- Day-to-day death
- Archaeology, bearing witness to unspeakable slaughter
- Examples of different types of war grave
Since the early 1990s, archaeologists have uncovered countless remains of soldiers never removed from the battlefields. The way they deal with these remains, initially motivated primarily by respect for the dead, has gradually evolved into a more scientific approach which aims to better understand and document the final moments in the lives of these missing soldiers. It goes without saying that in spite of the great number of these digs, each case is unique: the result of multiple, complex factors clashing and combining at random in a time of extreme violence and confusion. But it is nonetheless possible to identify certain recurring themes from amidst this tangle of interweaving personal tragedies. Firstly, we are presented with physical evidence of those lost and broken bodies so frequently described in the first-hand accounts of combatants. These discoveries can range from scattered fragments of skull found on the surface of a trench, or occasionally gathered together in a grave, to the full ‘remains and effects’ of a missing soldier, found along with his equipment in a shell crater or at the foot of a trench. In such cases no funeral rite has been performed, the body was simply buried unintentionally by the tumult of the battlefield. However, close study of the equipment worn by these soldiers allows us to compile a very detailed profile of the deceased (composition of their uniform, personal effects). On the contrary, those soldiers who received individual or mass burials were often stripped of their equipment and personal possessions before being buried. Our knowledge of these soldiers is therefore less detailed, but it is nonetheless possible to identify traces of funerary practices celebrating links of friendship or camaraderie, particularly in cases of mass burial where such gestures were repeated and thus easier to spot. Archaeologists sometimes come across tombs which are entirely (or almost) empty, evidence of the numerous exhumations which took place on the battlefields immediately after the end of hostilities.