Archaeologists looking for war poet Wilfred Owens’s trench dugout on the Somme found the remains of three fallen soldiers.

By Evelyn McKechnie

Television crew and archaeologists at Serre on the Somme in October 2003

So what happens to the missing when they are found, and should we go looking for them?

The woman gently held the poppy petals clasped in her hand and waited. She was judging the direction of the wind which was blowing across the peaceful, rolling landscape of the Somme. When she released them the petals floated down perfectly onto the gravesite of the exhumed soldier. It was a beautiful, mild, sunny day in October 2003 in the small hamlet of Serre, a million light-years away from the horror of war that was the Somme in 1916.

Trench system where the soldiers were found in 2003 – this part is were the British soldier was located

She knew the battlefield archaeological dig site, looking for Wilfred Owen’s trench dugout, had uncovered the remains of a soldier and came to ask if it was okay to pay her respects. It was her solitary act of remembrance to the fallen and to one of the 1,979,556 missing soldiers from all nations that fought in the ‘Great War’. So many still missing that if you walk six paces in any direction on the front line, you would be walking on a grave. 

It was hard not to be moved by her simple token of remembrance and the archaeologists who were used to exhuming human remains were affected in a way they had not experienced before. The soldier was somebody’s son, husband or brother and the woman told them she was glad he had been found. It was as though she came to represent all those who died with her name on their lips – mother – in French, German and English. The archaeologists did not know the woman’s name but they might be able to name the soldier who had lain under the ground in the Somme for the past 85 years. 

A simple cross in remembrance – photo credit Daniel Macrae

By his shoulder tags, they knew he was probably from the Kings Own Lancashire Regiment and possibly one of their 19 stretcher bearers who are still missing. He was found lying at the bottom of the trench his hands clasped around barbed wire. Rats had given him no peace even in death as they had burrowed through his pelvic bones and made their nest in his lower back all those years ago.

photo credit Daniel Macrae

It would take time to identify him but it could be possible. 50% of those dying on the battlefield in the First World War had no known grave, and there are over 350,000 British missing. Unlike their German counterparts, the British had no aluminium dog tags. They were issued with only one dog tag made of compressed cardboard, a kind of fibrous material that decayed in the mud after their death.

It was only after the end of the Somme battle in November 1916 that British soldiers were issued with two dog tags. Some soldiers, however, would buy private aluminium bracelets behind the lines in the villages or they would scratch their name and service number onto something personal like their spoon. The British soldier’s final resting place would be only a few metres away at Serre No 2 Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in France where over 7,000 soldiers are interred. He would be at rest with his comrades.

Painstaking effort of the team at Serre – photo credit Daniel Macrae

Looking around from the dig site, it is hard to comprehend the horror that existed here during the Great War. The Somme at Serre is a rolling landscape with no hedgerows, so the horizon surrounds you. A small horse clip-clops by with an open carriage carrying a middle-aged couple. The turnips are piled high at the edges of the fields and the shooting season has begun. Lots of French farmers stand around the fields looking for their first kill, their dogs bounding along in the thick Somme soil, the sounds of shooting boom across the countryside. 

Just half a metre below the surface lies a pulverised battlefield full of shells, pickets and barbed wire – photo credit Daniel Macrae

The front line of the Somme in July 1916 was only 22 miles long, from Gommecourt in the North to Maricourt in the South, yet it witnessed the most appalling losses of the British Army, with 19,000 dead in a matter of hours and 36,000 wounded. The battle continued until the 18th November 1916, eight miles were advanced and the cost was 420,000 casualties sustained in the four months of fighting.

The Northern Pals Battalions of Sheffield, Bradford, Accrington and Leeds were wiped out at Serre in the murderous first minutes of the battle on July 1st, 1916. ‘Two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying’ is one famous quote on the fate of the ‘Pals’. The ‘Pals’ were battalions made up of volunteers from the same area who all joined up together as part of Kitchener’s Army.

Another soldier is recovered from where he fell in 1916 – photo credit Daniel Macrae

One and half million artillery shells were fired in the bombardment of the Somme battle but a third were duds. This contributed to the thick wire in front of the German trenches not being cut and the Germans were able to crawl up from their deep dugouts in the chalk to man their Maxim machine guns to an appalling effect. That is why the Somme is the final resting place for so many of Owen’s ‘Doomed Youth’. The British soldiers walked out the trenches burdened with 66 pounds of equipment to occupy and consolidate trenches that were supposed to have been obliterated of all Germans – but they were cut to pieces.

Even today, you can see the physical signs of the First World War still in evidence. The trench systems can still be seen from the air as chalky lines through the Somme. After the war they were filled in with chalk by the farmers and even after 85 years, the trench lines are still visible crisscrossing the landscape. There is also the ‘Iron Harvest’ of unexploded artillery shells which are still being ploughed up each year and are collected annually for disposal.

More shells recovered from the battlefield – photo credit Daniel Macrae

But it was what happened in Serre in 1917 that brought the archaeologists to this sector of the front line. The earth was being opened up to once again lay bare the physical evidence of the horrible nature of the ‘Great War’ which lies just beneath the tranquil fields of the Somme. The archaeologists continued to excavate part of the battlefield close to Beaumont Hamel and not far from Auchonvillers. They had been commissioned by the BBC, ‘Meet the Ancestors’ programmers, to search for the former German dugout that Wilfred Owen, the war poet, occupied with his platoon.

On 12th January 1917, eight weeks after the ‘official’ end of the Battle of the Somme, Owen occupied the ‘advance post’, a former German dugout after crawling through No Mans Land with 25 soldiers of A Company of the 2nd Manchesters. Because it was a German dugout the stairway of the dugout faced the Germans lines, so Owen posted a sentry. After a heavy bombardment, the sentry was blown down into the dugout and blinded. This incident inspired Owen to write one of his most famous poems, ‘The Sentry’. Owen and his men were finally relieved 50 hours later by the 15th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, a Glasgow Pals battalion made up men from Glasgow Corporation Tramways. 

Wilfred Owen

Owen wrote to his mother on the 16th January 1917 about his experience in the dugout and that he had suffered ‘seventh hell’ that he was ‘not at the front but in front of it’. He went on to describe in the same letter the mud of the Somme, as ‘not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4 and 5 feet deep’.

The same sucking clay was in evidence 85 years later. It stuck to your shoes building up layer upon layer as you walked and it wasn’t even raining. Passchendaele was even worse for mud, men could fall off the duckboard walkways and just simply disappear.

The dig unearthed part of a trench complete with four separate layers of duckboards, numerous artillery shells, bullets, barbed wire, British toffee apple bombs and the bodies of a further two German soldiers. The bodies were removed to the small French Memorial chapel nearby.

The French Chapel at Serre where the soldiers were taken after being found

The chapel is within sight of the dig and across the road from Serre No 1 Cemetery and the French National Cemetery at Serre-Hebuterne. The German equivalent of the Commonwealth Graves Commission is the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfürsorge and the German soldiers would be reburied in the mass grave of the ‘Comrades Garden’ at Fricourt, the German cemetery a few miles to the south of Serre. 

Serre No 2 Cemetery in the background to the left

If the British soldier found at Serre is ever identified his name will be taken off the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing (containing over 72,000 names) as he will no longer be missing. The missing are still being found, usually when construction takes place over a battlefield area. An example of this is Boezinge, a village north of Ypres in Belgium.

Memorial at the battlefield location today in remembrance of all the soldiers found there

The local amateur-‘archaeologists’ called ‘the Diggers’ are enthusiasts with a passion for the Great War in the Ypres area, and at this particular time in 2003, had found remains of 172 soldiers. As Aurel Sercu, one of the diggers explains, “Most of them were fragmentary, as they often were found in no man’s land, an area that had been heavily shelled. Only a few dozen appeared to have been buried on the battlefield by their comrades. As to the nationalities, almost half of them were British, one third was German, and the rest were French. That number of 172, of course, is almost negligible when compared to the estimated 50,000 who have not found a known grave in the whole Ypres Salient.”

Soldiers struggle to build a road to Menin – the mud of the Ypres Salient -The National Library of Scotland License: CC BY 4.0

Only one soldier has been identified, as Aurel explains, “Unfortunately so far only one has been identified (a French soldier who had an identity disc)”. He continues, “Boezinge battlefield site is rapidly becoming an industrial estate. In a way, this point of view makes sense. And life (and economy) goes on here in this area. But indeed, where construction is being pursued on a battlefield site, efforts should be made to check for remains of fallen soldiers”.

What about some people who hold the view that they should rest in peace? Aurel Sercu says, “Sure, remains may be resting below some factory plants right now. On the other hand, what cannot be tolerated is that during works bones would be tossed about by bulldozers and excavators. So, if possible, remains have to be exhumed before or during works, to be reburied on a better place, where they belong, with their comrades, in a cemetery. And there can be no doubt at all about this, when remains are found, they have to be treated with all the respect they deserve. Also out of respect for the relatives, though they are never found and so never are aware of a (great) grandfather or great uncle being found somewhere in Flanders Fields.

Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery on the horizon on the Somme

In Belgium, when remains are found they are handed over to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ypres, the German equivalent Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfürsorge, or the French Embassy. But as Aurel Sercu maintains, not every country treats their returned fallen the same, “One of the most striking things in the past was the difference in which the different nationalities were treated, more specifically about identification and reburial. There was hardly any response as to German remains, and what we regretted most of all was that there was no ceremony whatsoever when they were reburied (actually, added to the mass grave at the Soldatenfriedhof in Langemark). But things have changed, and we are very pleased with that, last June there was a ceremony when a few dozen German remains were reburied. And that’s the way it should be“.

Back in the Somme, the huge Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, dominates the skyline with 72,000 names inscribed on its walls. Sir Frank Sanderson, head of the fundraising committee for the new Thiepval Visitor Memorial Centre to the Missing believes that “we should not go disturbing the dead and should be left to rest in peace”.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme

The Thiepval Visitor Centre was a joint venture between the Conseil général de la Somme and the Thiepval Project. The Centre which opened in 2004, contains information on Thiepval, the Lutyens memorial, the 1916 battle of the Somme and the Great War. It is managed by Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne.

During excavations for the foundations of the Thiepval Visitor Centre six German soldiers were found. They were carefully unearthed by the Service des Sépultures Militaires in the presence of British experts from the Durand Group and after a short stay in the Commission morgue in Beaurains, were taken in charge by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge.  

Sir Frank Sanderson, “if remains are found, then they must be treated with the utmost respect, but we should not go looking for them”. A ground-penetrating radar search had been conducted before the construction under the supervision of individual members of the Durand Group who are a voluntary mainly British group representing a wide range of specialist skills. They included serving and retired military officers, historians, and specialists in Great War artefacts, engineering, surveying, construction and explosives. Some have voluntarily assisted the Thiepval Visitor Centre project in a variety of capacities; predominantly doing historical research and investigation and advice regarding possible subsurface features. 

Sir Frank Sanderson, “the centre will be built with the least disturbance to the fallen, it is only right and proper, respect is the keyword. We have to have respect.” He explains there are two schools of thought, “One that feels that the Great War battlefield should be classed in the same way as a Gallo-Roman archaeological site and treated accordingly, thus showing respect to the bodies so carefully exposed (and inspected). The other feels that with tens of thousands of square miles of the battlefields where our grandfathers died, the most realistic and respectful thing to do on the thousands of building sites all over the region is to move the earth carefully, remove any human bones respectfully and rebury them with honour. Overzealous examination of bones can appear as disrespectful as a too speedy and careless removal. There are of course exceptions to both of these ’rules’. The worst and most common thing, I fear, is to not even keep a watch out for bones, they only cause delay”.

The Thiepval Memorial Visitor Centre which opened in 2004

The archaeologists, on the other hand, would take every opportunity to examine in depth the former battlefields being excavated for construction but some would argue like Sir Frank Sanderson, they are with their comrades already and should be left in peace. “At Thiepval, the missing are all around us. War is horrible and we don’t expiate our sins by searching for bodies, disturbing their peace, and reburying them miles away.  Pray for their souls and if possible leave their former human remains untouched, seems to be my feeling”. 

The woman at Serre was contented because one of the ‘Missing’ had been found, but in all eventuality, he will only be moved a few hundred metres to a British cemetery to Serre No 2 Cemetery.

Serre No 2 Cemetery – the largest on the Somme

The Somme and the First World War battlefields still draw thousands of visitors every year to visit the many cemeteries and memorials or to field walk the newly ploughed fields that churn up battlefield debris every year in March and October. But anyone visiting the Somme cannot fail to be moved by the sheer scale of the slaughter, you only need to look at the number of cemeteries on every horizon, it is a very moving experience.

Update: I will be publishing a blog with the story of the German soldier found on this dig who was later identified.

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Thanks for reading. Evelyn McKechnie

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