Bringing home the bodies, after World War I and today

This week marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. To commemorate, Lisa M. Budreau, author of Bodies of War, gives us a glimpse into the history of America’s memorialization efforts after the First World War. 

—Lisa M. Budreau

While watching the appalling recent events surrounding the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between the mayhem surrounding the slaughter of these innocent civilians, and the similarly ghastly situation left upon the former battlefields after the First World War. The presumably mistaken, but nevertheless brutal murder on July 17th that left bodies scattered for miles across eastern Ukraine, resulted in a complex, macabre travesty where no plans or policy existed for the protection of the site, the identification of the dead, their burial or transportation home. Under the watchful eye of the global media, militants attempting to guard the site were exposed as woefully unprepared to handle this grisly state of affairs that engendered looting, corruption, public suspicion and marked irreverence to the dead.

In the aftermath of war in November 1918, the burial, exhumation, reburial and eventual shipment of American war dead home was equally ghastly, similarly disorganized and mysteriously unplanned for. Families grew increasingly intolerant as the passing months brought no evidence of any effort being made to return their loved ones. Their impatient pleas began arriving at the War Department within days of the cease-fire, with friends and families clamoring for the return of the war dead. Yet the government had entered the conflict in April 1917 with no clear measures for coping with the remains of the deceased.

Once plans were arranged for the return of the war dead, transportation of bodies across France became a logistical nightmare requiring a generous allowance of trucks, canal boats, and railway cars. Coffins had to be procured and more labor was required to complete the task on a time scale that would keep the American public content. Yet, despite the government’s best attempts to deny allegations against its efficiency, accusations mounted as press surveillance reports struggled to meet the demands of an increasingly suspicious public. Numerous cases of mistaken identity were reported by families who claimed to have received the wrong body (while others were promised remains that never arrived). In an attempt to get bodies back more expeditiously from overseas, some families with the means to do so, were willing to pay as much as $2,500 for their loved ones, to unscrupulous officials.

By the close of 1921, the gruesome burial work was nearly complete after the American military had shipped close to 46,000 dead to the United States and 764 to European places of birth. Those who remained overseas were laid to rest in immaculately constructed national cemeteries in England, France and Belgium. For these dead, war’s purposefulness— rather than its tragedy—was emphasized, as death in battle became a noble deed for a “worthy” cause.

By contrast, marked ambivalence will likely shroud the memory of those shot down from the skies above the Ukranian war zone as these tragic deaths can ever be fully justified. But the sacrifice of life still needs to be fully mourned and remembered in an honorable way. Regardless of national affiliation, we all owe a lingering moral obligation to the dead and to their families, and those in mourning need a collective site to remember their loved ones. It will be interesting to see if and how these losses will be remembered beyond the tributes left at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport since this well-intentioned site can offer only the smallest, temporary measure of consolation.

Lisa M. Budreau, PhD, is a consultant to the WWI Regional Office with the American Battle Monuments Commission, based in Arlington, VA, and Garches, France. She is author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2009).