Last year, I wrote this article about the invasion of Normandy, what went according to plan (some things) and what didn’t (most things). Quite honestly, if it hadn’t been for the dogged courage and sheer numbers of Allies that just kept running up that relatively-undefended beach, WWII might have gone on for much, much longer, or even ended differently.
But no matter what, no matter how well the plan went, everyone involved knew that there would a a high cost in life. Even there, things did not always go as planned. But how cemeteries like Normandy came about, had a long history, stretching back centuries.
What to do with the Battle Dead
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in America and Europe, the battle dead were often buried near the battlefield, with little to no marker listing even a name. Most often, these graves were communal, so while you may know where your loved one was buried, he would not even have his own grave.
Only the most influential would be able to have their remains shipped home for a warrior’s funeral (and even then, the corpse would be pickled in a barrel, hello Admiral Nelson!)
In the American Colonies/United States, the dead were buried more or less where they fell. My own fifth-great-grandfather, a man named Henry Dorton (later Dalton), narrowly missed being killed in a 1777 battle/incident now known as “Foreman’s Massacre”. The 22 dead in that incident were left for 24-48 hours until Dorton and those who didn’t die were able to lead others back to the area. The men were buried in a communal, unmarked grave until 1835, when the grave was marked. It wasn’t until 98 years after their deaths that the men were disinterred and moved to a cemetery, again, in a communal grave.
Another example of this mass battlefield burials (or non-burials) in Europe comes from the pen of Louisa Adams, First Lady of President John Quincy Adams. In 1815, however, that was still in her future as she and her son traveled from St Petersburg Russia to Paris, where her husband was now stationed as a diplomat. During the carriage ride, they had tried to avoid the battlefields and carnage stills strewn across Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s first series of wars. But they failed.
“About a mile before we entered the town [of Hanau] I had observed a number of mounds like graves with crosses at their feet, in the ditches on the sides of the roads–we entered on a wide extended plain, over which was scattered remnants of clothes; old boots in pieces, and an immense quantity of bones laying in this ploughed field…this was the field of battle in which the Bavarians had intercepted the retreat of Napoleon, and that in this plain ten thousand men had been slain. Conceive my horror at the sight of such a butchery!”
Louisa was seeing the results of the Battle of Hanau, which had taken place sixteen months earlier. Obviously, many of the approximately 13,500 dead from that “minor” battle were still visible over a year later. It didn’t help that, while Louisa and her son traveled across Europe, Napoleon escaped Elba to start the wars again!
Some of these mass graves still come to light even centuries later. Another Naopleonic-war mass grave was found in 2001 in Lithuania, for example.
The Civil War
Fifty years after Louisa, the Civil War in the United States changed many things in the nation, and the disposition of the war dead was one of them.
For one thing, it was now the Victorian Age. Not that Victoria had anything to do with it directly (at least, not until her beloved Prince Albert died in December 1861, when she turned death and mourning into an intricate art form) but both the British and American cultures had embraced an ideal of “dying a good death”. That is, dying surrounded by family, saying last words, being buried with dignity and grace.
But in the melee of the North verses the South, where Industrial Age Weaponry met traditional battle tactics, the sheer number of bodies that were left behind was far more than even the most hardened war veteran had conceived. Bodies could be left open to the elements for days. Letters were written of the horror of seeing men, friends and family, laughing and living just days before, now being eaten by wildlife, exposed to the wilderness with no provision for death, burial, or proper remembrance. The advent of photography on a scale that allowed the aftermath of battles to be photographed in detail also brought home the magnitude of the problem. (For more on this topic, I recommend watching Ken Burn’s fascinating Death and the Civil War documentary. It’s usually available through PBS.)
As the months stretched into years, small feats of humanity were often the least that could be done for the dead and dying.
So many nameless men come down to us, speechless and dying, that now we write the names and regiments of the bad cases and fasten them to their clothing, so that if they are speechless when they reach other hands, they may not die like dogs, and be buried in nameless graves, and remain forever missing to their friends.” -Katherine Wormeley, civilian volunteer, US Sanitary Commission, and author of The other side of war: with the Army of the Potomac
Still, things were often impossible. The winners would bury their dead with as much dignity and identification as possible, but the enemy dead on the same battlefield would be left exposed, or thrown into a communal grave with no name recorded (in part because the other side would not have the records of who these men were).
People who expected to lay their families to rest in family graveyards now faced the possibility that their men, who had marched off to defend their way of life, could be buried in a graveyard far from home, be buried in a mass grave with no marker, or worse, be forgotten and left to decay and be scavenged. The government who called these men up and asked them to fight should, at the very least, people said, make sure that for those who fought for their country, at least had a decent burial in consecrated ground. And so, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln established the first National Cemeteries, owned and operated by the Federal Government, not churches or localities. After the war ended, the temporary battlefield dead were exhumed, identified if possible, and re-interred with dignity beneath a single marker.
World War I
Fighting abroad didn’t change this policy. After WWI, the Americans created twenty-two cemeteries and memorials for their 70.000 war dead. The British, who had not anticipated the sheer numbers of dead modern war could create (the Americans had the “advantage” of the lessons of the Civil War), started WWI with no means of sorting, recording or identifying their dead at all. For them, battlefield burials had been traditional mass graves near the battlefield or in the nearest cemetery, with little to no identification. Such burials were the norm for the “business” of war in Europe for a number of centuries.
This ended with the establishment of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission under the guidance of Sir Fabian Ware.
The WWI memorials, mostly in France and Belgium, spent years gathering, identifying, and repatriating or burying the dead of WWI.
Sadly, some of the WWI memorials were finished and dedicated as late as 1937, when it was all but certain the “Great War to End All Wars” wouldn’t be.
Battle troops don’t carry coffins, or the means to bury the dead as a part of their primary duties. That was left to the Quartermasters, who also handled supplies. Thankfully, by WWII, military men carried “dog tags” on their person—a set of two. One tag remained with the dead, the second to go with the commanding officer, or burial detail. (Dog tags of various sorts were homemade during the Civil War, then manufactured by entrepreneurs for private purchase. They became mandatory for the military in 1906 in the USA, were used by the Commonwealth from the beginning of WWI, and used by the Prussians as far back as the 1870s!) This made tracking and naming the dead in both records and cemeteries much easier and more accurate.
So on June 6, 1944, as men landed on Normandy, the 604th Quartermasters were already assigned to land the next day, to take on the monumental task of burying the dead.
In the aftermath of the Omaha and Utah beach landings, the dead that could be located had been hurriedly buried by departing battle troops, often without the mattress cover to be used as a shroud. The arriving Quartermasters were assigned to use land already selected near the towns of Cricqueville-en-Bessin and Sainte-Honorine des Pertes, but those towns still remained in enemy hands much longer than anticipated as the re-invasions slogged forward.
So the 604th Quartermasters continued to use the Omaha Beach cemetery. As the battle troops drove deeper into France, then Belgium, then Germany, the 604th followed, burying men and recording names as they went.
Following the war, with the heroic touchstone that Normandy proved to be, the decision was made to make Normandy one of two permanent WWII cemeteries in France.
To start with, each burial already in the temporary cemetery had to be exhumed, and families asked whether or not they wanted their loved one to remain in France, or be returned to a cemetery of the family’s choice. In addition, there were single graves or small groups of graves buried with honor in village cemeteries all over France, where the local people had taken it upon themselves to bury airmen, paratroopers, escaped POWs, when they died in their locations. These graves were often elaborately decorated with flowers and other remembrance tokens of the local French, who honored those who were fighting to re-take France from the Nazis.
Records differ, but between 60-66% of the American dead were returned home, those that remained in France were collected into the Normandy Cemetery and the Brittany American Cemetery.
In Normandy, the lawns of graves include the Garden of the Missing, for those who had been lost at sea, or whose remains had never been found in far-flung individual graves. Today, Rosettes are added to the wall if remains come to light and are identified. Just in front of the Garden, soars a 22-foot tall bronze statue: The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.
A chapel for prayer and reflection sits in the center of the cemetery.
Normandy American Cemetery was dedicated in 1957. It covers over 172 acres, and still overlooks Omaha Beach, though it is now surrounded by a security wall. The land it sits on has been gifted, in perpetuity, to the United States, which maintains the cemetery. Among the 9,387 graves include four women, a father and son, and thirty-three sets of brothers. One of these sets of brothers were the sons of American President Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt Jr died of heart attack in July 1945, after helping lead the conquest of Utah Beach. As he was to be buried in Normandy, his younger brother Quentin Roosevelt, who had died fighting WWI and was buried in a French graveyard, was exhumed and laid to rest beside him. Quentin is the only WWI soldier to rest in Normandy Cemetery.
It is the most visited of the American Battle Monuments cemeteries.
Today, the dead are returned as part of war. Due to the constantly shifting battle lines of Korea, the dead were often shipped with the wounded to the closest MASH or secure unit to be sent home, rather than buried in foreign soil, which could then be re-taken by the enemy and desecrated or lost. This is the pattern that is currently followed by the US Military. There will, in most likelihood, but no more international cemeteries for American military.
But a little, shore-side temporary cemetery, begun in haste as the battle moved forward and left the shore behind, became one of the most famous cemeteries in America’s history.
 A former intern of mine who went on to work at Fredricksburg and Spotsylvania, said that these mass graves still come to light from time to time.
 And again, sometimes these identities can be restored years later. In the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” actor Matthew Broderick discovered an ancestor, Robert Martindale, died in the battle of Peachtree Creek, but his remains had not been identified when they were re=interred in the Marietta National Cemetery. That identity was restored through paperwork alone…with the advances in DNA testing, more names can be restored in the future. Watch the exhumation of the Pearl Harbor dead as ithappens this year.