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How Many Soldiers Rest in Unnamed Graves?

Discussion in 'World War II Cemeteries' started by Jim, Feb 4, 2012.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    In the great battles on the Russian front hundreds of thousands, nay millions, of German soldiers died. But very few have had their obituary notices in the German newspapers, and in a host of instances their resting places are completely unmarked. This article by J. V. Guerter throws some light on this example of German reticence.

    What happened to the millions of Germans who were killed on the great battlefields of Eastern Europe? Nowhere else in WWII have the dead and wounded approximated in number to the casualties to which we became accustomed in the battles of the Great War of 1914-18. The Germans said very little about the graves containing "the flower of their manhood,” to use Hitler's words. And for good reason. They dare not let the people at home know that the number killed exceeded a few hundred thousand. To ensure the true extent of their dead being kept secret, they "rationed" notices of deaths on active service in the newspapers. Each newspaper had a "ration" of so many obituaries a day. The Nazis feared that if more were published readers might start doing sums in arithmetic and reach the unpleasant truth. During the present comparative "lull," newspapers were allowed to catch up with arrears to a small extent. But the Germans did not during WWII publish a single official casualty list. And they said very little about how they were burying their dead.

    At least half, perhaps more, of the Germans killed on the Russian front lay in unmarked graves. This was only partly due to the methods of modern, war, which resulted in large numbers being marked "Missing, believed killed." It was also due to the desire to hide the true number of dead. When the Russians advanced they passed many German cemeteries varying from a handful of graves at the wayside to very extensive ones covering some acres, like that near Stalingrad. Most of the graves were neatly marked with crosses, some of which appeared to have been produced by mass production methods and sent to the front with typical German thoroughness. All bore the name of the soldier and in many instances his unit. Some of the crosses were Maltese, bearing a swastika, and others the ordinary cross. But the interesting point was this. When it became necessary for the Russians to open a number of graves for reburial of the bodies elsewhere, they found that many of the graves marked with a single cross bearing a single name were in fact "mass graves" containing the bodies of from 30 to 60 German soldiers. The orderliness of the small cemetery suggesting to German soldiers passing for the first time that some small patrol action had taken place, in the neighbourhood, was a complete deception.

    It might well be concluded that it was a planned deception. For when from the grave of "Private Karl Schmidt" the Russians recovered thirty to sixty bodies and re-buried them, they found that the mass graves had been used not for men shattered beyond recognition, but for soldiers still wearing round their neck their identity disk. It would have been simple, even if speed demanded burial in a single grave, to have removed these disks and noted the names of the men buried on a cross or headstone above. But for the Russian opening of the grave, this deception would never have been discovered. Nor was this an isolated instance. Its repetition many times must make us presume that it was the result of official instructions. The Russian explanation is that the Nazis feared the sight of the endless graves would affect the morale of troops going towards the front, and that this dishonest idea was devised to permit burial and yet hide the numbers buried. The German identity disk, incidentally, was a small piece of paper enclosed in a special metal container like a cartridge case with a sealed top. Cremation was used by the Germans in some instances, and mobile crematoriums had been devised for the purpose. But except in emergencies these seem to have been used chiefly for the many victims of their terrorist methods and for the bodies of their enemies. The Germans were a curious blend of scientists and sentimentalists. The scientists knew that cremation was a speedy, hygienic and effective way of disposing of bodies after a big battle. But there is still a deep sentimental aversion to it in Germany. Before the War, prisoners who died in concentration camps and victims of "mercy deaths" were cremated, but earth burial was the more usual method of disposing of the dead.

    The great number of their dead that they had buried in Russia suggested that even the Nazis were uncertain of the effects of wholesale cremation on morale. Cremation seems to have been more extensive during the first hard winter, when burial was impossible with the ground frozen for months. Cremation, incidentally, was the universal method of disposal of their dead by the Japanese, the ashes being sent home in little boxes to the relatives. But thousands of Japanese who perished in the eastern jungles had no grave.

    Rupert Brooke's famous poem, "If I should die ..." contains the phrase," some corner of a foreign field, That is forever England." Few people realise how uniquely English is that conception. The Germans have a horror of being buried in foreign soil. One of the stimulants that Nazi propaganda had been applying to the Russian campaign is the idea that soil in which Germans are buried must be made literally German, that is, enclosed for ever in the German frontiers, in contrast to the poetical conception of Rupert Brooke.


    Battlefield Grave in Libya. A small mound surmounted by his helmet and a rough cross marks the resting-place of the driver of an enemy tank.

    [​IMG]

    Britons who fought the world over for centuries have no feeling like this. Some 725,000 dead of the First Great War whose names are known are buried in 15,000 different places abroad. How uniquely British is the idea is shown by the fact that even our American cousins carried back for burial in the U.S.A. 50,000 of their soldiers who died in France, the result of a pledge given when the U.S. entered the war that not a single American soldier would be buried in foreign soil without the express consent of his next of kin. The fear of being buried in foreign soil undoubtedly played its part in creating the dread of the Russian Front which seemed to be planted in so many German soldiers. The great majority of the two million or more Germans who died in Russia had nothing to mark their graves. Many were buried in the ruins of Russian towns, many blown to pieces, many buried in temporary graves marked with bayonet and helmet in areas which had been fought over in later battles. German mothers and wives at the end of the war received a horrible shock. The work of the Imperial War Graves Commission, which at the end of the First Great War was faced with the formidable task of re-arranging the remains of 1,100,000 dead buried in 100,000 different places, would seem simple compared to that of regularising the graves on the Russian battlefields.


    The massed battles in Russia had been nearer the type of those in 1914-18, which resulted in 300,000 of the British, dead in France having no known graves. The more open warfare in which the British armies had been engaged in this war had resulted in fewer "to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death," to quote the Menin Gate Memorial. The work of marking graves with a temporary wooden cross was carried out overseas by the fighting Services and in the United Kingdom by the Imperial War Graves Commission. In many cases comrades of the dead men had themselves carved beautiful crosses or headstones and erected them.


    WWII had presented another problem, the identification and burial of civilians who died in air raids. Some 13,000 men and women died in London during the great raids, and all but a very small proportion were identified and buried. Where large numbers had perished together, a single grave has not only been necessary but has appealed to the sentiments of relatives who have found unity in their common sorrow at the graveside. On the Continent, where thousands of civilians died in towns and by the roadside as the result of the German attacks, hundreds have not been identified and even lie in unmarked graves. Perhaps the most beautiful memorial is in Rotterdam, where 30,000 were believed to have perished in the most criminal raid of the War. The citizens planted seeds secretly, so that flowers blossomed amid the ruins. As they passed the survivors lifted their hats, to the intense annoyance of the Germans.

    For years after the First Great War unmarked graves of some of the 3,000,000 men who died in France were found, the bodies disinterred and buried again in the war cemeteries. Watches, pencils, the remains of notebooks, often enabled next of kin to identify the remains. One little "cemetery" of British soldiers was found years later when a French youth, talking to English visitors, said he recalled as a small boy seeing Germans burying British soldiers after a skirmish. He led the English visitors to the spot he remembered. Digging revealed the remains, which were in due course identified. The Kaiser's soldiers, at any rate generally buried their enemies decently and there is reason to believe that the Nazi soldiers also whenever possible discharging this time honoured duty with care.
     
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  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    War Graves on Far-Flung Fronts.

    1: One of the innumerable German cemeteries in Russia.
    2: First Army artillerymen place flowers on the grave of a comrade who fell at Tebourba, Tunisia, in November 1942.
    3: Resting place of British and Imperial troops near Tobruk. Each grave has been enclosed to resist the encroachment of desert sand.
    4: Cemetery in Tulagi, N. of Guadalcanal, where lie many of those who were killed in the British naval battles of the Solomon’s.

    [​IMG]
     
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  3. gtblackwell

    gtblackwell Member

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    Jim, this in undoubtedly the most poignant post I am yet to read on this or any other military forum. I have visited the cemeteries over looking Utah beach, Belleau Woods, Florence, Italy, more than a few in Belgium and the Netherlands as well as luxemburg. They are all dignified, rather grand places, well kept. Ironically peaceful. Fitting places for all who are buried there. But reading your post tells of another type of burial, more like the war itself. at Belleau and the rest there is a sense of sadness that so many young men died but a sense of honor to the dead for their sacrifice. For the millions buried in mass graves, to me, a sense of pathos comes out.. In the 70's I was driving with my family from Paris eventually to the Netherlands and stopped an old oak on a hill with what appeared to be an iron fence around it. I stopped to explore and it was a WW1 German cemetery that had 18 or 20 graves in it. Completely rusty, gate askew, overgrown and clearly neglected. It struck me as terribly odd that it was in neglect being so close to Germany Years later, with the help of Google Earth I traced all the possible routes we might have taken and clicked on hundreds of pictures and finally found it again. Now it is completely reworked, a grove of reasonably sized trees with beautiful green grass, new Latin crosses, I expected Maltese, names and ranks carefully incised and all the remains obviously reburied as the layout was widely spread.. Seeing it on my screen made me make a promise that I would return if ever near , a promise I probably will not keep.

    Thank you for your very moving post.

    Gaines
     

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