|Chaplain of the U.S. 33rd Division Identifying the Dead|
By Colin Baker and Lynn Rainville
The soldiers who died during combat posed an ethical dilemma for their surviving comrades: how to safely and properly care for their corporeal remains while fighting for one’s life? During World War I, temporary burial sites were created that ranged from hastily dug, individual burials to mass graves. Various military units were responsible for managing these temporary resting places, including sanitary squads and the Pioneer Infantry. Military chaplains played an important role in presiding over the funerals for the individuals buried in these impermanent graves. The mass casualties of trench warfare often dictated that chaplains had to bury the dead immediately in the vicinity of the front line, occasionally even under fire. Twenty-three U.S. Army chaplains died during World War I. Several are buried at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery. Many demonstrated tremendous bravery under fire administering last rites to fallen soldiers, oblivious to the fire around them, or dashing out into the open to rescue the wounded without regard for their own lives.
From the military standpoint, identification and burial were matters of both accounting and morale. Nothing was more depressing to the frontline soldier than to see unburied dead around them. For civilians, there was a new human need that diverged from the earlier practice of mass anonymous burials for lower ranks. Because mass “death at a distance” was so traumatic, the public demanded “rights” to recover and identify the body. Families required an individual body or grave as a focus of their grief.
Burial detail, often performed by specialized units, notably African American in the U.S. Army, was among the most unpleasant and unpopular tasks of the war. Burial groups were supplied with rubber gloves, shovels, stakes to mark the location of graves, canvas, and ropes to tie up remains amongst other tools and materials. Men remarked that it was “the most dreadful experience I’ve ever had.” One chaplain assigned to this detail described the post-traumatic effects of such work as causing a trying “of the nerves…and a curious kind of irritability that was quite infectious.”
After the war ended the first burial task was to consolidate thousands of isolated graves, next to combine small cemeteries into larger ones, and finally to locate and identify the large numbers of the missing at cemeteries. Only after this process, in the 1920s, did the re-interment into large permanent cemeteries, such as the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery at Romagne, become feasible.
When hostilities ended, the Americans and their allies had to decide how and where to bury their dead. Mass graves had been commonly used in past conflicts, such as the 6,000 British soldier deaths from cholera during the Crimean War. One could argue that the American ethic of individualism influenced the decision to bury each soldier under a named headstone whenever possible. Moreover, the American ethos of democracy led to the historically unusual circumstances of egalitarian cemetery plots where majors were buried alongside privates. In Europe, America negotiated the long-term lease of hundreds of acres of land in order to bury their dead in "American cemeteries." After World War I, the Americans laid out eight cemeteries along the former "Western Front."
Source: American Battle Monuments Commission, "Teaching with the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery"