some people advocated the establishment of one magnificent field of honor, while some objected to any further removal of the bodies. The War Department then caused inquiries to be sent to each emergency address furnished by the soldier, asking an expression of their desires, in each case of death and burial abroad. They were asked to choose between leaving the remains overseas, returning them for burial home or in a National Cemetery. Realizing that the decision was personal and the matter too intimate and holy to warrant official intervention, the War Department made no attempt to influence the decision of the relatives of these deceased soldiers. Final replies to these inquiries indicated that about 65 per cent desired the return of their kin; the remainder desired that their kin remain where they fell.
With the question of policy settled it was now necessary to select the final, permanent cemeteries, as it was utterly impracticable for this government to maintain approximately 700 separate burial plots in Europe. After much careful and thoughtful planning it was decided to establish eight permanent National Cemeteries in Europe for Our World War dead, eternal, golden links of friendship with our associated defenders of freedom, where each lowly, turf-covered grave, each tragic cross, would be a plea for peace; and each recurring Memorial Day relatives of our dead would be joined by our allies in a solemn ceremony of love and tribute, a handclasp of mutual faith and good will, and a reconsecration of peace and harmony among the nations.
Today, the Stars and Stripes float over eight hallowed plots of land in Europe, consecrated by the blood of those who made the supreme sacrifice, our soldier dead. One of these is in England, one in Belgium, and six in France. A World War veteran is in charge of each plot, and by reason of his own experience is able to meet with proper understanding those who come to visit the graves of his fallen comrades. Trees, flowers, shrubs, and winding walks all contribute to the beauty and peaceful atmosphere in which a grateful government has placed the mortal remains of its heroes.
Brookwood American Cemetery, Brookwood, England, about twenty-eight miles from London, consists of 4 1/2 acres and contains the remains of 453 of our American soldier dead. Of this number 411 are knowns and 42 are unknowns.
Flanders Field American Cemetery, Weareghem, Belgium, consists of about 5 acres and contains the remains of 366 of our soldier dead. Of this number 347 are knowns and 19 are unknowns.
The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne-sous-Montfaticon, Meuse, about 128 miles from Paris, consists of 130 acres and is the largest of our European cemeteries. It contains the remains of 14,182 of our soldier dead, of which 13,724 are knowns and 458 are unknowns.
The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Belleau, Aisne, about six miles from Chateau-Thierry and sixty miles from Paris, consists of about 34 acres and contains the remains of 2,271 of our soldier dead. Of this number 2,019 are knowns and 252 are unknowns.
The Suresnes American Cemetery, Suresnes, Seine, near Paris, consists of 7 1/2 acres and contains the remains of 1,534 of our soldier dead. Of this number 1,528 are knowns and 6 are unknowns.
The Somme American Cemetery, Bony Aisne, about 90 miles from Paris, consists of 13 acres and contains the remains of 1,830 of our soldier dead, of which 1,699 are knowns and 131 unknowns.
The Oisne-Aisne American Cemetery, Seringes-et-Nesles, Aisne, about sixty miles from Paris, consists of 32 acres and contains the remains of 6,010 of our soldier dead, of which 5,391 are knowns and 619 unknowns.
The St. Mihiel American Cemetery, Thiaucourt, Meurthe-et-Moselle, about twenty miles from Metz, consists of about 30 acres and contains the remains of 4,151 of our soldier dead, of which 4,034 are knowns and 117 unknowns.
Realizing its obligations, our government made every effort to conform to the wishes of the relatives of its heroic dead, with the result that on November 12, 1919, the first bodies, 114 soldier dead of the North Russia Expedition, arrived in New York City, and the movement of exhuming bodies, returning them to the homeland or concentrating them in foreign cemeteries continued, until on January 1, 1930, the following results had been obtained:
46,291 bodies had been returned to the United States; 30,797 bodies had been concentrated in the eight permanent American cemeteries in Europe; 605 bodies had been shipped, at the request of relatives, to foreign countries; 31 bodies removed to the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial; 28 bodies turned over to relatives for burial in private tombs, at private expense; and 70 bodies remaining where first buried. In addition, there are 3,173 who have been reported missing in action, and whose bodies have not yet been recovered.
PROBLEMS OF IDENTIFICATION
Notwithstanding the fact that every effort was made to identify all bodies recovered, 1,644 of our soldier dead remain unidentified and buried in our National Cemeteries. Compared to previous wars, this number is insignificant and shows the thoroughness in which instructions for the care of the dead were carried out. Many causes contribute to this failure to identify all. Regulations requiring identification tags to be worn were sometimes evaded; tags were lost, or in some instances, destroyed by the manner of death. To this cause may be traced most of the unidentified burials. Where no tags were found bodies were searched for other means of identification, such as letters, photographs, lockets, et cetera. Every clue was followed up, and if failure to identify still resulted, all data was forwarded to the Graves Registration Service in the Office of The Quartermaster General, for further search. In a number of instances, clues that at first seemed insignificant have been patiently followed and absolute identification resulted. This work is being constantly carried on and the number of unknown gradually reduced.
Now, a word about the 3,173 who have been reported missing and whose bodies have not been recovered. At best, a human body is not particularly conspicuous on a modern battlefield, among trenches, shell craters and resulting debris, stretching beyond the limits of vision. This is especially true when it is considered that our uniform is designed to blend with the ground and to render our soldiers as “invisible” as possible to hostile eyes. Further, men were instructed and instinct prompted them, to take advantage of all available means of shelter from the withering fire of the enemy. Anything and any place offering the slightest shelter from those indescribable blasts of death unceasingly sweeping over and around them was taken advantage of. Few, even those who visit the battlefields, can visualize the terrible conflict and its aftermath, fewer still can grasp the enormity of thousands of dead. A minute’s thought here will help one realize the enormity of the task confronting those engaged in this work, and the results shown convince us that a splendid and thorough work has been achieved.
During all the years following the World War, in this work of recovering bodies, establishing identifications, reverently laying away the remains in their final resting place, a grateful government has dealt fairly and honestly with all the relatives of its soldier dead. No deceit was countenanced, nor substitutions attempted. The knowledge of this stand afforded consolation to thousands of mourning widows, mothers and fathers, that cannot be overestimated. Even when cruel necessity compelled admission that an identity could not be established, the bereaved ones would express gratitude for the sincere effort made, allow their grief to be sanctified by the glory of their “unknown’s” achievement, and turn their thoughts to reunion in that great beyond, where all sorrow vanishes and the weary are at rest.
Each of our American cemeteries in Europe has been laid out with most painstaking care. They have been beautified with trees, plants, flowers, and shrubbery. Marble headstones mark each grave. Each cemetery has its chapel. They are now areas of great beauty, and an air of reverence and solemnity pervades the whole scene, so that one visiting these shrines and knowing that their loved ones sleep peacefully there among thousands of their “buddies” who also gave their all, may gratefully say, “My country has kept faith.”