The temporary cemeteries

Throughout the war temporary cemeteries were created near the trenches and the first aid stations, just behind the lines, where the wounded would arrive in great numbers during the fighting. Others were built around the hospitals in the areas to which the soldiers were evacuated to be operated and tended to.

Although the Germans always preferred individual tombs, the British and French military authorities required that mass graves be dug for dead soldiers in the early months of the war. These graves contain maximum six bodies in the case of the British, but up to 100 bodies in the case of the French. The officers, meanwhile, were buried in individual graves.

Soon, however, the soldiers chose to pay tribute to their comrades by digging individual graves. They used wood crosses to identify them. They recorded the position of these graves so that the bodies could be exhumed at the end of the war and returned to their respective families or be buried in official war cemeteries.

From 1915 the French and the British founded special administrations in charge of identifying and registering these graves. In the case of the former, they founded an “état civil du champ de bataille” (civil status service for the battlefields) while the British created the Graves Registration Commission, which subsequently was renamed Commonwealth War Graves Commission on May 21st, 1917.

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  • Army chaplain tending to British graves, first quarter of the 20th century, postcard, coll. Linge © P&K Linge

    This photo shows a temporary British cemetery. The various graves have been carefully marked with stones and wooden crosses were made.

  • English prisoners digging tombs for German soldiers, May 1917, photo, Caverne du Dragon-Musée du Chemin des Dames, Aisne

    This photo was included in an album of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Division. It was taken after the Battle of Arras (9 April-16 May 1917). It shows British soldiers who were captured and who have been ordered to dig graves for the German dead.

  • Six French soldiers praying near graves, first quarter of the 20th century, gelatin silver print on paper, coll. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne

    This photo shows French soldiers in a temporary cemetery.

Army chaplain tending British gravesEnglish prisoners digging tombs for German soldierssix French soldiers praying near graves