Teacher guide

During the First World War the production and use of arms of large-scale destruction was quite widespread. The unprecedented carnage caused by this industrial and technological war and the pressure of civil society profoundly changed the relation of nations vis-à-vis their fallen soldiers. In the nineteenth century, when one died on a battlefield, this was considered "a collective fatality whereby the dead person died and became anonymous all at once"1. The common grave was used to bury soldiers while their commanding officers were buried in individual graves. These summary burials of soldiers in the battlefields were customary because the battlefields had to be cleaned up as quickly as possible.

Individual graves

The Great War, however, heralded a change in mentality and gave rise to a profound respect for the individuality of the dead. As a result the material and administrative management of the soldiers' bodies was organised. This management is illustrated by three documents that explain the last movements of the bodies of soldiers.

This sketch shows the design for the military section, by the municipal architect of the City of Laon in November 1918 for the municipal cemetery of Saint-Just, just a few days after the Armistice. Like the photo of the soldiers praying near the tomb, it reveals a phase of the burial practices that were common at the time.

Thierry Hardier and Jean-François Jagielski2 wrote that French military regulations until 1915 decreed that the dead had to be buried near the battlefields in the graves dug by the labour troops under the supervision of the sanitary officers. There could not be more than 100 bodies in a grave (6 for the British, whereas the Germans preferred individual graves). The common graves were designed to facilitate the exhausting work of the ambulance men and gravediggers during mortality peaks after violent and sustained battles. From the onset of the war, graves were improvised on the spot where soldiers died: the crater of a shell, in the middle of a forest or on the edge of a village. Provisional burials were also organised near first aid stations or military hospitals. But given that this was a war of position the soldiers ended up digging more and more individual tombs, each different from the next, in order to honour their comrades who had died for France. The military authorities thus sought to take this change in mentality into account.

The French law of December, 29th 1915 decreed that all French and Allied forces which died in France were entitled to a perpetual resting place in French soil. The death certificate of war victims had to include the reference “died for France”. The individual sacrifices were also recognised thanks to the practical measures that were taken in the zones where the armies resided or in the cemeteries of the hospitals behind the frontlines: the common grave was abandoned and soldiers were henceforth buried in individual graves. All the Allied forces adopted this custom. Their provisional character, however, was recognised. A proper identification of the dead would allow for exhumation at a later date. At the time these graves were marked with simple wooden crosses (see document 1).

In order to ensure a better registration of the graves and to better inform the families concerned the French General Headquarters in 1915 created a civil status service for the battlefields which was in charge of identifying, grouping and recording war graves. On the British side, the Graves Registration Commission, which would go on to become the future Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was created that same year. Soon, however, the mayors of the villages and cities in the former war zones became the privileged partners of the military civil status service in the field, as they faced the difficult task of burying the dead.

Permanent cemeteries

 After the Armistice, the issue of the dead, especially their regrouping in permanent national cemeteries, would be the main concern of the warring parties. At Laon, those soldiers who died in the region between August 2nd, 1914 and October 24th, 1919 are buried in the municipal cemeteries, like the one of Saint-Just (621 graves). Only Allied soldiers are buried here, as the Germans have their own cemeteries (extension of the law of December 29th, 1915 to former enemies, on June 28th, 1922). The Senegalese infantrymen are grouped under the designation “Noirs” or “Blacks”. No reference is made to their native country. At the time the cemetery of Saint-Just was only a provisional location. National cemeteries were created soon after to group the bodies of soldiers who died in this zone. Although the act of July 31st, 1920 sanctioned the restitution, at the State’s expense, of bodies to families who requested this, most of the dead, whether they were identified or not, were buried in national cemeteries.

As soon as the conflict ended, the winners and the losers started to establish a new type of cemetery, of a scale that was in keeping with an industrial war. The Act of November 25th, 1918 established a National Graves Commission to define the basic architectural principles for military cemeteries: they had to have a simple, pure, repetitive shape (different for each nation); grouping by nationality; standard crosses and tombstones in durable materials: limestone for the British; armed concrete, and subsequently composite cement for the French; stone or aluminium for the Germans (after Yves Le Maner, "General principles for laying out war cemeteries", http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/). These cemeteries were designed as memorials, as well as being places where the families and friends of the fallen soldiers could pay their last respects to the dead.

The Chinese cemetery of Nolette, near Noyelles-sur-Mer, in the arrondissement of Abbeville (Somme) is a perfect example of the aesthetic criteria which the British applied to their cemeteries. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers travelled to France in 1917 as labour for the French and British armies. The agreements signed between the Chinese on the one hand and the French and the British on the other hand, from the end of 1916 onwards, stipulated that the men recruited by these armies would not see any warfare. They were sent to France and Belgium as labour in the arms factories, in the ports, to build railways, clean up the battlefields...

These Chinese workers, which were stationed together in camps, lived in terrible hygienic conditions and the harsh climate was also an issue for them. Several of them fell ill and died, notably at Noyelles-sur-Mer. Others died during bomb attacks or because ammunition exploded. Their bodies were provisionally buried near the site where they died. At the end of the war the British army built cemeteries, like the one at Noyelles-sur-Mer in the Somme. It takes into account the origin of the people who are buried here, in combination with all the aesthetic features of British cemeteries (tombstones, rosebushes...). The trees that were planted here are a reference to their native countries: three Lebanese cedars, pines and loads of chrysanthemums. The white marble tombstones bear inscriptions in Chinese and in English and the gateway to the cemetery serves as a memorial. Each tomb bears the Chinese name of a worker and its phonetic transcription. The British authorities also chose and translated a Chinese formula for each of them: "A noble duty bravely done"; "A good reputation for ever"; "A little man but a great heart".

The following resources were used to draft this sheet:

  • HARDIER Thierry, JAGIELSKI Jean-François, "Le Corps des disparus durant la Grande Guerre: l’impossible deuil", in Quasimodo, no. 9, Spring 2006, pp.75-95;
  • LE MANER Yves, "General principles for laying out war cemeteries", http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/;
  • REMBERT Sébastien, RŒLLY Aude (dir.), 90 ans après. Archives inédites des communes de l’Aisne dans la Grande Guerre, edited by the Departmental Archives of the Aisne, Laon, 2008, 247 p. ;
  • Dossier on "Les lieux de mémoire" presented at the Centre Régional de Documentation Pédagogique de Champagne-Ardennes (http://www.cndp.fr/crdp-reims/memoire/lieux/default.htm).

For more information also read: CAPDEVILA Luc, VOLDMAN Danièle, "Les Dépouilles de l’ennemi entre hommage et outrage", in Quasimodo, no. 9, Spring 2006, pp.53-73; RIGEADE Catherine, "Approche archéo-antrophologique des inhumations militaires", in Socio-anthropologie, no. 22, 2008, pp.93-105.

1 HARDIER Thierry, JAGIELSKI Jean-François, "Le Corps des disparus durant la Grande Guerre : l’impossible deuil", in Quasimodo, no. 9, Spring 2006, pp.82

2 Ibid.