By Jean-Loup Gassend
I am a young medical doctor with a particular interest in the fields of forensic pathology, archaeology and crime scene investigating. For many years now I have spent much of my free time visiting World War II battlefields and researching the fate of missing in action soldiers. Some of my research has been published in the book Autopsy of a Battle, the Liberation of the French Riviera, that combines oral history, battlefield archaeology, and the study of period documents. I can make presentations related to the topics covered in this page and can be contacted at the above email address. Below I propose some thoughts and case reports related to my personal experiences in battlefield archaeology.
The author of this site at work in a WWII grave.
Hand-made WWII era British soldier's identification tag found in the vicinity of El Alamein, Egypt, bearing a representation of the sphinx and pyramids. Such so called 'trench art' provides us with a better understanding of the frame of mind of the soldiers of the time, who although "visiting" Egypt in the context of a deadly war, behaved just like any tourist would and desired to keep a souvenir of their tour to the last standing wonder of the world. From an archaeological perspective, it is rather curious to find an artifact decorated with archaeological structures of a completely unrelated civilisation dating from thousands of years earlier. The tag is named to a Gunner Thomas Leonard Hough, 1083477, of the Royal Artillery, who can unfortunately not be researched due to the strict privacy regulations of the British military archives.
Battlefield archaeology is the search, excavation and analysis of former battle sites according to archeological and scientific principles. The main goal of battlefield archaeology is to is to further the knowledge that humanity has of its own history. Archaeology presents the advantage of being able to provide new and impartial data about past events that are otherwise only known through sources such as witness testimony and ancient texts, which can be imprecise, exaggerated, or downright untruthful.
Although more impartial, archeology, just like other sources of historical information, has its limitations: only a small number of artifacts actually ever enter the archaeological record, and sites become modified and contaminated as of the moment they are created. Archaeology is therefore simply one extra source of data amongst many others that are to be considered in order to further our knowledge of the event being investigated. Other sources of information that can be used in order to help place the archaeological data into context are for example:
-period written documents such as military reports, autobiographies, newspaper articles, letters, death registers, casualty reports, etc
-oral history and interviews with witnesses
Knowledge from many different fields of study can come in handy for the interpretation of a battlefield, for example anthropology, forensic medicine, ballistics, military history, uniformology, crime scene investigating and numismatics, to name only a few.
What questions can battlefield
The first impression that one may have concerning historical events, such as many World War I or World War II battles, is that everything important is already known, and that archaeology cannot hope to bring much new information to light. This is in fact a very wrong impression. While it is true that the great lines of many historical events and battles are well known, information usually becomes very hazy and controversial as soon as one tries to clarify the details of events. Archaeology is usually better at providing information regarding the “small scale” aspects of an event rather than “large scale” aspects. An archeological search may for example enable the identification of the exact hole a soldier was buried in, or the exact position of a front line; but to find out why the battle was occurring in the first place, or what the great leaders of the time were thinking, one is better off consulting period written documents. Archeology is therefore only one piece of a larger puzzle of historical data.
Improvised candlestick dated December 25th 1942, found
in a German dugout in Stalingrad. This touching artifact helps us understand
the frame of mind of the German soldiers who built it. Though they had
been encircled by Soviet troops for weeks, were starving to death, and for
the vast majority of them would not survive the battle and subsequent
surrender, they still felt the need to decorate their frozen dugout with
a reminder of Christmas, joy, home and family.
The exact questions that can be answered by archaeology are as infinite as the number of artifacts that can be found and the events during which they were lost. However, the following are some of the more typical and basic questions that can be answered or partially answered by battlefield archaeology:
-Where exactly did the battle occur?
-What nations/units were involved?
-What did the involved soldiers eat and drink?
-How were the dead disposed of and how did they die?
-What material were the soldiers equiped with?
-Etc, etc, etc...
Typically, if an otherwise well known battle is investigated with archaeological methods for the first time, it can be expected that various “surprises” that will change our perception and knowledge of the battle will be uncovered. Archeology also often sheds light on the fate of otherwise obscure individual soldiers whose bodies are recovered during excavation work, thus bringing a touch of humanity to an otherwise impersonal and distant event. This human touch is perhaps the most profound and important role that battlefield archeology can fulfill.
A fragment of aluminum bearing clear human toothprints:
probably the only reminder of a frusterated soldier having
torn open a stubborn ration package.
A missing in action soldier's body, with shrapnel ridden
skull, is recovered from a shallow battlefield grave more
than 70 years after his death. The body will be identified
thanks to its identification tag, and the soldier's family will
be informed of his exact cause and location of death.
German identification tags and shrapnel damaged helmet found in graves of German soldiers in southern France. Such items provide information on the cause of death, the identity of the soldier, and the units involved in the battle. The shrapnel damage to the helmet is a clear indicator that its owner was killed in combat, and not executed as certain people allegated when the discovery of the grave was made public.
The body of a German soldier found in 2018 tells the story
of a violent and atrocious death. His lower right leg has suffered
a traumatic amputation, while the left femur is fractured in two
locations. Traces of a surgical drain can be seen on the right femur,
while remains of two tourniquets are visible on the left femur. These
desperate attempts to stop what must have been a massive heamorrhage did not
work. The soldier was buried by comerades, but then remained in an
unmarked grave in unfriendly territory for more than 70 years.
An amputated leg found buried in a German field cemetery.
The medical team god rid of the leg by burying it with the dead,
as was apparently done commonly. The leg was amputated because
of a severe comminuted tibia fracture, as can be seen in the first two
photos. The tool marks left by the surgeons saw is still clearly visible
on the cut surface of the bone.
The differences between archaeology
and digging, looting,
treasure hunting or collecting
In the eye of the public, there is frequently no understanding of the differences between archaeology and simple digging, looting, collecting or treasure hunting (it must be said that the border can sometimes become very blurred, particularly when archeological expeditions are presented in the form of a hunt for gold or lost treasure). As explained above, the goal of archaeology is to further the knowledge that humanity has of its own past. The main difference between archeology and simple digging therefore lies in the intensions and methodologies of the digger. An archaeological excavation, whether performed by professional archaeologists or amateurs, needs to fulfill the following criteria:
-the main motivation to perform the excavation is not financial, but historical
-any excavation work needs to be performed as carefully as is possible given the circumstances so as to preserve the context of discovery of the artifacts
-all recovered data needs to be recorded as carefully as possible with written notes, map coordinates, photographs, sketches, etc.
-all information on the artifacts recovered and the conclusions that can be drawn from the excavation must be made available to other researchers, historians and the public. Ideally, a comprehensive report should be written and published or stored in a recognized institution or archive.
A typical local "digger", digging out of a mixture of historical interest and the need to have extra cash at the end of the month, recovering a German belt buckle with the infamous inscription "Gott mit Uns" (God with us), as well as a German tank crewman's skull insignia. These finds will quickly be sold for a few dozen dollars.
Digging in order to recover artifacts for resale or in order to store them in a secret collection is certainly not archaeology, and in fact such activities decrease the possibility of being able to do any meaningful archaeological work in the excavated area. It is difficult to pass judgment on those who loot sites of significant importance in poorer areas of the world as they are usually involved in such activities out of economical obligation, not for pleasure. They perhaps lack the knowledge and education required to properly understand the negative consequences of their actions. What is certain in any case is that their activities are in no way archaeological.
There have been and still are heated debates regarding the use of metal detectors in archaeology, with many archaeologists seeming to hold a strong grudge against anything metal detector related. The behaviour of certain metal detectorists is indeed highly destructive to the archaeological record and partialy explains this bad blood. However, metal detectors are tools that can be used for both good and bad, and metal detectorists are all unique indivudials who should be judged on their personal merits and actions, not as a group. It is now recognised by battlefield archaeologists that metal detectors enable the rapid recovery of large numbers of artefacts over a wide area, enabling a much quicker and effective search of battlefields than traditional archaeological methods.
The typical appearence of a battlefield after it has been visited by 'Black Diggers',
in this case in the Rossoshka River area in Stalingrad. Bodies have been dug up
with no respect for the dead nor any regard for historical information, and bones lie strewn on the ground. The goal of the diggers was to recover military items in order to sell them to collectors. Bones themselves, particularly skulls, are also occasionally sold.
Advantages of applying archaeological
methods to recent battlefields
Traditionally, archaeology has been mainly interested in events from the ancient past, with more modern periods such as the 20th century being deemed unworthy of interest. In the past 20 years however, archaeologists have started excavating WWI battlefields, sparking very strong public interest and proving that relatively recent events are also worth investigating with archaeological methods. However, archaeologists today are still only extremely rarely involved in excavations involving WWII. I have always found this rather puzzling as my main focus of interest is WWII. There is a huge and all too often overlooked advantage in investigating WWII events as soon as possible, and it is that there are still large numbers of period witnesses alive today that can provide precious information on the battlefield being investigated. Whether they are soldiers who participated in the battle, local civilians, or families of soldiers, all these survivors of the period can provide data that can prove priceless in helping put the archaeological data into context.
Interviewing surviving witnesses can provide a wealth of information that
would otherwise be lost to time. Only a fraction of history ever becomes
recorded in written form, and oral history can only be recorded as long
as witnesses are still alive (in other words now for WWII). In the lower photo,
25 bodies of missing soldiers from 1945 have been located in 2018 based solely
on witness testimony.
A WWII era letter from the German army detailling the circumstances of death of a soldier to his family. Such documents are highly informative and can help put an archaeological find into context. They are not normaly availlable for more anciant eras, and will become more difficult to recover as time goes by and relatives of soldiers pass on.
Why wait for all the witnesses of a period to die before deciding that their era is worthy of archaeological interest? There is no reason to wait, which is why I spent the last ten years interviewing survivors of WWII where I live in south eastern France. I have now written a book based on my research, Autopsy of a Battle, the Liberation of the French Riviera, that uses all the various sources of information that I believe are mandatory in order to make a serious analysis of a modern battle: all available military reports, written documents, letters, cemetery registers, exhumation reports, etc, were scrutinized for information. When possible, witnesses were interviewed and searches of the actual areas of combat were made. Since each type of source of information has its shortcomings, one needs to combine as many sources as possible in order for them to compensate for each other’s flaws.
A witness indicates the exact location of a mass grave in which himself,
his father and several other civilians buried the bodies of five German
soldiers in southern France in 1944.
Context is everything
It is only the context in which an artifact is found that gives it its full archaeological value. An item of significant importance can become worthless if the circumstances and location of its discovery are not documented. A spent enemy bullet found with the body of a soldier is for example a highly symbolic and informative relic, as it provides a potential cause of death and is presumably the bullet that ended the man's life. The exact same bullet becomes worthless when considered out of context, as millions of identical bullets were fired during the war, and only the tragic and unique history of the bullet found with the body separate it from all the others. Trivial artifacts such as coins and spent bullet casings can therefore become very significant, depending on the exact context they are found in. Bullet casings typicaly pinpoint the location where shots were fired and indicate the nationality and armament of the person who fired them. Coins can give a good hint on the nationality of the soldiers who occupied the position under investigation, and can sometimes also give a hint of other areas in which the soldier may have fought. Context is what tells the story of the artifact and therefore also of the battle being investigated.
Initials still visible on the leather of a German helmet. Such information would normaly be completely unexploitable. However, because the context of the discovery of the helmet was known - discovery in a mass grave of German soldiers - it was possible to compare the initials to the list of names of soldiers buried in the grave. There was only one match, indicating that this helmet most likely belonged to him. The relatives of the soldier were contacted in Poland, but it was unfortunately not possible to get a sample of his handwritting, as all his documents had been destroyed after the war due to fear of the Soviet troops that were present in Poland at the time.
Wartime Principality of Monaco coins recovered from the grave of a German soldier. These highly specific coins, that hold no monetary value to coin collectors, provide an extremely good hint of where the soldier had been stationned before he was killed in action. It is the context of discovery of the coins that gives them their value.
A spent American .50 caliber bullet casing found along with dozens of similar casings next to a road that had been strafed by American fighter planes in 1944. These low profile artefacts enabled eyewitness accounts of the strafing to be confirmed, pinpointed the location of the strafing, and identified the nationality of the aircraft involved. The value of these artefacts clearly lies mainly in the context of their discovery.
Russian PPSh submachine gun and spent bullet casing found in southern France. Although such finds are commonplace in Russia, they are extremely unusual in southern France. In this case, a Russian "volunteer" unit of the German army, Ost Battalion 661, had been present in the area of discovery, explaining the presence of this Russian weapon, and proving that the Russian volunteers had brought some of their weaponry with them from Russia.
Battlefield archaeology project at
VIDEO: Exhumation and identification of German soldiers
In 2006, I was involved in a successful investigation at Villeneuve-Loubet, in southern France. After interviewing local inhabitants who had lived through the war, I was able to discover the exact spot in the forest in which 14 German soldiers of Reserve Grenadier Bataillon 372 of Reserve Division 148 had been buried in August 1944 following a battle with Allied troops of the First Special Service Force in the wake of the invasion of southern France (Operation Dragoon). I organized an exhumation with the Volksbund (German War Graves Commission) as well as an archaeologist and several medical students. We carefully exhumed the bodies, trying to discover the cause of death of each one, and noting every detail that seemed of interest. Seven identification tags were found, of which six were still readable, enabling the identification of six soldiers. Two more soldiers were identified after the Deutsche Dienststelle (archive responsible for the preservation of personal files of German soldiers) in Berlin cross checked information contained within their personal files and noted that these two soldiers were reported as missing in action in Villeneuve-Loubet. In total, I was then able to get in touch with the families of five of the eight identified soldiers. The families provided me with photos of the soldiers, as well as one letter explaining the circumstances of death of one of them.
The 14 bodies found buried in a mass
grave at Villeneuve-Loubet in 2006.
The archaeological and historical information that derived from the careful exhumation of the Villeneuve grave and from the contact with the relatives of the soldiers proved to be of significant importance to the local historical record. Before the discovery of the grave, very little was known about the battle that had occurred in Villeneuve-Loubet in August 1944. It was for example not known how many German soldiers had been killed, how they had been killed, what unit they were from, etc... These questions as well as several others can now be answered thanks to the fact that the bodies were exhumed in archaeological manner and that a careful follow up was later done with the relatives of the soldiers, as well as with the Allied soldiers who had participated in the battle. More details about the Villeneuve-Loubet mass grave and the context of the battle can be found in my book Autopsy of a Battle, the Liberation of the French Riviera.
The body of a 23-year-old soldier is found, with his bullet
ridden identification tag still in place under his chest.
The son of one soldier found in the grave visiting the exhumation site
shortly after finding out his father's body had been recovered.
The sister of one of the soldiers found in the
Villeneuve-Loubet mass grave, along with her grandchildren.
The El Alamein broken bottles project
The small town of El Alamein, in the Western Desert of Egypt, is one of the most famous battlefields of World War II. Today, the desert surrounding El Alamein is still full of obvious traces of the fighting that occurred there in 1942. One of the most ubiquitous traces that can be found are former fighting positions, usually consisting of foxholes and sangars built up with stones or sand-filled gas cans. Large numbers of broken bottles that were consumed by the soldiers can still be found littering such positions. These fragments of broken glass are a textbook example of how seemingly worthless artifacts, so as not to say pollution, can become extremely interesting if one takes the trouble of bending down to look at them.
Typical positions in the El Alamein area, still littered
with fragments of broken bottles.
The battlefield of El Alamein is perhaps the battlefield that saw the greatest variety of nationalities fighting within such a small area during WWII, and this large variety is reflected by the bottle fragments that can still be found littering the ground. Indeed, in 1942, soldiers of the following nations were involved in the fighting around El Alamein: Australia, France and it's colonies, Germany and its annexed territories, Greece, Great Britain, India, Italy, New Zealand, Poland and South Africa. Furthermore, men of other nationalities, such as Americans, Canadians, Spaniards and Yugoslavians, could sometimes also be found within these armies, particularly in the French Foreign Legion, the German army and the Royal Air Force. All these soldiers not only brought with them bottled beverages (particularly alcohol) that they had acquired in their homelands, and in the various countries they had crossed through on their way to Egypt; but were also provided with a large variety of bottles by their supply corps.
Fragments of bottles bearing inscriptions such as: "Made in Canada", "Christchurch" and "Shanghai", showing the great diversity of nations that were involved on the El Alamein battlefield.
During a visit to El Alamein, all bottle caps or pieces of bottle bearing seemingly interesting inscriptions were picked up and later sorted. The bottles that the fragments originated from were found to have contained a variety of liquids, in particular beer, concentrated fruit juice, ginger ale, mineral water, tomato sauce and whisky. Inscriptions found on the bottle fragments and bottle caps indicated that the bottles or beverages had been produced or sold in the following countries: Australia, Canada, China, Congo, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and Palestine. Beer bottles bearing the marking “Made in Canada” were particularly numerous, seeming to indicate that Canada was exporting large quantities of beer to the armies of the Commonwealth at the time. Amongst the brand names found on the bottles were the following: Black and White, Nicholson London, Old Scotch Wiskey and White Horse Distillers.
Various bottle caps recovered in El Alamein, including "Black and
White", that French El Alamein veteran Jean-Mathieu Boris
remembers consuming regularly during the battle.
In his autobiography Combattant de la France Libre, French veteran Jean-Mathieu Boris mentions drinking whisky during the period of the El Alamein battle, and I therefore sent him photographs of the whisky bottles and caps found at El Alamein. After examining the photos, Mr Boris responded that the whisky that he drunk at the time was of the Black and White brand.
As a final note, we can add that it is remarkable how much alcohol the troops seem to have consumed on the battlefield, particularly considering the extremely high temperatures and the dehydrating effects that alcohol has. Interestingly, South African veteran Leslie Rose remembered a rather different tale then Jean-Mathieu Boris : "There was no booze. Montgomery wouldn't allow any booze." (quoted in the Daily Maverick, 22.10.2012) The archaeological evidence that has been found casts serious doubt on Mr Rose's recollection!
Bottle of spirit from Palestine, where the 9th Australian Division
was stationed before being sent to battle in Egypt.
A bottle of Japanese made Kirin beer, a comon find on the Pacific front,
but an unusual find in the Western Desert. This particular bottle was found in the
positions on the 9th Australian Division at Tel El Eisa, in the northern
El Alamein front.
A label from a bottle of San Pellegrino found
in Axis fighting positions south of Alamein.
In the 1954 movie 'Divisione Folgore', two Italian
paratroopers enjoy a bottle of "Whisky englesi".
Bottle fragment marked to the "Brasserie de Leopoldville",
Leopoldville being the colonial name of Kinsasha, Congo.
Perhaps this bottle has a link with the Free French troops of
the 1ère Division Française Libre, that fought at Alamein.
"White diggers" in Russia
VIDEO: Recovery and burial of missing soldiers in Stalingrad
The Soviet and German armies suffered disastrous numbers of casualties on the eastern front during World War II. Literally millions of Soviet soldiers were buried in battlefield graves, or were simply left at the spot where they had died, and are still listed as missing in action today. While German graves have attracted large numbers grave robbers (or black diggers) since the early 1990s, Soviet graves have more often been left unmolested, as few valuable items are to be found on the bodies. Nowadays many groups of "white diggers" regularly organise recovery missions on the former battlefields of eastern Europe in order to recover and identify bodies of missing soldiers.
Some areas are virtual open sky mass graves.
The remains of a body found a few centimeters
below the surface. The body had been left abandoned
at the scene of death since 1942.
Depending on the nature of the battlefield, the searchers use various tools in order to locate missing bodies, the two main tools being the probe (or "shoop") and the metal detector. Probes are the most commonly used tool, as they are cheap to produce, and can also find non metalic items. The probes simply consist of a thin metal rod that is inserted into the ground in order to "feel" any buried items. The noise and feel produced when the probe touches a buried item enables to differentiate between bone, metal, roots, stone, glass, leather, etc. Needless to say, probes can only be used in terrain with small numbers of stones, and with large numbers of artefacts.
Volunteer white diggers search the swampy grounds of the
Mjasnoj Bor battlefield with makeshift probes. The concentration
of bodies is so great that even such primitive tools in the hands of
inexerienced searchers enable the discovery of numerous bodies.
A femur is found a few centimeters below the surface,
next to a shrapnel damaged shovel.
In Stalingrad, much more intensive digging is required in
order to recover bodies buried in the bottom off a former trench.
The terrain where searches are conducted is sometimes very inhospitable. In swampy areas such as the Leningrad, Demjansk or Volshov areas, any holes immediately fill with water, so bodies of killed soldiers were often simply left exactly where they fell. Nowadays, after 70 years, the bodies can be found buried under a mere few centimeters of mud. Entire areas can consist of virtual open sky mass graves. In such places, even an rather inefficient tool such as a probe can enable searchers to quickly come across large numbers of buried bodies and artefacts. The scale of death that ocurred on many eastern front battlefields, and the manner in which such battlefields were later abandoned, is quite unimaginable in the West. In some cases, mass grave areas were purposely destroyed by the Communist regime in order to attempt to hide the remaning traces of the war.
Exhumation of mass graves of Soviet soldiers in a former trench in the vicinity of Stalingrad. No artifacts appart from buttons are found with the bodies, and all will remain unidentified.
A soldier's skull and helmet, with matching shrapnel
damage visible on both. The culprit shell fragment was
found still contained within the skull.
A soldier's skull found within his soviet helmet. The helmet was
pierced by two small shell fragments. The smaller fragment also
penetrated the soldier's skull while the larger fragment seems to
have remained embeded in the scalp, leaving only a rust stain
on the bone. The smaller fragment was found within the skull.
Two Soviet soldiers found in what was probably a shell hole.
The young age of one of the soldiers is made obvious by
the fact that growth plates are still present on many of his
bones, such as the humerus shown below (for more details
on this topic, search for articles on "epiphyseal fusion").
The Russians have a very liberal view on
the exhumation of their war dead and nobody
is considered too young or unqualified to participate:
a very efficient form of community archaeology.
WWII era Soviet soldiers were not equipped with identification tags. Instead, they were issued a small ebony tube that contained a sheet of paper on which they were to write their name and particulars. Many soldiers were superstitious however, and considered that wearing an identification tag would bring them bad luck and certain death; so most soldiers did not carry the tube with them. Even if the tube was correctly worn, 70 years have taken their toll, and the paper inside the tube has often disintegrated or become unreadable. In consequence, the vast majority of Soviet bodies that are recovered nowadays can no longer be identified.
Soviet soldiers often engraved their names on their spoon, or on other personal items such as knives, mess tins, or cigarette boxes. When bodies are discovered nowadays, it is such engraved items that most often enable a body to be identified. Digging expeditions frequently take place in April and in late May, and the bodies that are recovered are then reburied on May 9th, the day that victory Europe is celebrated in the East.
This typical improvised identification tag recovered with the body
of a Soviet soldier at Stalingrad may enable his identification.
A hand made knife found amongst some bodies bears the name of
a soldier faintly carved into it: Kalistratov. Such personal items enable bodies to
be identified with a resonably good degree of certainty. In this case, the original
owner was not killed, but was wounded on the Volshow front, and then
captured and sent to a German POW camp in which he died in 1944.
Kalistratov's knife is returned to his relatives 70
years after his death.
An improvised memorial in the Mjasnoj Bor area, on the Volshov
front. In traditional russian maner, a cup of vodka, a cigarette and
a slice of bread have been left for the dead.
Evaluation of the German World War II identification tag system
During the identification of the soldiers found in the grave, three major deficiencies in the World War II German ID tag system came to light. These deficiencies were, in order of decreasing importance: many men were not wearing their tag, the tags did not resist well to burial, and the coding system used proved problematic. We will now discuss each of these problems in more depth.
No tag was discovered at all for seven of the 14 bodies. Although some tags may have been pilfered, it would seem, according to wartime photos, that many men did not wear their tags around their necks as they were instructed to. All soldiers should wear their ID tags around their neck at all times, particularly if they are present in a war zone or if they are using air or sea transportation. Specific instructions should be given to not store ID tags in clothing or equipment, as the chances are great that the body may become separated from these items in case of death.
The ID tags were made of aluminum and zinc. Both these metals have low resistance to heat (problematic in case of fire), and both have poor long-term resistance to corrosion. Although aluminum is reputed not to oxidize, if it is placed in adverse environmental conditions, it may become completely corroded and change into a brittle mass of aluminum oxide on which any inscriptions will be impossible to read. Zinc is more resistant, but also becomes damaged over time. One tag in the grave was completely oxidized, and three had been damaged severely, but were still readable. ID tags should thus be made out of a substance that is both highly resistant to heat and to burial, such as stainless steel.
Severely coroded but still legible german aluminum ID tag of body #8.
German ID tags were coded in a very peculiar way, apparently in order to simplify their production by local military units. The inscriptions on the tag consisted of the name of the unit the soldier did his basic training in, and a personal number within that unit. As an illustration, the ID tag of body 10 had the following inscriptions: Stamm.Kp.G.E.B.431 3869. With this system, absolutely no recognizable personal information about the soldier was present on the tag. This had several highly damaging side effects.Firstly it caused some soldiers to accidently exchange their ID tags, as the tags were so impersonal. We have witnessed many cases when a body was found with the tag of a soldier who survived the war.
Exhumation reports with the mentions: "The wearer of this identification
tag is alive. The soldier buried here must therefore remain unidentified."
Secondly, there is absolutely no redundancy in the information on the tag (if only half the tag is buried with the body, as per German Army regulations). Thus, a single number becoming unreadable can be enough to make the entire tag undecipherable. Finally, the code numbers used on the tags can only be deciphered with the appropriate code books. As can be expected, some of these books were destroyed during the war or have been misplaced, making the corresponding tags absolutely undecipherable. This was the case for one of the tags from the grave.
The ideal ID tag should thus contain redundant information, part of which is clearly identifiable by the soldier and anybody else, for example his name. This will prevent tags from being accidentally interchanged, and will enable the tag to be used even if some characters are unreadable, or if code books are unavailable.The problems highlighted in the previous discussion caused seven tags out of 14 to be missing, and caused two of the seven retrieved tags to be unusable. Thus, a total of nine out of 14 men, could not be identified due to a badly designed and enforced ID tag system. Reports about other exhumations of German soldiers have shown identical problems, with alarmingly high numbers of tags being missing, corroded, undecipherable or belonging to live soldiers.
This ID tag recovered with a body bears the owner's name carved into it in 3 places.
This soldier served in a medical unit, so was perhaps aware of the shortfalls of the German
ID tags, convincing him of the need of adding his name on the tag.
Nowadays, the importance of ID tags may seem secondary due to advances in DNA technology and other means of identification. But one should not underestimate the usefulness of an effective and cheap ID tag system, nor underestimate the possible problems that can arise with other means of identification, such as high prices or the lack of a comparison database for DNA or odontology. As an example, we will mention the situation concerning the identification of bodies of the 1991-95 Homeland War in Croatia. Although high priority was given to this work by the Croatian government, with databases being prepared immediately and the most modern forensic identification methods being used, a small but non-negligible proportion of the recovered bodies remains unidentified.
The body of a German soldier still wearing half
his identification tag around his neck.
The Oberrot football club badge
The story of the Oberrot football club badge illustrates the importance of the context in which an artifact is found. Although the exact location of the discovery of the badge is not known, because it was found by Bedouins; it is known that it was recovered somewhere in the vicinity of the El Alamein battlefield. The badge bears the inscription “Fussball Klub Oberrot. 1928.”
A letter was sent to the town hall of Oberrot asking if any members of their football club had participated in the fighting in North Africa. A reply was soon received explaining that only one member of the Oberrot football club, Richard Metzger, of Panzer Regiment 8, had fought in North Africa, and that he had been killed in his tank in the area of El Alamein on July 17th 1942. It therefore seems highly probable that the badge found at El Alamein had been lost by Richard Metzger, which sparked quite some interest in Oberrot and prompted an article in the local newspaper. The badge itself, although it has almost no intrinsic value, became a historically valuable artifact because to the story that is attached to it. This story could not have been discovered had the approximate context of discovery of the badge not been known.
The prewar Oberrot football team.
Richard Metzger, KIA July 17th 1942.
What can be learnt from shrapnel fragments?
Astronomical numbers of shells were fired on all fronts during World War II, and shell fragments are therefore the most common type of artifact that can be found when searching WWII battlefields. Even a single day of fighting was enough to leave thousands upon thousands of fragments that can easily be found 70 years later. Shell fragments can be very informative, particularly shell fuze and driving band fragments. Some of the questions that can be answered or partially answered by the analysis of shell fragments are the following:
-What caliber of shell was fired, and therefore what type of unit was involved (infantry, heavy artillery, navy…)?
-What type and model of shell was used (mortar, artillery, impact fuze, time fuze, armor piercing…)?
-When, where and by what company was the shell produced?
-Which armies were involved in the area (beware, foreign or captured weapons were often used)?
-Do the fragments originate from a fired or an unfired shell (for example from a blown ammunition dump)?
-What condition were weapons that fired the shells in (very worn bore…)?
-Though such research seems to never have been done, it is theoretically possible by analyzing the groove patterns on the driving bands of burst shells to identify shells fired by an individual cannon (in the same manner as fired bullets can be matched to a specific gun), and therefore to find out how many different cannons fired into a specific area.
As can be seen, simple shell fragments have the potential of becoming much more interesting than could be expected if one knows what to look at. Shell fragment analysis could potentialy be used in the contexts of forensic archaeology and war crimes investigations. Some illustration examples are shown below. For more information on this topic, the following article can be consulted: “What can be learned from shell fragments? Examples from World War II battlefields in the Maritime Alps”, Journal of Conflict Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 1 , Pg. 16-32, Jan 2013.
A quite obviously German shell fragment, recognisable by the small
eagle and swastica stamped on its surface! The date of manufacture as
well as the fuze type can be found on the same fragment.
The driving band of two artillery shells, the left one being unfired and the right one fired. The principle is the same as on bullets, twisting grooves inside the barrel cause the shell to spin very rapidly on its long axis, therefore causing it to be stabilised in flight by gyroscopical effect. The differenciation between fired and unfired rotating bands have practical applications: in the case shown below, several large holes were located that at first were thought to have been former dugouts. However, in the dugouts and their surroundings, a large number of shell fragments, including fragments of unfired driving bands as well as severely bent and unfired German cartridges were found, indicating that the supposed dugouts were in fact ammunition dumps that had been blewn or destroyed. The discovery of fragments of large caliber fired Allied navy shells within the ammunition dump gave added credibility to the latter possibility.
Identification of an unknown soldier
Translation of an article written in Polish about the identification of soldier Alois Gallus, who was identified in 2015 after his identification tag was recovered at the site of his former temporary field grave in southern France in 2006:
For years the family of Alois Gallus did not know how and where he had died as a young soldier. After the war, they had only received a written notification from his lieutenant and company commander indicating that he had been killed in the south of France, in the region of Nice, but without any information about the exact location of burial. If not for the passion and commitment of a man who wanted to discover the secret of those events, the story would still be unexplained.
Alois Gallus was born on June 3, 1926, in Koselwitz - now called Kozłowice. He was the second son of Peter and Anna Gallus. He came from a large family - he had eight siblings. At the age of eighteen, he was drafted into Reserve Grenadier Bataillon 164 of the German Army. In 1944, he fought in France in the region of Nice.
“We knew practically nothing of the fate of our ancestor, until we received a telephone notification from the Municipal Office in Gorzow Slaski” says Adam Gallus, a member of the family.
The only information they had about him was a letter he wrote to his mother on June 30th 1944.
“He told to her about the war and about how it was there” says Adam Gallus. “He said that the time of anxiety should end soon, and that he was homesick and could not wait to return to the family. Unfortunately, he never came back. And if not for the mysterious messages, we may never have learned about what happened to him...”
On 15 January 2016 Gallus received the first e-mail from Jean-Loup Gassend - a French physician and passionate historian of the Second World War.
“He wrote that he was able to identify Alois’ body and that he was looking for surviving members of his family” says Adam Gallus.
The Gallus family exchanged several messages with the Frenchman, who finally dispelled all ambiguity regarding Alois Gallus.
The young and the brave
The reserve battalion was a group of soldiers composed mainly of young men of different nationalities. Most that fought in it were Silesians, but there were also Czechs and Germans from the areas belonging to Germany today.
It was stationed in the south of France in the vicinity of Nice, where the American First Airborne Task Force parachute division was dropped on August 15th 1944, with the mission of liberating the area of Nice and to advance towards Italy.
At that time, the German troops were not strong enough to stop the Allied advance, so their main task was to delay the march of Americans and provide additional time for their officers to prepare a better defense line further back.
On August 28, 1944, in la Roquette-sur-Var, eleven soldiers were killed while others were taken prisoner. Because of this, the German army did not know who had survived and who had died.
Witnesses that day said they saw the Poles in German uniforms giving up. Jean-Loup Gassend learned that one Pole with a white flag running towards the Allied side was shot by the Germans. Many wanted to lay down their arms, but the Wehrmacht officers used all means to prevent them from doing so.
Eleven bodies of German soldiers initially lay on the ground without burial, but it was very hot and they began to decompose. The local people decided to bury the corpses in a field near la Roquette without any identification.
In 1958, employees of the Volksbund (German War Graves Commission) came to la Roquette and exhumed the eleven bodies. Because they were all buried in one grave, they were not able to determine which bones belonged to which soldier. They discovered several rings and seven identification tags, that were used to identify seven of the soldiers, but four remained unidentified. All the bones were transported for re-burial at the German military cemetery in Dagneux, near Lyon.
Knowing that some bodies were still unknown did not give peace to the French enthusiast, so in 2000 he decided to go to la Roquette and on his own he carried out an investigation into the German soldiers.
He began by talking with residents, who initially received him reluctantly. Patience paid off. Eventually, he found out about the place where the soldiers had been exhumed less than 40 years earlier.
Alois Gallus' identification tag, that was found at the location
where his body had been exhumed in the 1950s. His body had
been considered unidentified until the identification tag was
recovered in 2006.
The French doctor watched and studied the ground, and then together with his friends, decided to once again excavate the area. And then they made a breakthrough, because when they dug in the grave, they found helmets, bullets, clothes and an identification tag.
During the previous exhumation in 1958 the specialists did not have metal detectors, which limited the accuracy of their work.
The French doctor sent the information about the recovered identification tag to the Office of affairs of informing the next of kin of the fallen members of the German Wehrmacht (WASt) in Berlin. It took several years before he received a response, that indicated to whom the identification tag had belonged. As it turned out it was the missing a tag of one of the eleven soldiers killed in la Roquette on 28 August 1944 - and precisely that of Alois Gallus.
“The identification tag belonging to Alois Gallus is made of zinc and remained in good condition. It is characterized by the markings Battalion 164, blood group B, and the identification number is still readable” writes Jean-Loup Gassend in his book Autopsy of Battle.
“The office in Berlin decided to consider our uncle as officially identified and confirmed that he is one of the eleven buried in Dagneux” says Adam Gallus. “The news abut Alois only came to light in 2015.”
Officially, the young soldier from Kozłowice is now buried in grave 453-454 in block 33 of Dagneux Cemetery in France. His name has been inscribed on the gravestone.
Letters that changed everything
“This message shocked us, it’s a strange feeling to learn about the fate of an ancestor after more than sixty years” says Adam Gallus. “We thought it was impossible, because after the war his siblings tried to get more information about his death.”
The sisters of the missing soldier, who were living in Germany in the 80s, went to Nice to try to find information about him.
“They came back with nothing” says Adam Gallus. “Alois’ siblings and parents were never able to come to terms with the fact that so little information about the circumstances of his death were known. They lamented that they could not give him a funeral, and that it was not possible to light a candle at his grave.”
When Gallus got in touch with the Frenchman, two sisters and one of Alois’ brothers were still alive.
“I remember when I gave them the message, everyone was speechless” says Adam Gallus. “Tears rolled down their cheeks. The siblings said that the uncertainty, which lasted more than sixty years, was worse than death. Mr. Jean sent us some pictures of the place where Alois was buried and of the surrounding area, where he died. I have to admit that the views are beautiful, because it’s the middle of the Côte d’Azur.”
The family has plans to visit the burial place of the fallen ancestor
“I want to go to France, to light a candle and pray over the grave of my uncle” says Adam Gallus. “One of his close relatives should at last visit him. Then his parent’s dream will be fulfilled, they wanted to see where their son was killed at least once in their lives. They didnt get that chance, but we might be able to fulfill their dream.”
Adam Gallus has corresponded with the French doctor for more than a year. Thanks to him, the mysterious death of an ancestor was clarified.
“Although Mr Jean already gave my family all the information about our uncle's death some time ago, he continues to maintain contact” says Adam Gallus. “We are full of admiration for this man, because fulfilling professionally, he also fulfills his passions. This is evidenced by all the materials that he sent, that was prepared meticulously. Most importantly, despite numerous trips associated with his explorations, he finds time to share his findings with others, regardless of the language barrier” as it did in our case.
The Gallus family wants to meet with their new French friend
“Mr. Gassend is a very interesting person and I wish everyone to get to know a man who presents such an attitude” says Adam Gallus. “He mentioned that if we come to France he will meet with us and show us the place of exhumation and take us to the cemetery. I know that he has already met the families whose ancestors he found. Sometimes I wonder where do these people have in the world today ...”
In 2018, an elderly witness describes having seen German
prisonners crying and kissing photos of their family members
before being executed and buried on site.
Autopsy of a Battle
The author of this site has written a book, Autopsy of a Battle, the Liberation of the French Riviera, based on his numerous years of research on battlefields in south eastern France. The book is a combination of oral history and battlefield archaeology, and can be found on amazon and other internet sources. For more information on the book, please visit: http://autopsyofabattle.blogspot.com/
Other archaeology related publications:
-Ambush at Thorame-Haute: archaeological traces of a 15 minute Ambush by the French Resistance. Jean-Loup Gassend, Damien Gaillard, Lionel Alberti. Journal of Conflict Archaeology 02/2019; 13:2, 117-149.
-Soldiers Mistakenly Reported Killed in Action: Three German World War II Examples Related to Operation Dragoon in August 1944. Jean-Loup Gassend, Lionel Alberti. Journal of Conflict Archaeology 05/2015; 10(2):96-122.
-What can be learned from shell fragments? Examples from World War II battlefields in the Maritime Alps. Jean-Loup Gassend. Journal of Conflict Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 1 , Pg. 16-32, Jan 2013.
I have made presentations about the topics covered on this page on the following occasions:
-Identification of WWII dead in southern France. Finding the Fallen Conference, Woking, 9 July 2016.
-Autopsy of a Battle. 2015 Christmas presentation at Montreux Hospital.
-Découverte d'une fosse commune de soldats allemands datant de 1944 à Villeneuve-Loubet, France. 14th Medico-legal Anthropology Congres, Nice, 4 April 2014.
Archaeology, a journey through time, a journey towards the past, a journey towards the truth.