On 18 November 1918, one week after the armistice had finally brought an end to World War I, George Macdonogh, the Adjutant-General of the British Army, chaired a conference to examine how best to locate and bury the hundreds of thousands of war dead.
One measure agreed at the meeting was to divide the Western Front into sectors: the Canadians would be responsible for searching the Albert/Courcelette area and Vimy Ridge; the Australians for Pozières and Villers-Bretonneux; the French for the Aisne/Marne battleground of 1914; and the British would take charge of the rest.
It would be grisly work, stated Macdonogh, so volunteers would be paid an extra two shillings and six pence a day. The exhumation companies, who with the customary dark humour of the British Tommy dubbed themselves ‘Travelling Garden Parties’, were composed of squads of 32 men each.
Their tools were “two pairs of rubber gloves, two shovels, stakes to mark the location of graves found, canvas and rope to tie up remains, stretchers, cresol [a poisonous and colourless compound] and wire cutters.”
The men who volunteered for the exhumation companies had all fought in the trenches, so they knew the tell-tale signs of where bodies may be found. They looked for grass that had turned slightly blue indicating a body underneath, holes in the ground made by rats digging out a bone, or the butt of a rifle just visible in the mud.
When they located a corpse, the men retrieved the identity discs and personnel effects, then placed the remains on a canvas sheet soaked in cresol.
“Working in the fields digging up the bodies, a very unpleasant job,” wrote Australian Private William McBeath in his diary on 15 April 1919. Two days later, he described how his work was interrupted by an unwelcome visitor: “Working in cemetery. An English lady came over to see her son’s grave, found him lying in a bag and fainted.”
The English poet and writer John Masefield, who had worked as an orderly in a field hospital in France, believed the work of the exhumation companies would prove futile. “The places where they lie will be forgotten or changed,” he wrote in his book The Battle of the Somme.
“Green things will grow, or have already grown, over their graves. It may be that all these dead will some day be removed to a national graveyard.”
But Masefield’s scepticism was misplaced, for he had not reckoned on the efforts of one of the unsung heroes of World War I, Fabian Ware. More than any other person, he ensured that a century after “the war to end all wars”, the graves of the fallen would remain immaculate and honoured.
To read the full feature, grab the November 2018 (issue 61) of History Revealed.