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Their Name Liveth for Evermore

World War I forever changed not only how wars were fought, but how nations honour their fallen soldiers. As Gavin Mortimer explores, this was down to one man who wanted to ensure that the dead would never be forgotten
So many fallen soldiers in World War I were left and lost; they were lucky to be hastily buried, perhaps with a wooden cross and a few personal e ects
GETTY X2

1914-1918

Canadian and British troops capture the high ground of Vimy Ridge in northern France in April 1917
ALAMY X1, GETTY X4, COURTESY OF COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION X3

On 18 November 1918, one week after the armistice had finally brought an end to World War I, George Macdonogh, the Adjutant-General of the British Army, chaired a conference to examine how best to locate and bury the hundreds of thousands of war dead. One measure agreed at the meeting was to divide the Western Front into sectors: the Canadians would be responsible for searching the Albert/Courcelette area and Vimy Ridge; the Australians for Pozières and Villers-Bretonneux; the French for the Aisne/Marne battleground of 1914; and the British would take charge of the rest.

It would be grisly work, stated Macdonogh, so volunteers would paid an extra two shillings and six pence a day. The exhumation companies, who with the customary dark humour of the British Tommy dubbed themselves ‘Travelling Garden Parties’, were composed of squads of 32 men each. Their tools were “two pairs of rubber gloves, two shovels, stakes to mark the location of graves found, canvas and rope to tie up remains, stretchers, cresol [a poisonous and colourless compound] and wire cutters.”

LEFT: One of the ‘Travelling Garden Parties’ in 1922

The men who volunteered for the exhumation companies had all fought in the trenches, so they knew the tell-tale signs of where bodies may be found. They looked for grass that had turned slightly blue indicating a body underneath, holes in the ground made by rats digging out a bone, or the butt of a rifle just visible in the mud. When they located a corpse, the men retrieved the identity discs and personnel e ects, then placed the remains on a canvas sheet soaked in cresol.

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About BBC History Revealed

When faced with an obstacle as imposing as the Great Wall of China, most attackers would be forced to admit defeat. Not Genghis Khan. He simply went around it and invaded China by the back door. And that's not the end of his tale - we explore how the nomadic pauper created the largest contiguous land empire in the whole of human history. Plus: The spectacular falling out between Henry II and Saint Thomas Becket, how World War I birthed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, five key moments in the American Revolutionary War, and more.