Visiting a First World War cemetery, with its incredible multitude of neatly-aligned graves, can help us to get some sense of the incredible scale of the human cost of this conflict.Astonishing though it may seem, trench warfare was less deadly than the period of manoeuvres in the field.
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.
While the military regulations of the early twentieth century laid out the general principles to be observed when burying soldiers, the mass slaughter seen on the battlefields in the summer of 1914, and the peculiar conditions of trench warfare thereafter, made the implementation of these guidelines impossible.
Once again it is impossible to identify any general rules, as each body discovered by the archaeologists bears witness to a specific event, whose fate was determined by the interaction of numerous factors.
For example, a number of tombs have been discovered along the front line dating from a period of particularly heavy fighting, and yet the burials reveal a great attention to detail, an astonishing example of the profound sense of camaraderie which bound together soldiers from the same combat unit.
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.
A number of shoulder insignia bearing the inscription ‘LINCOLN’ indicated that these soldiers belonged to the 10 1917.
The symbolism of this arrangement is clear, and becomes all the more poignant when we consider that the nickname of this regiment was the ‘Grimsby Chums’, hailing predominantly from the small port town of Grimsby in north-east England.
The Great War is the first conflict where a real importance was attached to identifying fallen soldiers, with efforts made, wherever possible, to bury each body in an individual grave.
But the conditions of the fighting and the scale of the loss of life often made a mockery of these efforts.
Firstly, we are presented with physical evidence of those lost and broken bodies so frequently described in the first-hand accounts of combatants.