The location of War Graves: some aspects considered

My map of Portsmouth War Graves locations gives a pretty interesting insight not only into the conduct of the war between 1939 and 1945, but also into other factors, such as the policy of the War Graves registration units and the CWGC. Thinking about these issues helps us place in context war casualties, and probably goes a long way to solving a lot of mysteries about the location of war graves.

You can see from the location of War cemeteries and individual war graves where most of the heavy fighting took place – Northern France, in particular Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais, Belgium and southern Holland, Italy, North Africa, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, and the Far East, especially Burma, Thailand and India.

There are also some interesting variances in policy, it would seem. In some theatres, there are a large number of smaller cemeteries. In Normandy, for example, there are a relatively high number of war grave locations. In Burma and Thailand, however, almost all men were reburied in larger central cemeteries, even if they were some distance from their original burial site.

RAF casualties are also commemorated differently. Army dead were usually buried in larger war cemeteries, even if it meant exhumation and reburial after the war. Indeed, most men killed in action on land were invariably buried in a field grave near to the site of their death, and the details recorded for later reburial.

On the other hand if a Bomber crashed over occupied territory its dead crewmembers were almost always buried in the local churchyard, and most remain there to this day. Therefore many burials in parts of France, Belgium and Holland are in small local churchyards. You can almost plot the flight routes from their locations in relation to that nights target. Almost all Bomber sorties – and there were many from 1942 onwards – had to fly over parts of Northern France, Belgium or Holland. And these were where the Kammhuber line defences swung into action.

A large proportion of Portsmouth men are buried in Italy – this is due to the presence of four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment in the Italian Campaign, compared to only two in North West Europe from Normandy onwards.

You can also tell how far-flung British forces were during the war years. Servicemen are buried in outposts such as The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Australia and New Zealand. None of these countries saw any fighting, but they were important stopping off points, for Royal Navy ships or for convoys. A number of British airmen are also buried in the US and in Canada – they were almost certainly there for training, and died either in accidents or of illness.

But by far the most casualties are buried at home in Britain. They died at home of natural causes, illness, wounds received in action, or were victims of Bombing while on leave. Normally the authorities allowed families to bury their dead in their local cemetery – and happened with my Great-Uncle – but there do seem to have been exceptions. For example, the dead recovered from the sinking of the Royal Oak were buried in a nearby churchyard – the public health implication of transporting a large number of bodies around Britain from Scap Flow did not bear thinking about.

I also suspect that where men were the victims of explosions, for example, they were buried quickly in a local cemetery rather than being handed over to the family. This may have been to prevent the family from having to go through the ordeal of seeing the body. Also, when a large number of people were killed in one go – say in a bombing raid, for example – the priority of the authorities was to safely bury bodies to prevent disease spreading.

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7 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two

7 responses to “The location of War Graves: some aspects considered

  1. John Erickson

    A number of the home front casualties may be “partial remains” burials – a 500-kilo bomb doesn’t tend to kill as neatly as a bullet. A number of combat graves in Australia could be direct combat, whether from the Japanese bombing raids on Darwin, or naval action not far from Australia’s northern coast. And even in the far-flung locations where there was no combat, there were personnel stationed, and “non-action related” casualties occurred in greater numbers than today. Look at the casualty results on http://WWW.ICASUALTIES.ORG, and notice the number of soldiers lost (especially from Britain and the US) to seemingly ridiculous causes – traffic accidents and vehicle rollovers, accidental weapons discharges, even dropped supply pallets and crates. A soldier who dies during a war may not have been shot by an enemy soldier, but he (or she) is still dead, and thus is buried wherever they died, especially in the years before ubiquitous air transport. Death comes in many guises, and rarely does he bring the deceased a ticket home.

  2. James Daly

    John that elaborates perfectly on what I was thinking. Out of 2,549 fatalities from Portsmouth between 1939 and 1945 its odds on that there are some pretty leftfield causes of death that we will never fully know about.

    I think up until after the Second World War the old dictum still held true from the middle ages and Napoleonic times – far more men died of disease than did in action. Britain in WW2 might have been a supposedly developed country, but wartime privations no doubt affected peoples immune systems. And also there are tropical diseases such as Malaria, which my Grandad had but recovered from while serving in Palestine in 1943.

    At work we have been researching civilian casualties in Portsmouth in WW2, and its occured to some of my colleagues that in many cases very little remains would have been found. I wonder how many families were handed coffins with scrap metal in them to make the weight up.

  3. James, would scrap metal, supposedly valuable to the war effort, have been added to the partial remains in a coffin to make up the weight? Especially as it is rather denser than flesh and bone so would need to be secured inside the coffin to avoid shifting or rattling as the box was carried by the pall bearers. I always thought that sandbags were used to give the impression of weight

    • James Daly

      That’s very true Rob. I’ve also heard of slabs of concrete being used, either to make up weight or for soldiers on pall bearer duty to practice with.

      Come to think of it I’ve read articles that suggest a lot of scrap metal donated to the war effort was not much use due to its low grade nature. Might be interesting to look into sometime.

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