AGE SHALL NOT WEARY THEM
Today the sun shines onto the land and white clouds line the clear blue sky, it is a lovely summer’s day. Yet the hills over there, which now roll gentle and peacefully under a blue summer sky, once stood as threatening shadows in front of twitching seas of flame in nights of shell shaken horror (…) Even on this lovely day this is the realm of war. It is still waiting somewhere in this land, which it once trampled and bruised with its stride – years ago when humans kept feeding it with their souls and bodies, their hatred and their bravery.
Maximilian Ziese, The Invisible Memorial (1928)
Finding human remains on the First World War battlefields is something that you never get used to. In every excavation campaign you know that it can happen; but every time it does, it knocks you off your feet, just for a few seconds. And then you switch back to work mode and make sure you do it right, because every detail counts. The more information you gather, the bigger the chance that the man lying there can have a name again. It is unfortunate that in many cases this is a lost cause. In such situations, the most you can accomplish is assuring that he gets a proper burial.
In 2015, our team was test trenching at the Höhe 80 site. The plan was to make 20 archaeological test trenches spread across the research area, carefully positioned above known features that had been mapped during the desktop study. It took the team two days to dig all the trenches, and a third day to widen up at areas of interest.
On the first day, at just half way through the third test trench, the team uncovered a feature that looked at first like a bomb crater. While taking off the top soil, the excavator touched a metal object and was immediately stopped. The archaeologists went in for a closer examination, and found that it was the typical blue enamelled water bottle of the standard Commonwealth soldiers’ kit. The team kneeled to expose the artefact and clean up the features around it, when their trowels uncovered other parts of equipment (a P14 ammunition pouch) and personal items (a comb). Soon, human remains were discovered. To understand how the soldier was lying, and to confirm that there weren’t more bodies next to him, the excavation was widened. It soon became clear that the soldier was in a trench, and had died at this spot while manning this position. The ammunition pouch alone suggests that the man could well be a soldier of the 36th (Ulster) Division, a unit that managed to wrest the fortified village of Wijtschate from German hands in June 1917 – further archaeological and forensic examination will hopefully answer that question.
The next day, on the other side of the research area, the team was digging its last trenches in the area of the mill and farm buildings, when all of a sudden, the team leader shouted to the operator to stop the excavator. Only inches from the foundation of one of the buildings, a new feature was discovered and while peeling off the dirt, again human remains were revealed. When assured that they could safely proceed, the excavator continued, cautiously, inch per inch, widening the trench to expose the entire feature. An enormous rectangular pit opened up, situated behind one of the buildings. On the edge, the remains of three soldiers were found, buried head-to-toe. And spread along the rest of the pit, more indications of human remains were found, suggesting there is a big chance more bodies are buried in the pit – a mass grave. Based on the equipment that was found within the feature, it is very likely that the soldiers buried there were Germans.
And possibly the most important find from the ‘mass grave’ test trench is a Bavarian belt buckle – emblazoned with the Royal Bavarian coat of arms encircled by the Bavarian motto ‚In Treue Fest’ (Firm in Loyalty). It is a brass buckle, a type that was replaced in 1915 by a simpler, steel version. Although we can’t tell if this buckle belonged to one of the men in the grave, chances are good that is does. And if so, it gives us a valuable clue these men may well have died early in the war, years before the Commonwealth soldier was killed. It is such small details that prove to be really important in pin-pointing where these men came from, and who they served with. Yet only a proper, scientific excavation of the site and a forensic examination of the remains will be able to confirm this theory and this will show if there are more of them buried within the strongpoint of Höhe 80.
And with your help, we will be able to find a final resting place for the fallen soldiers.